Election Watch Chhattisgarh: No Media, No News, Only EVMs and governments

Written by Anuj Shrivastava | Published on: November 6, 2018

Adivasis are not allowed to cast their votes, journalists are prohibited from reporting the truth, tribal land is given to industrialists at a fraction of the cost and the state govt is a mute spectator of this unhinged loot of its resources and the attendant crimes against humanity.

The number of seats, names of candidates, who filed their nomination, who withdrew it, the date of polling, who won, who lost, who abused whom and more such instances are the only issues being allowed in the electoral coverage by the media. The releases by the police are sometimes the only news people get here. The government here has suppressed democratic processes here. Among the 12 seats in Bastar that are being contested in Assembly elections, many areas in these constituencies are so dangerous that people don’t step out of their houses here. There are many more areas where journalists are prohibited. (Although this is an undeclared prohibition, like an undeclared emergency.)
The Chattisgarh assembly elections will take place in two phases. In the first phase, 18 seats will go to the  polls on November 12 out of which six are in Rajnandgaon and 12 in Bastar area. On Nov 1, the state of Chattisgarh completed 18 years of its existence. The BJP has been in power here for the last 15 years. In these period, the state has faced heavy social instability. The way the constitution is subverted in this state is stark as compared to any other state. Chhattisgarh is a state with a sizeable Adivasi and tribal population but it is the Adivasis who have to pay the biggest price for this neglect. There were 36% Adivasis in this state when it was carved out 18 years ago. Now this figure is down to only 32%. The rights and provisions given to tribals according to the fifth schedule of the constitution have remained confined to books. They are sometimes mentioned during electoral speeches by politicians and forgotten soon after.
Governments stifling grip on journalists who show the truth
An environment of panic and intimidation has been created against journalists and social activists. Reporters who question the police and their unethical practices are intimidated and threatened, they are arrested and sent to jail on fake and arbitrary cases or are forced to leave Bastar. In the last few years, many journalists have been arrested here. Somaru Nag was arrested in July 2015 and Santosh Yadav was arrested in August 2015. Nag was confined to the jail for a year. No evidence could be provided for his forced arrest and he was let go. A case was filed under Arms Act, UAPA and even CSPSA against Yadav. He was jailed for 17 months. In February 2017, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court. The police and institutions funded by them forced Malini Subramaniam to leave her home in September 2015. Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal were also arrested after a few days. A case of treason was filed on independent journalist Kamal Shukla from Bastar. The Editors Guild visited Bastar, Bijapur and other nearby areas in March 2016 to ascertain the working conditions of local journalists and observed that they didn’t find a single reporter working without fear.
Crores benefitting from ‘Naxal eradication’
The Raman Singh government of Chattisgarh takes pride in saying that thousands of kms of forest area are untouched by the outer world. The govt should include itself in the outer world. In this great expanse of untouched land, it is obvious that a human population resides there, which is an equal part of this democratic country. These areas have been left isolated and destitute by being branded Naxal areas. The government has left no stone unturned to profit from this neglected area. The areas which can be reached by the govt have been looted of their natural resources and for the areas which can’t be accessed, the govt gets crores of rupees from the state in the name of Naxal eradication there.  Politicians and bureaucrats have lined their pockets with this fund.
The situation was not this bad in these Adivasi areas 15 years ago. The government was targeting Adivasis back then too but journalists were able to write about it and expose these atrocities. You could still provide independent and honest journalism while reporting from tribal areas. At least you didn’t have to live in fear that the police may shoot you for writing the truth. Journalists had the freedom to ask questions. Social activists were not being openly threatened by government-funded goons. The social activists and journalists who were exposing the bad policies of the government were not persecuted under sedition charges. The conditions have changed completely today.
Journalism free Bastar Election
Independent journalist from Bastar, Kamal Shukla, says that the 2018 Bastar elections are completely media free. He says that the conspiracy to keep the media away from the electoral activities is not new. Past elections have had to face the same situation. It is not just during elections that such interference with journalism takes place. Besides the main election fields in Bastar's constituencies (Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Bastar, Jagdalpur, Chitrakot, Dantewada, Bijapur, Konta) where polls are to be held on November 12, no other areas or remote locations have got any media coverage. Journalists don’t have access to many of these regions.
The atmosphere of a battlefield
For Konta, Bijapur, Dantewada and Narayanpur seats, Kamal Shukla says, “There is a war-like atmosphere in many of these areas. Forget media persons, even the movements of common people are hard in these areas. In urban areas, you can still see some work being done but it is in the remote Adivasi areas where you can all the failed government promises laid bare and the proof of govt stolen natural resources.” In the Konta constituency, giving the example of Jagargunda village, Shukla says, “There was a time when the village had operational schools, hospitals and more. Today, there isn’t even a good road to reach there. Even if you do undertake the journey on the wobbly roads, it is impossible to cross more than 10 camps of security forces that fall on the way. They behave badly with journalists and interrogate us as if we are terrorists.”
Media is banned so the government can hide its ugly activities
When Chattisgarh state came into being in 2000, only three development zones were affected by Naxalism. Today there are 16 affected districts. The BJP govt has neither heard the voices of countless Adivasis nor has it taken any step to counter Naxalism in the state. The ruling govt says that Naxalism has reduced but the incidents of the last 15 years paint a different picture. Naxalism has actually increased in the state. It is a clear sign that the govt doesn’t want Naxalism to end because they have their eyes trained on the 9000-crore fund which the centre has allotted to Chattisgarh to counter it. There are scores of such incidences where innocent Adivasis have been forcibly labelled Naxals and encountered by the police, who then were showered with praises. This complex puzzle is run by the police on the behest of the govt.
This is being done so that the corporates can benefit. The government is plotting to evict tribals from their lands so that these priceless resources can be given to industrialists. In Dantewada, Jagdalpur, Bastar and Narayanpur districts, a vast amount of mineral wealth can be found which the govt wants to sell to Adani and others at a subsidised cost.
Adivasi land was drowned to generate electricity from the dam built upon it but those villagers that were displaced and other Adivasi villages still don’t have electricity. Irrigation projects were set up on their lands but their fields don’t receive any water. They are earning a profit of crores from the destroyed forest land but the Adivasis are becoming poorer and are becoming destitute. Their children are malnourished. They are not being provided with basic provisions like education, healthcare or drinking water. The govt thinks these mines are a sign of development. But this blind, deaf and dumb govt can’t see the terrible price the state has to pay for this development
Lakhs of Adivasis have migrated from the state. This year, the Modi government had made significant cuts to the support prices of small forest produce. They justified this by saying that it was a loss-making area and they had to scale down the prices. The Raman govt accepted it silently. It was a huge loss to people whose livelihoods depend on the income from forest produce.
Forest Produce    Old Support Price/Rupees   New Support Price   Change Percentage
Coloured Lac       230                                           100                              56.52
Kusumi Lac          320                                           100                              53.13
Tamarind              22                                             18                               18.6
Karanj seed         20                                             18                                10
Mahua                 22                                              20                                9.09
Chironji               100                                             60                               40
Harra                   11                                               8                                 27.27
In the case of small forest produce, 75% of the cost is given by the centre and 25% by the state govt. In a state which has 40% forest area and 32% Adivasi population, most tribal population makes a living from this produce. The CM should’ve taken some action here. The govt showed no compassion.
In the mining operations being carried out by NMDC in the state since 1968, only 31 Adivasis have been given permanent jobs. All others are paid contractual wages when it is on their land that these mines are operating.
The pipelines carrying the iron ore mined by NMDC from Kirandul to Vishakhapatnam were made by Essar. The poisonous residue from this mine flows into Shankini and Dankini rivers. With the rivers polluted, the cattle is dying, the land has become barren and the environment of more than 52 tribal villages has worsened.
The Chattisgarh government brought a law in the legislative assembly which allowed them to acquire Adivasi land more easily. Now with the mutual consent of the govt, it can give this land to any industrialist. Instead of paying the compensation (four times the actual value of land) to the tribals, the promises of employment in factories or mines are made but never fulfilled. The plight of tribals in areas like Bastar, Dantewada, Jagdalpur, Kanta, Bijapur and Narayanpur can be easily seen.
In the last two decade, 30,000 girls from Bastar have been caught in the human trafficking net. The govt is not investigating the matter, they are not searching for them, they are not helping the families of these missing girls, they are not trying to stop it and nor are they trying to prevent it. Here, incidences of the police holding tribal girls hostage have come forward. But the Raman government, instead of punishing these police officials, promotes and rewards such people.
Farming tools are weapons for the police
Farm tools used by tribals are considered dangerous weapons by the Chattisgarh police. According to the Arms Act, 1959, it is clearly stated that farming tools are not counted as weapons. Despite these, many people have been booked under the Arms Act for keeping these tools. About 2000 Adivasis have been booked for having connections with Maoists under this Act.
Village tribals are being forcibly jailed in large numbers. The police and paramilitary forces enter their houses without warrants and steal money, goats, poultry, ducks and their belongings. They are threatened that if they said a word to anybody, their children will be killed. For every tribal arrested, the policeman gets a reward.
Around 3000 schools have been shut in Adivasi areas. The PESA law is being violated openly. If an industry fails, the land acquired for the said industry has to be returned to the original owner within five years. The Tata plant is yet to do so. These areas have been put in the land bank. This proves that the government is greedy and corrupt.
In the tribal areas where the fifth schedule is applicable, the Tribal Council of Ministers is formulated for constitutional facilitation. The president of this council has to be a tribal. But in Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Raman Singh has always been the president of this council.
The death of DD cameraman raises a lot of questions
Two security guards and DD cameraman Achyutananda Sahu were killed in a crossfire between security forces and Maoists in Aranpur, 30 kms from Dantewada. Incidentally, it was reported that Doordarshan was asked to film a documentary in Bastar to showcase the good work being done by the government in the area. Anybody being killed on the line of duty is saddening but the death of the cameraman in the Naxal ambush raises a lot of questions.

Everyone in Bastar knows that Naxals and Police are often caught in a crossfire but journalists are never targeted. Maoists in Bastar had even released a letter stating that journalists are free to report from any area in the region and nobody will stop them. They had also instructed them to not come with any security force. The situation is that policemen can visit these areas by wearing plain clothes and with a vehicle which has a Press stamp. Sending journalists with police forces in such a situation is precarious. The govt never allows journalists to visit these areas by claiming that it is a security risk. Then why was the DD team allowed to go? Was it because they were going to make a report describing the governments work? Using this event as a shield, the govt will make reporting from these areas even more difficult.
Gun-toting Indian government
The tribals of Ambujman and Jagargunda know the Indian government only in the form of a gun. They have seen the Indian govt’s service only in the form of Army jawans. They have known Indian govt as the person who enters their village, snatches their loved ones away and sometimes kills them. When a journalist or a social activist reaches such a village after escaping the eyes of the police or security forces, they greet the unarmed person with hopeful eyes and asks them, “Are you from the Indian government? Can you send them a message from us that we are not Naxals and stop putting us in jails. Bring a machine to our village, we want to vote.” They point to a school building and say, “Ask someone to come here, we want to learn.” If someone falls sick in the areas which don’t have roads, the nearest dispensary is 20 kms away and the 20 kms in a jungle are more difficult than 200 kms in the city.
We want to vote but nobody comes here
Talking about his experience of meeting people from remote villages, Journalist Kamal Shukla says, “Bastar’s Adivasis want to vote, they want to participate in the electoral celebrations but the government doesn’t want to consider them as Indians. Polling booths are made at a distance of 40 kms from these villages. The elections are now limited only to urban areas. The govt and police spread the fake news that villagers don’t want to vote due to Maoists. Police says that Maoists cut off the fingers of voters from these villages even though no such case has been reported so far. The govt has conspired to keep the media and Adivasis away from the elections.”
Media distancing itself from Bastar
No major media house has a permanent correspondent in this area. Even everyday news is not reported from this region, forget election coverage. The reporters who do work for newspapers either don’t get good salaries or don’t get the necessary attention. The few journalists who did want to visit the state to cover the elections are now changing their plans after the DD cameraman’s death. Some due to fear and others due to Police interference.
Journalist Rajkumar Soni, who wrote on tribal issues, has been transferred to Coimbatore before the election. Two Chattisgarh journalists, Renu Awasthi and Shailendra Vishwakarma committed suicide after being mentally tortured. Their case is gathering dust. A journalist from New York, Siddhartha Rai and independent journalist Kamal Shukla, who were covering elections in Bastar a few weeks ago, were harassed for hours in a police station and their cameras were searched.
In Bastar, life-threatening attacks on freedom of press and democracy continue.

[This article is an English translation of the original Hindi article]

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