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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 02, Dated January 16, 2010
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
special report

Life Behind The Iron Curtain

The hounding of activist Himanshu Kumar is a parable about the war and panic in Chhattisgarh and the complete blackout of information, reports TUSHA MITTAL

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Time out, Gandhi Himanshu fasting; December 2009. His ashram was rubbled by the State in May
PHOTOS: TARUN SEHRAWAT

HIMANSHU KUMAR is shaving his moustache to become more unrecognisable. Instead of the usual white kurta, he’s wearing a red shirt and jeans. The lights in his two-room rented house have been turned off. If you chanced upon him on a winter night in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, speaking in hushed whispers about jumping off the back wall and disappearing into the darkness, you might have mistaken this Gandhian activist for a fugitive.

For the last 18 years, Himanshu has been trudging through the jungles of rural Chhattisgarh, empowering tribals, teaching them how to vote and bringing them access to food and healthcare through his Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA). When his wife first joined him, he told her to replace her make-up kit with medicines. Despite living in this Maoist-dominated conflict zone for nearly two decades, despite its many intimidations, Kumar has never felt the urge to flee. Until now that is – when the might of the State is upon him.

Trouble first began to escalate in 2005 when the infamous Salwa Judum was launched. The VCA filed at least 600 complaints against human rights violations by the State and fake encounters by the police. Himanshu Kumar was transformed in the State’s eyes from trusted aide to adversary. In May 2009, his ashram was brutally demolished by the police. Now suddenly, the Gandhian activist has lost his liberty. He lives in a free country, but does not have the freedom to walk out through the front door of his own house.

“Should I get arrested and become a martyr or should I leave before they catch me?” Himanshu Kumar wonders out loud on the morning of January 4. He knows what happened to Binayak Sen. He knows he could be next. “I’m worried the police will implicate me in a false case. They could arrest me anytime now,” he says.

If the injured Shambo reached Delhi, she could be a big embarrassment

This is not misplaced paranoia. Himanshu’s makeshift ashram is under constant police surveillance. On January 3, his car was stopped by the police as it sped from Dantewada to Raipur carrying Sodi Shambo, 28, a tribal woman with a fractured leg held together by a metal rod. Shambo’s husband was tilling the fields on the morning of October 1, 2009, when Salwa Judum SPOs barged into Goompad village. One bullet from their guns split open her leg. Her children leapt towards her, covering her body. That could be why she is still alive. Nine others were killed during combing operations. Most were those who could not run away — Madvi Yankaiya, 50; Madvi Bajaar 50 and his wife Madvi Subhi, 45; their daughters Madvi Kanama, 20 and eight-year-old Madvi Mooti; and a newly married couple Soyam Subaiya, 20 and Soyam Subhi, 18. Another 2-year-old boy was found with his fingers missing. The Dantewada SP announced that nine Naxalites had been killed in an encounter in Goompad village. This is the tale the outside world would have believed, had Himanshu not met Shambo during a regular public hearing in the forest. She told him about the massacre she had witnessed; he ensured she filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court. The court accepted her petition and directed the state to file a response.

Had Shambo reached Delhi, where she was headed for medical treatment, she could have become a major embarrassment for the Chhattisgarh government. This is why Himanshu and Shambo were suddenly surrounded by police on the highway and detained at Kanker police station. There was an order from the Dantewada SP that Shambo be produced in the police station to record her statement on the Goompad killings. Shambo had been living openly in Himanshu’s ashram in Dantewada for the last two months but the police had not approached her for a statement. “We did not know where she was. We were trying to find her,” says SP Amaresh Mishra ingenuously. “I found out through an Internet forum that Himanshu was taking her to Raipur. I also got a letter from Shambo’s masi two days ago accusing Himanshu of vanishing Shambo all this while.” This was a patently concocted assertion given that Himanshu had presented Shambo to the media at a big press conference in Delhi in October. Clearly, a false case of abduction against Kumar was in the works. According to Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate who has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on the Shambo case, it’s actually the other way around. “This amounts to illegal abduction by the police. Shambo is not an accused. She cannot be forced to go anywhere,” said he.

On January 4, Shambo was sent to Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur for further treatment under police “security.” Sudhir Thakhur, the doctor responsible, admitted the hospital did not have the required medical facility to perform Shambo’s surgery. TEHELKAwas not allowed to speak to Shambo at the hospital, despite a guarantee from the Dantewada SP that she was not being kept in confinement. Even after the director of the hospital gave permission, police personnel guarding Shambo’s bed refused to let us near her. When we tried to talk to the ward nurse, the police ensured they overheard the conversation.

As Himanshu shaves off his moustache in the darkness, it is almost as if he is at a tipping point. Caught in a pool of quicksand, he must leap out immediately or sink. “My faith is not shaken. I’m just feeling trapped inside a web. To break this perhaps it is necessary for me to go fight from a new place. I am not running away. I just need to change my location.”

THE BATTLE between the State and Maoists is well known. But in Chhattisgarh, another battle has been fast gathering steam — between the State and civil society, between a policed existence and the idea of democracy, between a coerced media and free speech. Himanshu Kumar is now at the centre of that battle. Over the years, he had become one of the few bridges that link the rest of India to the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh. Given the national media’s neglect, and the absence of a robust local press, he was perhaps the only disseminator of an alternate reality. Without him and a few other activists working in the area, there would be only one version — that of the State. This is what the Chhattisgarh government is now trying to create. Every few days there is news of an encounter — six killed in Jagargunda, another six killed in Gumyipal. No one knows if these are Naxals or ordinary tribals. The State doesn’t seem to want anyone to find out.

At a recent press conference in Raipur, Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan told journalists on record that there could be police action against them if they wrote in favour of Naxalites. Two weeks ago in Dantewada, DIG SR Kalluri called journalists into his office for one-on-one sessions. “He told us not to write in favour of the Naxals (euphemism for not writing anything against the State) and said the police have their eyes on us,” says NRK Pillai, vice-president of the Chhattisgarh Working Journalists Union. “The atmosphere isn’t conducive. There’s no one really to back us. Press owners will not stand by us. There’s always the fear of what will happen to our families.”

The State has declared war not just on Maoists but also on civil society

In the last two months, as Operation Green Hunt has got underway, the Chhattisgarh government has upped the ante in its efforts to squash any space for dissent and democratic protest. Stories from the jungles are not being allowed out; neutral outsiders are not being allowed in.

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In a free state Shambo and Himanshu Kumar detained at Kanker police station on January 3

On December 29, 2009, Delhi University professor of sociology Nandini Sundar and political science professor Ujjwal Kumar Singh arrived in Bastar to undertake an independent survey of the situation. They found all the hotel rooms in the small towns of Dantewada and Sukma mysteriously full, out of bounds for them. The professors had to spend the night in a jeep, before they got accommodation at a boys’ hostel. There too, seven armed SPOs barged into Sundar’s room, then spent the night patrolling the grounds outside. The next day two jeeps of armed SPOs followed the professors around until they left Chhattisgarh, ensuring they could make no neutral enquiries from villagers about what was happening on the ground.

TEHELKA was meted the same treatment. On January 4, we were denied the right to stay at Madhuban Lodge, the only hotel in Dantewada. The receptionist opened rooms for us at first, but suddenly changed his mind when he got a call from his manager. The manager said the hotel had orders from the police not to give rooms to journalists without a “proper enquiry.” Dantewada ASP Rajendra Jaiswal denied that any such order exists but refused to call the hotel to clarify this. “Why should I help a stranger?” he told TEHELKA. Later, the hotel owner said all the rooms were needed for a family function.

On January 6, a band of activists, including Medha Patkar and Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey, were assaulted with stones and eggs as they marched to the SP’s office in Dantewada for some answers. The police looked on.

Though there is little clarity on whether the offensive against the Naxals – Operation Green Hunt – has officially begun, another kind of assault certainly has. So far, Himanshu Kumar has certainly borne the brunt of it.

On December 14, 2009, a mob several hundred-strong surrounded Himanshu’s ashram, shouting slogans like “Himanshu Bhagao, Bastar Bachao”. They were protesting a padyatra he was about to undertake to engage with the tribals. Such an expedition would boost the morale of the Maoists and dampen that of the security forces, they alleged. According to Himanshu, the mob consisted of SPOs and tribals lifted from Salwa Judum camps to stage a demonstration. The padyatra was to be followed by a satyagraha to protest police excesses and a jan sunvai (public hearing) to take stock of ground realities post the declaration of Operation Green Hunt. In what was being perceived as a sign of positive intent, Home Minister P Chidam baram had agreed to attend the public hearing. Human rights groups from across the country were scheduled to participate. But that came crashing down when the State decided it would not allow anyone to explore its territory.

Hotels have orders from the police not to give rooms to any journalist

HIMANSHU RECEIVED a notice from Reena Kangale, the Dantewada collector, prohibiting him from initiating any public assembly. “Section 144 was imposed because of municipal elections,” says Kangale. “I denied permission for a padyatra and issued a prohibitory order stating the police can take action if any public meetings happen without my consent.” On December 13, an all-women fact-finding team was stopped at several points enroute to Dantewada and not allowed access inside. The Chhattisgarh Governor advised Chidambaram not to attend the jan sunvayi for safety reasons. The Home Minister stayed put.

The mob attack from “tribals” was also used as a pretext to send a jeep of armed SPOs as security for Himanshu. “There is a threat to his life. The tribals are unhappy with him. We are giving him police protection,” Dantewada SP Amaresh Mishra told TEHELKA. That Himanshu himself has written to the SP stating he does not want this protection is irrelevant.

The police “protection” has successfully hampered Himanshu’s work. He is unable to visit villages on fact-finding missions. Any complaints from tribals against the State bring instant reprisals. There have been other intimidations. Under pressure, Himanshu’s current landlord, an employee of the local district council, asked him to vacate the house in a few weeks.

To disable Himanshu further, his key aide Kopa Kunjam was arrested on December 10 on charges of murdering a former sarpanch, Punem Honga. Honga was abducted by Maoists along with another sarpanch who had been traveling with Kopa on his bike on July 2, 2009. According to VCA, the night before he was arrested, Kopa was offered Rs 25,000 to quit working with Himanshu and warned of dire consequences if he continues. Kopa refused the money. Sukhdev, another backbone of the VCA, was threatened with a similar fate after Kopa’s arrest. He quit. Lingu, another aide who also quit, confirmed to TEHELKA that he was with Kopa at the Dantewada police station the day before Kopa’s arrest, and was present when the police tried to convince Kopa to take up “other more meaningful work”.

The Maoists are not willing to talk, and the State is clearly not allowing any other dialogue. Himanshu’s struggle becomes more poignant in the backdrop of the violence being unleashed all around it. The Maoists continue to fell trees, block trains, abduct and kill. The Salwa Judum continues to rape women, burn houses, loot and kill. Amid all the chaos, as the year ended, one man sat in a white kurta, under a sprawling tree, spooling a loom of thread. He had not been allowed a padyatra or a satyagraha or a jan sunvai, so he was fasting to protest State atrocities. But events over the last two days have forced the man in the white kurta to shave his moustache and turn into a man in red shirt and jeans — a reminder of an original freedom struggle, being scuttled all over again.

WRITER’S EMAIL
tusha@tehelka.com

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 02, Dated January 16, 2010

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