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The war dogma

Reporter Javed Iqbal debates the meaning of neutrality, objectivity and truth in the conflict zone of Dantewada, where everything seems to depend on where you stand. Are you standing between a crying mother and the barbed wire across which state officials are conducting an autopsy on her son whom they shot dead? Or across from a young boy whose leg was filled with shrapnel from a Maoist grenade? Or in a police van getting beaten up by the police for reporting on the burning of a village?

“So what is this in my contract? What does it really mean that I need to fulfil my role as a reporter?” I had asked my editor a week before I headed back to Dantewada, not as a freelancer anymore but as a reporter for The New Indian Express. “That you have to show some level of professionalism,” he replied curtly. “And that means?” I shuddered. The word ‘professionalism’ had strong leanings towards corporatism in my mind. “That you need to just write the truth,” he said. “Marry me,” I said, overjoyed. That’s all I wanted to do.

I left his office, went home, packed, took the first bus to the ‘jungle’, and wrote a story about the aftermath of a combing operation in the village of Gompad. The story would be printed a few days later as the lead story. The photograph showed Katam Suresh, an 18-month-old baby whose fingers had been cut off by members of the security forces. That was my first published story. It was November 15, 2009.

Dantewada 2009 was a very different place from Dantewada 2010. In 2009, Dantewada wasn’t yet the place where 76 jawans were killed, where a civilian bus was hit by an IED, where Arundhati Roy had gone walking with comrades, where the ‘army had to be sent in’, or where the media pundits had anything much to say about the place. In 2009, the emptying of 644 villages, the displacing of an estimated 60,000-200,000 people, the burning, the looting, murdering, raping of adivasis, the fratricidal violence of the Maoists and the Salwa Judum, and the daily anxiety of existing in a civil war for four years wasn’t news. That a young baby had been shot dead by the CRPF in Cherpal wasn’t national news even though the local press picked up the story.

The parents of 19-year-old Channu Mandavi wait for the police to release the body of their son who was gunned down on April 12, 2009, in a fake encounter

It was January when I first reached Dantewada as a freelancer. Nineteen adivasis had been murdered at Singaram, a fair distance from the forest guest house where I was residing in Bijapur. It was news in the local newspapers, and in Andhra Pradesh’s Telegu media, and in Tehelka. That’s where it ended. Maoism and tribal issues were out of sight and out of mind for the blind and mindless mainstream media. Much later I would learn that a group of anthropologists and human rights workers had gone to Delhi to attend a meeting with a large number of editors on the realities of Dantewada and the atrocities of the Salwa Judum. Their response was silence.

I was hoping to take enough pictures to help bring the ‘truth’ to the public consciousness. But before I was allowed into the more sensitive areas of Bastar district, I was warned that I’d need a little ‘get-through-the-checkpoint’ press card. “Many cadres of the Maoist party are illiterate, and they don’t take kindly to strangers. But they have been taught to identify P-R-E-S-S,” said a local journalist. Large areas of the district were out of bounds for the general public and the press. However, in 2009, anyone with a press card could go almost anywhere. The truth was instantly available, provided one was willing to give it time and a good pair of boots.

I spent months in Dantewada running my boots into the ground.

I know there are no universal truths, no feeble ideologies, no nationalist dirges, development gospels, human rights, no individual glories. The one simple basis to hold the entire knife’s edge of ‘stepping into’ a war is a faint humanism that exists when you sit quietly and look at the woman whose face has been slashed with a knife, and wonder why. You end up sympathising with fathers who cut the necks of their adult sons after they’ve had too much to drink. You wonder if that’s the whole story. You know it’s not. You ask why a teacher who asks, ‘Why are you killing innocent people’ is stabbed by the Maoists. You ask why an orphan is now a feared soldier; you ask why his village is now desolate, unlived in and empty. You ask why the Maoists killed a young woman’s father…

The more I delved, the more I realised that nothing is what it seems. The black-and-white binary certainties are like landmines that naïve idealists and careerist apologists for the status-quo tend to tread. What certainties? That the Maoists are bad? Or the state is only driven by corporate interests? Or that the Maoists do good, and the government has never done any good in 60 years? Or that the Salwa Judum are just state-backed vigilantes whose sole purpose is to uproot the tribals from their lands?

To look at Dantewada clearly one has to look through a myriad shattered crystals.

A lot depends on where you stand. Are you standing between a crying mother and the barbed wire across which state officials are conducting an autopsy on her son whom they shot dead? Or across from a young boy whose leg was filled with shrapnel from a Maoist grenade? Or in a police van getting beaten up by the police for reporting on the burning of a village?

You report the details, caring little for abstract politics or the power struggles in the upper echelons of society that are so cut off from the realities of human suffering. Every time a politician opens his mouth, his statements reek of irrelevance when set against the bloodshed. And the war goes on; the unimaginable terror in central India does not fuel anti-war sentiment in anyone but a small minority of citizens. The mainstream media happily propagates war. A mention of the burning of villages to a senior sub-editor of a newspaper is met with citations of the Jnaneswari massacre or the killing of 76 jawans. Do atrocities justify atrocities? Is war the only solution to atrocity? The state and media do not allow you to humanise any aspect of conflict. War is a business, and business is devoid of sentiment. Dead jawans don’t appear on TV to say war is bad, yet we need war to avenge our dead jawans.

While state atrocities are overwhelming, the justifications for Maoist terror appear shallow especially when read in the context of the dynamics of power. Yes there is indeed structural violence, and the breakdown of democratic space contributes to the downward spiral of violence and counter-violence. But power is structural violence too.

The word ‘revolution’ is as casually used and as ambivalent as the term ‘democracy’. We notice quite easily that for millions of Indians neither has ever existed, for the country has never quite rid itself of its colonial past. All this is clearer in central India, and in the actions of the state against islands of popular resistance in places such as Narayanpatna, Lohandiguda, Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Jaitapur, Jagatsinghpur and Sompeta where police firing and arbitrary arrests have been and continue to be perpetrated with impunity.

A journalist has few choices. Write what the state wants you to write and stay alive, especially if you’re a local journalist who lives in the war zone. Write the truth, publish the report and believe that the government and the rest of the country will be sympathetic to the concerns of the people; after all, we are a democratic nation. Dissent, if voiced sharply enough, will draw in opposition parties, generate public debate, and lead to an eventual victory for the people. Or else the journalist believes that if there is no democracy then there is no such thing as journalism. Then the rulebooks become pointless and have to be thrown out. 

In 2010, when the central government finally started to pay attention to what the state of Chhattisgarh was doing to its people in Dantewada, it initiated Operation Green Hunt -- a consent-seeking name for the actions of the Chhattisgarh state over the past five years. All attempts to bring the truth to the public consciousness, and to the attention of the powers-that-be, culminated in a minister declaring that he’d wipe out the Naxalites and then bring development.

It’s done wonders for my career though. Thank you, Mr Chidambaram. After Operation Green Hunt I became one of the first English daily journalists working in the area.

After months of reporting on atrocity after atrocity committed by both sides, I have found myself witness to one of the greatest crimes in the country. Of course, I had always questioned the myth of conflict journalism -- the belief that news of atrocities would lead somebody far away, in a position of power and motivated to stop them, to intervene, to help end the war. That is pure fantasy. The war continues…

After a point it’s not about writing the truth but living with it.

I have been documenting the end of an entire community in the name of profit, development and the big (fake) picture: the so-called greater good of superpower India. Human suffering is all too real and inevitable, but to go through life without realising that much of it is unnecessary is tragic.

The adivasis don’t have to lose their forests, and the soldiers don’t have to die.

As a journalist, you’re supposed to walk away, go home, chew on the fat of life, and call ‘it’ -- death, war, destruction and bottles of beer -- nothing but a job. That’s very convenient especially if you don’t want to challenge the status-quo. Is that what conflict journalism is supposed to do? Or are those the natural demands of the nature of truth?

Journalism’s only been around for a couple of hundred years or so. Truth and the demand for truth are older. They belong to the first time a caveman wondered why another caveman was stealing his food and calling it ‘development’. As for mainstream corporate journalism, prostitution has been around longer and is a more legitimate profession with more ethical constraints. What may we say of the ethics and norms enforced by the Time magazines of the world, who use the photograph of a girl with a severed nose to propagate a war? Are these the ethics required of journalists working in the ‘developing world’? The same ‘developing world’ that is trying to exist against the very forces whose wars they propagate? The photograph of a defaced Aisha Bibi, unsurprisingly, won the World Press Photo award for Photo of the Year even as photographs of children blown apart by predator drones don’t seem to win awards. An ethic to vie for.

To them, the Third World is a vicarious frenzy, the ultimate downer, humanity’s hellhole. Go to the Congo, go to Rwanda, write about a million rapes, murders, and every detail of bloody mayhem and unimaginable poverty. Fit all this into a narrative that says the Third World can never govern itself without the help of the West, the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, and foreign intervention. They’ve been saying that about the Middle East since the Balfour Declaration. Now, thanks to one street vendor who burnt himself on the streets of Tunisia, they are eating their words.

Our media hasn’t the maturity to think about whether adivasis can govern themselves or not, but they happily follow the inherited ethics of corporate journalism without much ado: neutrality, distance and objectivity. And that is a joke because they’re not neutral, they’re too distant from the ground, and they’re definitely not objective. Nowhere in the press are the causes of the insurgency ever spelled out to the world. Nowhere are the combatants on both sides (by both media) looked at as human beings.

I can’t live with the truth that journalism is a bullshit profession if truth has been transgressed. When war is the message of the messengers, in a world that is already stricken with terror and fear. And we are at love-war with ambivalent language -- there are those who call murders encounters, pogroms riots, genocide development, and hatred patriotism; and there are those who call revolution social transformation. Truth is too often packaged as propaganda. One becomes only too aware that reports on atrocities are used by the ‘other’ side to propagate their war, and they call it a people’s war -- this is the strangest contradiction of anti-war reporting.

  Does a journalist only subsist within words and images? When we need not words but actions to ensure that a spade is called a spade, that a rose is a rose is a rose? In a world where acts of terror are far more vitriolic than words of love, is the message the only purpose of a journalist? To write, to protest, to write and keep writing?

Truth is, I don’t know.

(Javed Iqbal is a journalist who has been reporting on tribal issues in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. He worked for The New Indian Express from November 2009 to April 2011, documenting state and Maoist atrocities in undivided Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, and people’s movements in Orissa. He has also written extensively on people’s movements and slum politics in Mumbai)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011