Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Naxal battle, latest weapon is fiction

Neelesh Misra, Hindustan Times

Dantewada, November 15, 2009
First Published: 00:21 IST(15/11/2009)
Last Updated: 02:14 IST(15/11/2009)

Go ahead, solve this great Bastar mystery.

‘Burnt in oil’, a nationally showcased fact-finding report by human-rights NGOs, says a 60-year-old man in a remote Chhattisgarh village was hanged and dipped in a cauldron of hot oil by security forces mid-September.

The report says the activists took him to a doctor across the border in the Andhra Pradesh town of Bhadrachalam.

But the fact-finding team, led by Dantewada-based local activist Himanshu Kumar, did not meet him, and many other victims it wrote about. “Even we are looking for him,” he tells Hindustan Times.

And every surgeon in Bhadrachalam states on record that they have not treated any such case during the time — or any other burn victim.

In another part of the region, a woman whose husband, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, was accused of having been killed by Naxalites says she believes he died due to some personal enmity.

And independent documentary filmmaker Gopal Menon finds cases of torture and human-rights excesses by security forces, including illegal detention and electrocution, in faraway villages where authorities said none happened.

Fact versus fiction: That is the other great battle of Bastar, the remote, impoverished region that is set to witness the first concerted assault into out-of-bounds rebel territories by a national grid of security forces.

“Truth is dynamic, moving and is murky as has been proved in this region where insurgency is in full bloom,” said filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who has studied human-rights issues in Chhattisgarh.

In a blood-soaked land that has in past years witnessed deadly human-rights violations by both security forces and the Naxalites, there is an apparent gap between perception and reality — that ends up shaping government policy and public opinion and influences courts of law.

That gap is also what the National Human Rights Commission found out last year after the largest ever such investigation across 26 villages in Bastar, on the directions of the Supreme Court. The team travelled into remote areas, faced three Naxalite ambushes, held interviews away from the police, and said in its findings on 168 investigations into alleged human-rights violations by paramilitary forces and the police:

— Many of the allegations are based on hearsay.

— Many villagers listed as having been killed by state forces were actually killed by Naxalites — or were Naxalites killed by security forces.

— A few villagers listed as killed died of natural causes.

— Some other villagers who are listed by complainants among the dead were found to be alive.

That is not to say, however, that human-rights abuses have not been committed by the paramilitary, police and Special Police Officers (SPOs) — many of them former Naxalites who now fight the rebels alongside the police. The NHRC cited some such cases and asked for a more through investigation.

“Villages have been attacked 20 times in some cases. The security forces are killing the same people they are claiming to protect,” Kumar, head of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (tribal awareness commune) in the southern Chhattisgarh town of Dantewada, says as he sits in the ashram complex, sharpening a pencil made from a twig.

A senior official with an international NGO working in the state said that might be an extreme view.

“I don’t subscribe to that view. It’s not that people are being mauled or killed every other day in the fight between both sides,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

“We do hear of stray incidents of people being caught up in incidents of violence … (but) We have not come across that extreme.”

Kumar’s report says Muchaki Deva, 60, of Onderpara village was grazing cattle on the morning of September 17 when he was caught, beaten and dragged by security forces.

“He was hanged upside down from a tree and a pot of hot oil was lit below and he was dropped into it,” the fact-finding report says, adding that members of the team took him to a hospital in Bhadrachalam town.

Where is the man who was dipped in hot oil, the reporter asks. “Even we are looking for him,” Kumar says.

In the town’s government hospital, the only place where such a burn case can be treated, medical superintendent Dr Jayaram Reddy says: “Nothing — no patient with that name has been brought to us. No patient with even 10 per cent oil burns in six months. All the other doctors in the town — seven of them — say they haven’t heard of the case either.”

At the ashram, 15 villagers from the Munder village sit in front of Kumar on plastic chairs.

“Do not go to the police. They will take your thumb impression and write anything they want,” he says, and then turning to the reporter: “Police have told these men that they will destroy their village in the next two days.”

The reporter asks the villagers for details. “Police did not make that threat,” says Moti Ram Kadti, 25, sitting a few metres away. “A man called Badru read something in the paper and got that impression.”

Tomorrow: “Dear Comrade”: Letters from the warzone

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