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REPORTING IN MAOIST-AFFECTED AREAS: A journalist’s identity is his biggest security

Frankly, I’ve lost count of it.

Of the number of times I’ve travelled safely on a road that may have been mined; trekked without being disturbed by Maoist fighters only a shouting distance away; reported uninterrupted from a hamlet where ‘dada log’ (as Maoist fighters are referred to by the locals) are present and watching; or calmly left a site and later heard gunshots there.

I’ve even reported from a site where dead bodies of security personnel were stuffed with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that mercifully did not go off.

In these scenarios, I believe, my identity as a journalist was known to all involved.

There is also another scenario in which you could lose your life, often in a case of mistaken identity.

There is one truth that stands taller than most when reporting from inside India’s Maoist heartland – you better be lucky, always.

And yet, there are rules one must respect.

At least I did and ensured my team followed them too.

What I will now say may sound ironic, especially in the light of killings witnessed yesterday in Bastar’s Dantewada district. However, I firmly believe a journalist’s identity, by default his integrity and impartiality, is still his biggest security.

I’ve been asked — why don’t you take security cover along when you travel in these areas?

My answer has always been — because I don’t need one.

Seldom has my work in these areas been disrupted or even as much as threatened. I am referring here to interference by villagers, the administration or the Maoists. If and when I did face a roadblock, I would deal with it as an independent entity.

DSC_1247
Mukram village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma region is notorious for its poll boycotts. Maoists don’t simply visit the village, they live here a security source had told me.

Of course, being a faceless and, thus, a less accountable entity, I’ve maintained my distance with the Maoists as against the other two.

What does this mean when it comes to the nuts and bolts?

Well, it means being and acting thoroughly independent, the way it was supposed to be.

Whether concerning accommodation or arranging a vehicle, I’ve seen colleagues seeking assistance, sometimes even favours, from their contacts in the police or in the administration.

Like it or not, you are being watched. And those watching you won’t need to justify before concluding that you too are a party to the conflict.

Following work-related interactions, I’ve not hesitated in walking out from the relative security and comfort of a paramilitary camp and sleeping in a hut belonging to a local contact in a nearby village.

In my early days of covering the Maoist conflict, following persuasion from a friendly police officer, I did travel with him in his vehicle between two camps in West Bengal’s Lalgarh.

I was lucky that day.

Some of the other things I’ve learnt over the years include never moving around in a white coloured-car (lest it is mistaken for a government vehicle), pasting enough A4-sized papers with ‘PRESS’ written over them on your vehicle, walking with your mike and camera clearly visible and not falling for adventurism.

I cannot end this piece without addressing the elephant in the room — the responsibility of media organisations.

If you are a journalist, when was the last time you were taught about how to conduct yourself in a conflict zone? Before you were asked to take the first flight into a story, did you or anyone else make an assessment made of the risks involved? Did you find out or were you briefed about measures to take in case anyone got hurt?

If you are an editor, did you prefer an amazing story or an interview over the safety and security of your crew? Did you pull your reporter up for not going into harm’s way and getting you ‘exclusive’ visuals?

Many may, understandably so, turn defensive upon reading this. However, when else will we prioritise the safety of our journalists if not now!

I’ve worked with many editors whose sense of responsibility and sensitivity when it comes to the safety of their crew is anything but encouraging.

For those trapped in this cycle of violence, the ruthlessness of the Maoist insurgency is an unfortunate way of life. As a journalist, study it, respect it.

For those who look at it merely as a piece of ‘prime time news’ and an opportunity for comical debates, keep your distance.

ALSO READ: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/elections/chhattisgarh/story/20140505-chintalnar-chhattisgarh-lok-sabha-polls-2014-802497-1999-11-30

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BOOK REVIEW: On tackling Maoist question, an effort to provide answers

How should India grow? Does ‘growth’ have the same meaning for everyone whether in the cities or resource-rich hinterland? Do growth and displacement of natives compulsorily go hand in hand? For India to grow what is needed more – preserving tribal way of life of its natives or exploiting the resource-rich lands they inhabit? What if their grievances create hurdles in the path of growth? 

Author Rohit Prasad in ‘Blood Red River’ has chosen the troubled landscape of Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh to understand how the Indian state is answering these questions.

Located in the heart of the country, the state of Chhattisgarh means many things depending on which side one is looking at. A politically and financially stable state, a state with perhaps the richest resources both in terms of mineral and bio-diversity in the country, a state with nearly 44 per cent of its territory covered by forests, a state which has over 30 per cent of its population coming from a vibrant variety of tribes or a state locked in a brutal embrace with a rebellion which refuses to ebb even after fifty years of its emergence.

The rebels, members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), seek to violently overthrow parliamentary democracy which they believe is a sham. The response of the government hinges on quelling the rebellion with its armed might and addressing the needs of the masses by the means of development.

The armed struggle is visible and chronicled. In comparison, the politics of development, supposed to exemplify in myriad ways the healing touch of an absent state, remains hard to track, harder to grasp. Touted as ‘a journey into the heart of India’s development conflict’, the book stands out for its focus.

Divided into sections segregated by short chapters within, the book is a sincere attempt at providing the reader with the understanding of a topic which can hardly be termed easy. A largely smooth and uninterrupted flow does emerge as the author switches between anecdotes, damning data dug from a multitude of reports, the annals of history, regulations governing the relationship between tribes and their home, the forest, the vibrant hope of a promising economy, the industrial lure of exploiting a resource-rich territory, instances of flawed ‘development’ and a society eclipsed by the shadow of the conflict which has consumed over 12000 lives. On offer are solid glimpses into the unholy nexus that exists on the ground between the government, the insurgents and the private sector which works to perpetuate the conflict at the expense of the locals.   

Interestingly, as the author, a business school professor based out of Gurugram, admits, he’d initially set out to analyse a different subject before stumbling upon something ‘far more complex’ and ‘fundamental’ which led him to write this book.

Rohit Prasad’s ground reporting from the affected region ensures the reader is exposed to the colour, the festivals, the customs as also the difficult path tribes find themselves treading and how there is corrosion of that timeless society underway as a result. Aptly captured case studies make the reader aware of the lost lives of faultless, promising youngsters in the region.   

On the flip side, there are times when the narrative shifts from story-telling to either philosophy or sweeping generalisations. Then there are outlandish claims like where the author says the US Army special forces supported Indian armed police in 2009 offensive against the Maoists! There are also times when objective analysis turns subjective. However, the biggest drawback that book suffers from is the lack of a direct Maoist voice. Scrutinising their ‘developmental works’ in their ‘janatana sarkar’ (local government in areas they term liberated) and their model would have added to the book’s effort by making two sides of the divide clear and visible to the reader.

To conclude, ‘Blood Red River’ is an introduction into a less dimension in the debate over development. Few understand that it is also essential.

16 months into the job, NSA Ajit Doval takes first ground lessons in Maoist-hit Bastar

Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on October 2, 2016
Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on October 2, 2016

It is a visit about which very few knew and was to be kept under wraps. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval spent  the whole of Thursday in the region worst affected by the Maoist insurgents, Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. This was his first visit to this region since the time he took charge of India’s national security last year. His visit comes at a time when the divergence between the state and the centre has widened over the aspect of how to take the anti-Maoist fight forward. It also comes at a time when the monsoon has nearly retreated and anti-Maoist operations in full flow are set to commence.

Sources informed this correspondent that Doval flew in from New Delhi to Chhattisgarh.  Subsequently, he boarded  a helicopter and undertook an aerial tour of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. The southern part of Sukma is a region the Maoists label as ‘liberated zone’ or a region where they, not the government machinery, run the show. After he concluded his aerial sortie, he held a review meeting with authorities on the ground which included the top brass of the state police, state government and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).He returned to New Delhi before the end of the day. “This was a visit where the NSA was keen to absorb and understand all the stake holders. He gave us all a patient hearing,” said a source.

While the official line was to keep a low profile, sharp differences have emerged over the conduct of these operations. The state administration, branded ‘non-starter’ and ‘non-serious’ many times over by the officials at the centre felt they were not being understood fully, whereas those at the centre believe otherwise. A classic example of this was the ill-fated CRPF-driven operation, ‘Operation SS (South Sukma) 14’ conducted last December which led to the loss of lives of several CRPF personnel. This operation, conducted by about 700 CRPF men saw a much smaller force of the Maoists successfully thwart it and cause casualties. That the local police was not fully convinced and thus did not participate fully only helped the Maoists. State police on its part, despite the raging insurgency, has failed to even recruit itself in numbers already authorised. There is about 10 per cent shortfall in its total strength at present.

“It is a surprise that someone as important as the NSA has found time only now. It, in a way, tells you of the priority that the government has. Nevertheless, now that he has gone we hope he has learnt the right lessons and his role will help the man on the ground perform his duty better,” said a source.

Saturday’s Sukma ambush & the undoing of ‘Fighter Rao’

A snap of State Highway 5 in Sukma district
A snap of State Highway 5 in Sukma district

As the crow flies, hardly 5km separate Kasalpar and Pidmel in the southern Sukma, Chhattisgarh. More importantly, they both lie south of bombed and beaten State Highway 5, the Dornapal-Jagargonda road which is also the de-facto border south of which lies the ‘liberated’ territory, the very heart of India’s Maoist insurgency. It is a placement which anyone familiar with the region will tell you is outright deadly. What led 45-year-old ‘Fighter’ Rao, Sub Inspector Shankar Rao, a part of Special Task Force (STF), to lead an assault to Pidmel and invariably to the STF’s most miserable moment on Saturday morning is something most are not able to understand.

After all, Shankar Rao was well aware that barely four months ago, a 900-odd strong Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) party which included the specialist CoBRA commandos could not do much when challenged in Kasalpar. That party paid the price with the loss of fourteen of its men, their arms and of course, morale.

Back then, not openly though, the Chhattisgarh Police which did not want that operation, castigated the CRPF for attempting ‘Rambo-style’ operations. Today, it is unable to come to terms with what hit its STF which has had a much better track record than most in Bastar.

45-year-old STF Sub Inspector Shankar Rao
45-year-old STF Sub Inspector Shankar Rao

Rao perhaps had inkling.

On Friday night, the sub inspector had called the Personal Assistant to STF’s Deputy Inspector General (DIG) J Sharma. In the brief conversation told the PA, “Is baar aar paar ki ladhai hogi” (this will be a do or die kind of a battle) before hanging up. He was advised to wait. He also had a word with the local Sub Divisional Police Officer who told him to share his information and plan with the Superintendent of Police (SP) Sukma. He tried but poor communication links ensured he couldn’t.

Barely four days old at their location of Pollampalli, the STF bosses wanted to reinforce teams, add manpower before operations could be launched. Friday evening was not a time to hit. It was the time to familiarise and wait.

Based on information that was passed to Rao, he decided, he could wait any longer. That night, the 48 fellow members of the STF whom he commanded, he exhorted them to move. Despite the men from the local police being stationed along with the STF in Pollampalli, he did not ask them to join.

Following the tactics, the team marched and marvellously covered 18km in the thick of the night before making it to Karigundam. This was discovered with a degree of awe when those who survived were spoken to and their Global Positioning System (GPS) sets examined. “Only someone like Shankar Rao could have achieved the stealth, swiftness and stamina required to do what he did,” said Bastar Inspector General of Police, SRP Kalluri.

At 7:30am, the ‘tac’ headquarters of the STF got an ‘all ok’ signal from Shankar Rao’s team. This meant that while they had not scored, they were not hurt either.

Unknown to Rao and his superiors, the Maoists were tailing them all along.

Another message that the ‘tac’ headquarters received at 10:59am told them something had happened.

A senior officer said, “They had stopped for food near Pidmel. While they were consuming the dry ration, the Maoist enticed them by bringing before them two civilians and a uniformed cadre who had a weapon. This made Rao order his men to chase with Rao leading them all.”

Having negated the principle of commander always being in the middle of a party it was hardly a surprise that in the first shot that the Maoists fired after the STF entered the ambush, Shankar Rao was fatally hit.

Losing the commander can instil panic. Men from the STF, trained for situations like this one, emerged victorious albeit headless. The men picked up Rao’s body and were pulling out when they were attacked again. This time, they lost three more men. Picking up their bodies too, the now-45-member team began moving. Again, they were attacked. This time too they lost three men. Panic had begun setting in. To flee successfully was now the goal. They dropped all the seven bodies and fled.

“Had it been the police or the CRPF, the Maoists would have wiped out the entire party of 49. The entire ambush was 3km long. The STF men pulled out and in doing so ensured that of the seven dead bodies, the Maoists could only snatch weapons from three,” said a source.

As a result of this result, there is caution in the air. As such the Maoists are amidst, what they term Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) – a period coinciding with summer months when Maoists unleash violence and bleed the security forces.

Under Kalluri, police has chosen to consolidate their presence in the periphery rather than enter the core area directly. “There was no need to operate this way and that too here. Even STF on being deployed in such areas would atleast move with two parties,” said an officer.  “He knew what he was getting into. Don’t think of him as an irresponsible officer or a drunkard who took himself and his men down under influence,” said an officer who described Rao as a cautious teetotaller.

Perhaps Rao’s undoing lies among heaps of praises his actions would always earn him. “These officers who tell him all kinds of things and rightly so however one must remember that there is a thin line of difference between being brave and being foolhardy,” said a source.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/sukma-massacre-the-undoing-of-fighter-rao/1/429933.html

IT’S A FIRST! After taking blame for NOT undertaking ‘risky’ missions, IAF undertakes a daring night evac in Bastar

On Monday evening when Chhattisgarh police informed the Indian Air Force (IAF) detachment in Raipur of a sudden need to extricate its personnel injured by Maoist insurgents in Kanker district of Bastar, the rulebook and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) simply did not permit the operation. Even the state government, despite repeated reminders had failed to install night landing infrastructure in helipads around police outposts. Notwithstanding, first ever night evacuation was conducted as a result of which the jawans could be brought in for treatment at Raipur. The IAF has been flying its helicopters since 2009 as a part of Operation Triveni which aims at supporting the anti-Maoist effort across central and eastern India.

Article appeared in MAIL TODAY newspaper on February 3, 2015
Article appeared in MAIL TODAY newspaper on February 3, 2015

Last December’s Maoist ambush in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh where no helicopter, either of Indian Air Force (IAF) or Border Security Force (BSF), took off in aid of ambushed Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans was an instance of severe failure of coordination among forces.

The local police was leading an operation in the Pakhanjur region of the Kanker district when between 4-5pm, an exchange of fire was reported and it soon turned into a full scale encounter with the police claiming the death of the Maoist insurgents who attacked the police party. While additional forces were rushed and personnel extricated, two police personnel lost their lives while six others sustained injuries.

“Following the request, a Mi17 V5 helicopter took off at about 1820 hours, landed in the makeshift helipad in campus of the Bandeh police station in Kanker by 1915hrs and within ten minutes, it took off in pitch darkness to land back in Raipur by 2020hrs,� said a Ministry of Defence (MoD) official. It was an operation done despite obvious and present risks, he added. When probed, it was revealed that unlike south Bastar’s Sukma region, in Kanker’s Bandeh campus, there were no hillocks which the Maoists could have used to hit the choppers. “People may ask if we could do it here why not in Sukma but it needs to be understood there the terrain is totally different and here there is better familiarity,� said a source.

STARTING FEBRUARY: Forces fighting Maoists to have eye in the sky as UAV base finally shifts from Hyd to Bhilai, Chhattisgarh

Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on December 31
Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on December 31

The coming year may bring in some desperately needed relief to men combating the Maoists in central Indian states in the form of better intelligence gathering and coordination. After more than three years since it was first mooted, the base of operations for the Israel-made Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) will be shifted from Begumpet airport in Hyderabad to Bhilai in western Chhattisgarh. This arrangement, according to sources involved, will be in place by the end of February 2015.

Yesterday, the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) held a meeting in New Delhi where the issue under discussion was the ‘delay’ of establishment of the base in Bhilai. At the end of the meeting, according to a stakeholder who was present, “It was unanimously decided that by February we should be able to begin flying from Bhilai. It will mean better availability of the UAV, better exploitation of the asset and most importantly, more flying time on hand.”

The UAV in question is operated by the spy agency National Technological Research Organization (NTRO) and is actually flown by Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel who are on deputation to the agency. Ever since December 2011 when the first UAV flight was conducted by the NTRO for the Central Reserve Police Force in South Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, the demand has been to shift the aircraft out of Hyderabad to a location closer to the area of operation. A letter written by the then Director General of the CRPF, K Vijay Kumar to then Home Secretary RK Singh while commending the role discharged and valuable inputs it provided stated, “The UAV almost took three hours to reach from Hyderabad and could effectively be utilised only for 3-3 1/2 hours for the area of operation.”

Ever since then MHA, CRPF as well as NTRO have been locked in discussions about just where the UAVs should be based out of. Finally in 2012, an airstrip in Bhilai was identified and work began towards upgrading and establishing all facilities there.

According to a source in Chhattisgarh aware of the actual up gradation at the Bhilai site, operations can be initiated at the airstrip by February. “As I see it, work is on in full swing and February should not be too difficult a target to achieve,” he said.

The forces have had a rather uncomfortable relationship with the NTRO. Recently in the Sukma ambush where the CRPF lost 14 men, the force complained to the MHA that the NTRO unilaterally pulled out the UAV right when the encounter began.

The NTRO’s explanation was that it had run out of fuel and had no option left. Time and again, the CRPF and MHA have been pressing the NTRO to move out of Hyderabad. However the infrastructure in Bhilai is only now coming up. Such has been the MHA’s frustration that it has ordered CRPF to procure UAVs and train its own personnel to avoid reliance on NTRO/IAF personnel. Said a source, “Issue was acquiring the land and creating the infrastructure. Multiple departments of the centre and state governments were involved and thus a lot of red tape too.”

Why Bhilai as a base

While operations from Hyderabad ensured that the UAV hardly had ‘Time on Task’ by the time it reached areas of south Bastar and Gadchiroli, far less over Jharkhand, placing the same in Bhilai makes it possible to do so. The location is central to regions of Bastar, Gadchiroli, western Odisha as well as Jharkhand and Bihar.

Why a UAV can be a game changer

UAV relays live images of the situation back to the control room with the help of a high-resolution camera on its belly and satellite networking, which is then shared with the troops in real time. For the security forces, UAVs changed the game. Notwithstanding the foliage, penetrating which remains a challenge, the forces know the exact area of the Maoists’presence, and also asses the topography and execute an operation – an edge they never had.

A ‘technician’ who gave up & a veteran who was while planning his move, picked up. Why today is important for forces battling #Maoist menace

Police officials in Bastar, announcing the surrender and arrest today
Police officials in Bastar, announcing the surrender and arrest today

Kamlesh alias Tati Gandhi alias Jagdish, a member of Maoist’s People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) Platoon No. 12 member has been apprehended. He carried a reward of Rs 40,000, was an accused in 31 cases which included murder, attempt to murder, kidnap and arson in Bastar’s Bijapur district and had 10 warrants on his name. He was arrested in Dantewada today while there to carry out an attack, claimed the police.

Deputy Commander of the Regional Committee’s technical team No. 13, Budhram Lekami (28) alias Rangu alias Vikas surrendered before Inspector General of Police, Bastar, SRP Kalluri in Jagdalpur. He is a specialist in repair and maintenance of the weapons the Maoists posses.`