In April this year, Amnesty International published a report, title “Blackout in Bastar, Human Rights Defenders under Threat,” on the crackdown on freedom of expression in the state of Chhattisgarh in central India. Since the 1980s, the state has been a battleground for the bloody war between the Maoist guerrillas and the Indian state, once described at the biggest internal security threat by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a positive note last year when he visited the region, inaugurated some projects, and urged Maoists to shun violence. But nothing much has changed on the ground, where police crackdowns on journalists and human and civil rights have become the order of the day. Not a single journalist works without fear or pressure, the Editors Guild of India said in March this year.
“Conditions have been created where arbitrary arrests, threats to life, and organized hindrance to the work of journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders have led to a near total information blackout… Local journalists investigating excesses by security forces have been arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured, while their lawyers have been threatened,” says the Amnesty report, highlighting the excesses by the government agencies and self-styled vigilante groups.
Shubhranshu Choudhary is a journalist working with the indigenous population spread over Bastar Division in south Chhattisgarh, where the conflict is concentrated. In 2010, he quit the BBC to start CGNet Swara (Voice of Chhattisgarh) to give “voice to the voiceless” and all those “left out of India’s growth story.” CGNet Swara is a pioneering voice-blogging initiative that enables callers, or citizen journalists, to record messages—news, views, opinion and, sometimes, creative compositions—which are fact-checked by journalists, transcribed, translated, and published in the portal. It has served to link the local community with the mainstream media and the government, bringing about positive changes in the lives of the people living in some of the least developed parts of India. In 2014, Choudhary bagged the Google Digital Activism Award, beating out Edward Snowden. He is also the author of Let’s Call Him Vasu: With the Maoists in Chhattisgarh.
Choudhary spoke to The Diplomat over the phone from Raipur where he is based. Excerpts from the interview follow
The Diplomat: How is everything at CGNet Swara?
Shubhranshu Choudhary: The least said the better. Caught in the crossfire between the police and the Maoists, both of whom have tried to pressure us to toe their lines, our job has suffered immensely. The situation has particularly worsened in the last two years, ever since the new government has given a free hand to the police. Last year, our funder in the U.S. accused me on the phone, [saying] that we were helping the Maoists, and soon after discontinued our funding citing a flimsy accounting lapse on our part.
Lack of funds has hit us severely. We have been effectively neutralized. We were a once a team of 45, now we are only five. We are not able to travel to the interior areas; there is no money for the fuel. We went to work in Bijapur, one of the districts most affected by the war, with the help of the government, but no sooner we had begun working than the same officer who had given us permission asked us to leave. It was, as we were given to understand, because of the pressure from the police.
What’s the pressure like for journalists reporting from the ground?
Journalists not toeing the official line are being routinely targeted. Local newspapers, which rely on government advertisement for sustenance, are finding it extremely difficult to report on the ground situation. When threats, intimidation, and harassment, often by vigilante groups, do not work, they are arresting journalists on trumped up charges. Vigilante groups have been unleashed on not just journalists, but human rights activists, lawyers, and doctors as well. The attack on the media and civil society is part of the broader government strategy that gives the police a free hand to do as they like to win the war against Maoists. And when it’s not the police, it’s the Maoists, who have made it a sport of exterminating those they suspect of siding with the government.
PM Narendra Modi visited Dantewada in Chhattisgarh in May last year. He was the first prime minister in three decades to visit a Maoist-hit area. He promised development and asked militants to shun violence. Has that changed anything?
It is significant in that his predecessors had never bothered to visit the war-torn tribal areas. Mr. Modi inaugurated some projects here. The signal was that we have to develop this place (to wean Maoists away from their guns), even though the idea of development was putting in place huge projects like big and wide roads, massive steel plants etc., which entail exploitation of natural resources that the tribals have been fiercely guarding all this while. All this on the one hand, while giving full sanction to police rule, on the other.
I recently interviewed Amit Kataria, the collector of Bastar, for a piece I did for the BBC and he told me on record that the directive to give the police a free hand has come from the Center. They have been told to do whatever it takes and not mind the “minor” human rights’ violations, or “small” criticisms, or any sort of negative publicity. They must keep their eyes on the bigger goal, which is to bring peace to the region. So they are making no bones about it anymore. The civil administration is now secondary and the police administration is primary in what is now effectively a police state. At the helm of affairs is someone like S.R.P. Kalluri, the Inspector General of Police for Bastar Range. He is credited with ending Maoist conflict in north Chhattisgarh. He is brave, committed and very action-oriented—he himself goes on operations. He is glorified as dynamic and dedicated, but at the same time vilified for showing little respect for human rights or the law of the land.
Is he meeting with any success?
Well, if you take into consideration the fact that he has got many tribal Maoists to surrender their arms—something which had never happened before—you can say he has had some initial successes, even though many youths are still taking up arms as a backlash to police excesses. Tribal militants in Chhattisgarh were never known to switch sides. However, this “success” is also helped in part by the fact that the Maoist leadership in Chhattisgarh region has weakened over the years. The grip of the leadership, almost invariably comprising upper castes from outside the state, has loosened, because of which the Maoist cadres are behaving like an unruly force. The unruliness within the Maoist party is causing disenchantment among its cadres, making them give up arms.
The situation looks grim for the tribal population, caught between the police and Maoists.
For them, it’s like living in hell. If it is not the police, it’s the Maoists coming for them. The police are killing indiscriminately; just having the same name as that of a militant suspect can get you killed. If the police are torturing the local people, accusing them of harboring insurgents or sympathizing with them, the Maoists are killing them on the slightest of suspicion of being “police informers.” Before you called, I was speaking to a school teacher who is spending every night at a different place, hounded by Maoists accusing him of helping the police. The indiscipline among the Maoist cadres, which has increased due to a weakened leadership, is not helping Maoists gain sympathy among the local tribal people, who are turning to the police.
The government has now decided to raise a battalion with youths from the tribal areas in order to counter the Naxals. How will it help? Will it be more effective than letting loose vigilante groups?
Maybe yes, to an extent. It is now clear that tackling Maoist insurgency is not possible for the central forces. The main hurdles being faced are the language barrier and lack of understanding of the terrain. The central forces largely comprise members from the Hindi belt of north India. They do not speak the local language, nor are they well acquainted with the local geography. Hiring local recruits will help to overcome these hurdles. But lasting peace can only come when the core issue of injustice is addressed. Overcoming a complete break of communication between saner elements of mainstream India and lower class of adivasis [indigenous tribes] can be a first step toward that.