It might be the world’s largest democracy but India is struggling to defend its democratic status in the ‘red corridor’ – areas troubled by Naxalite or Maoist insurgency. Expectedly, press freedom is taking a beating. Some activists say the government is controlling information to hide its bad human rights track record.
“I can’t meet you openly. Let’s get into your car and drive away from here. We’ll talk in the car,” Satish Naik* tells me over the phone. Naik is a local TV journalist in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh state in India’s Naxalite belt.
One of the least developed areas in the country, Dantewada has been at the epicentre of the conflict between the Indian government and the Naxalites in the past few years. Government reports suggest that in 2011, over 500 people have died in the violence. A recent Human Rights Watch report condemned India for its handling of the security situation in the Naxalite war zone. It said, “Impunity for abuses committed by security forces remains a pressing concern.”
The Naxalite movement began in West Bengal in 1960s and spread to central India in the 70s and 80s as a popular armed revolt. The Naxalites claim to be fighting on behalf of adivasis (indigenous tribals), the main victims of the land grabs sponsored by multinationals with the help of the Indian government. The tribals are living on land rich in minerals and forest resources and there are fortunes to be made from the exploitation of the natural wealth.
Naik is justifiably cautious about being seen to be helping an outside journalist. In recent years, the police has arrested and beaten tribals and local journalists who tried to tell the story of official repression in the region’s remote rural communities. “They [police forces] might get curious about who you are and what you are trying to find out. They might follow us,” he warns just before the phone line is cut.
Mobile lines in Dantewada and other Naxal areas are notoriously unreliable, and journalists and activists are conscious that they could be bugged. When I arrive to pick him up, Naik dives quickly into the car and urges us to leave immediately. At the frequent police check points on the road, he hides his face and at times ducks away.
Naik says that the authorities believe that most ‘outsiders’ come looking for ‘human rights-type’ stories that would put them in a bad light. “I don’t want to be seen as assisting outside journalists. I have to be careful, because I could get into trouble,” he stresses.
Naik tells me that the war has challenged India’s democratic character: “It’s not like rest of India here. There’s no freedom of movement or expression.” Journalists bucking the local system can lead to trouble, so many journalists subscribe to self-censorship. This has led to a blackout of important information.
Recently, Naik received a notice from the local authorities ordering him to vacate his house. He had written a story “about how a local collector abused his local labourer.” He says, “A few days later I got the notice.”
Naik was accused of illegally occupying forest land, but he says, “This is a tactic to bully me. The house isn’t registered on my name, but the notice was served under my name.”
Human rights activist Himanshu Kumar says there have been cases of independent journalists being attacked, threatened, intimidated and even killed. He recounts the recent case of Lingaram Kodopi, an adivasi from Dantewada district.
Kodopi was the first tribal to be enrolled for a journalism course in Delhi. Last year, he filmed testimonies from villagers after a police raid where houses were burnt and several people were killed. After the film was released to the Indian media, Kodopi was arrested, and while he was in custody, he was brutally beaten. When his aunt, Soni Sori, filed a protest, she too was arrested and beaten. Both are now in prison, accused of being Naxalites.
Himanshu Kumar, who worked among tribal people in Chhattisgarh for nearly two decades, was himself persecuted in Dantewada. The ashram and school he established with his wife was burnt down and his family was forced to leave the state.
He now lives a life of semi-hiding in Delhi, and is still banned from returning to Chhatisgarh. “The motive behind creating panic and fear among people is that any voice of dissent, any protest against forceful land acquisition is silenced,” he says in a phone interview from Delhi.
Kumar says the government has cordoned off the Naxal areas to independent journalists to prevent news of human rights abuses leaking out. Recently, an employee of Tehelka, an independent news magazine, was refused accommodation in Dantewada’s only guesthouse after acknowledging that he was a journalist.
“In such a dark situation, information gathering has become quite impossible. The government claims that the Naxalites are bad people and that the government is doing good work there. Then what is the government trying to hide?” he asks.
India is widely touted as the world’s largest democracy with a feted “free press” however, the Freedom House, an independent organisation that monitors freedom across the world, has rated the Indian press as only “partly free.”
Kumar remains pessimistic. “Sadly, I believe the situation is just going to get worse with the government tightening control over the land and resources there. It’s the poor adivasis who are suffering and there’s no one to give them a voice.”
*Name changed on request