Propaganda wars

BY NANDINI SUNDAR| IN Books | 15/10/2016
The BJP, the RSS and the security establishment have been equally, if not more, successful in mobilizing both the mainstream as well as social media for counter-insurgency, including to malign anyone critical of the government.
Excerpted from NANDINI SUNDAR’s ‘The Burning Forest”


In 2016, with several journalists arrested, and attacks on middle class activists, media interest in Bastar has revived again, especially among young reporters. The proliferation of Internet-based media sites like The Wire and Scroll has certainly helped to ensure that some human rights violations are covered, as has the growth of social media. On the other hand, the BJP, the RSS and the security establishment have been equally, if not more, successful in mobilizing both the mainstream as well as social media for counter-insurgency, including to malign anyone critical of the government. Since 2014 I have been on a Bastar Whatsapp group run jointly by police and journalists. Whenever the police post photos of bullet-riddled bloody bodies of alleged Maoists allegedly killed in an ‘encounter’, some journalists punch victory signs. In 2016, these same journalists faithfully reproduced in their newspapers and channels what they knew was a police-fabricated complaint, ostensibly from villages in Darbha block, claiming that a group of researchers of which I was a part had threatened the villagers with Maoist retaliation if they supported the police. This was nationally relayed by the rabidly right-wing Zee channel, owned by Subhash Chandra, an MP backed by the BJP.


The Poster Competitions

Apart from the mainstream media, the government has also invested money in other kinds of messaging to spread its word. At one annual Dussehra exhibition, where each government department showcases its wares, the police had put up large comic posters showing how uniformed Maoists were holding back roads and development, while the police were helping villagers. In 2014–15, the central government allotted Rs 5 crore to creating radio jingles and short films, as well as organizing tribal youth exchange programmes, to convince people that the Naxalites were impeding government schemes.

In 2015, just outside Jagdalpur, I came across a large hoarding with photos of two surrendered Maoist couples – in both cases, the man was from Andhra and the woman a local adivasi. The police had written: ‘These outside Naxalites don’t let adivasis surrender or get married, but themselves surrender and take all the benefits. These characterless and opportunist Naxalites live in comfort while they force adivasis into antisocial activities which land them in jail.’ Given how few of the top leadership had surrendered, and after much wrestling with their conscience, to humiliate them in this manner seems hardly conducive to more surrenders. But both in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the police have tried hard to play up the regional differences between the Telugu leadership and the rank and file of cadre who are local.


"The Maoists produce a number of different journals to cater to different sections locally, such as Pituri, Bhumkal, Pordu and Prabhat "


On the side, the police had listed the rewards for surrendering weapons – for example, Rs 4.5 lakh for a light machine gun, Rs 3 lakh for an AK-47. Smaller posters declaring rewards for IEDs by the kilo are also pinned to trees across the district. Kalluri also personally conducts active propaganda through Whatsapp messages, circulating photos of Maoists’ corpses, those surrendering and anti-activist media reports.

The Maoists have also attempted to carry out their own poster campaigns. The cadre write slogans on schools and on the roads – ‘Salwa Judum Murdabad’, ‘Boycott elections’ – addressed to the security forces, since they are the only ones likely to read these.

Long stretches of apparently deserted forest have trees with posters pinned to them. Sometimes these are printed, but often they are painstakingly handwritten. The messages vary from the deeply local – condemning a particular informer or someone who has surrendered and run away with money – to wider demands for the release of political prisoners and the removal of the troops.

The Maoists produce a number of different journals to cater to different sections locally, such as Pituri, Bhumkal, Pordu and Prabhat (referring variously to uprisings and new dawns). Lachanna told me that each division had its own newsletter, and state committee members were tasked with writing one article about struggles in their own areas for each issue. But many failed to do so, and eventually a few people had to do all the writing. The readership consisted of people with some elementary education in the villages, teachers, etc. Before computers came in 1996, they used cyclostyling. The computers were run on kerosene generators and solar-powered batteries. There were 25 people in the press unit, and they used horses to carry around the heavy generators. In mid-2008, the Salwa Judum and CRPF raided a press camp and took away the horses and generators. The Maoists have also deployed Gondi songs with great effect, since they have a reach far beyond their committed constituency.

But the Maoists are also aware of a national audience. The name Gudsa Usendi – taken on by a succession of party spokespersons – has become familiar to everyone who has reported on Dandakaranya. There were shades of the communiqués by Subcomandante Marcos of the Chiapas struggle in Mexico, as Gudsa Usendi would call or email journalists owning responsibility for some major attack, or informing them of massacres of civilians by the security forces. Maoist press statements and interviews also make their way into websites such as Banned, though frequently URL links are snapped as a result of the home ministry’s blocking attempts. The Maoists have also employed more ingenious ways of getting their message out, even if the capacity of their target to hear the message is restricted. In 2005, at the height of the Salwa Judum campaign, the Maoists distributed CDs containing footage of burning villages to the houses of a number of MLAs. Nobody was concerned with the horrifying images these videos contained; instead, the legislative assembly in Chhattisgarh chose to fret that the Maoists were ‘close enough to the state capital to distribute CDs to MLAs’.


Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar. Available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.


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