Inside the Whale

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By Tusha Mittal
Principal Correspondent

Lalgarh, West Bengal

Suddenly, I felt the twisting of intestines inside my stomach. Not once in the last month of reporting in battle-zone West Bengal, of hearing about hands chopped and tongues spliced, of looking at tiny pieces of Saraswati Ghorai’s brain after a bullet punctured it open, had I felt this.

Yet, as soon as I held the magazine in my hand —10 faces of a Civil War written in bold, I suddenly felt a kind of plummeting. Perhaps, distance makes the violence sharper. I looked at the cover photo — a limp body leaking blood, its toes half-curled, and I wanted to throw up. I’m still unsure why I needed to cry.

Reporting on conflict-zone India, at first the word seemed strange. War. It conjured images of Iraq and Vietnam. This was India. War sounded like hyperbole. Like news trying to be sexy.

A year later, in the homes of all the dead men, in the funeral songs of all the decaying mothers, in the precise narrations of all the raped women, both news and war have become mere constructs of an urban world, the semantics of an outside viewer. A year later, the idea of ‘fact’ has itself become blurry.

When does information become fact? When does conflict become civil war? When do citizens become refugees? What does neutrality mean in a state of pre-determined truth, with pre-defined categories of demons and heroes? Who defines what war is? Being trampled on by a soldier’s boot, thrashed by a rifle butt, yoked to electric shocks, or watching masked men cut up your father into pieces, who measures what torture is? Who accords ‘us’ the luxury to decide?

Perhaps, the categories of torture and death defined by the Geneva Convention are of use in geopolitics and international diplomacy. But when there is no accurate count of how many have died or who killed them, based on what ‘factual’ figures and ‘objective’ reality will we arrive at these categories, the amounts of aid, and the interpretations of war?

These are the questions that come to mind covering the Red Corridor. But these too are only urban polemics, the privilege of a world not in a state of war, nor impacted by it.

On Ground Zero, in the lived experiences of the people in Lalgarh, Dantewada and Latehar, what is happening inside India is not only a war, but one where the State and the Maoists are becoming mirror images. To them, whether this is called Operation Green Hunt is irrelevant. To them, whether the perpetrators of rape, murder, loot and torture believe in the Indian Constitution is also irrelevant.

That is why it has been strange trying to make sense of this ‘objectively’, especially when you find you have to dismantle an already accepted truth (that is not objective) before you can begin to sketch an alternative reality. Stranger, perhaps, that the only personal danger I have felt has come not from India’s “gravest internal security threat”, but from the armed cadres of a national political party.

It was August 2010. I was in West Midnapore with a freelance photographer who does not want to be named. A source had revealed that the CPM was systematically arming its cadre (known as Harmad) and dumping ammunition at party offices and schools across the district. The source also furnished a detailed Intelligence Bureau (IB) list of all the Harmad camps.

It was past noon when a wrong turn took us to an empty road. Suddenly, men on motorbikes whizzed past. Some were in CRPF uniform. Some in civvies and chappals. They were armed with AK-47s and Insas rifles.

It was clear we were not meant to be on that road. The cavalcade stopped, looked at us quizzically, and sped on. Recognising that these were Harmad and sensing that something was about to happen, we followed them at a distance. What we did not sense was that there was another group coming behind us. The IB list of Harmad camps was in my hand, when suddenly we found our jeep surrounded by men on motorbikes wielding guns. I shoved the list under the seat. Within minutes, our jeep was stopped. Belligerent, half-drunk cadres screeched at us to step out.

The photographer was new to such assignments. His camera had pictures of the CRPF accompanying armed CPM cadres, discreetly snapped 10 minutes earlier.

He was sweating, about to cry, and might have spilled the beans. It made me more nervous. I tried to answer all their questions to keep him from talking. They caught on. They split us up to question separately. When a stout, paunchy policeman tried to intervene, they shifted the guns pointing at us, to him.

Not satisfied with our answers or my press card, the Harmad then proceeded to search the jeep, peering into my half-open backpack. Perhaps, it is best not to think of what might have happened if they had chanced upon that IB list, tucked under a seat.

The next morning, the photographer got on the first train out of Midnapore. “You are from Delhi,” he said. But Calcutta, where he lives, is only a four-hour hunt.

***

The first time I saw blood on the streets was in Srinagar, in the summer of 2005. I was a student on a research project. A car fitted with a bomb had exploded on a road five minutes before I was to travel on it. After the clean up, a man with a grimy fingernail pointed to a plastic bag tied to a tree. It was sagging under the weight of leftover body parts. Drip after red drip, it was leaking leftover blood. There were frantic calls to return home. I was shaken, but felt a strange need to stay.

Not because it made a story. Not because conflict is sexy or because conflict was going to make my career, though the cynics will insist otherwise. I stayed because it was the beginning of a strange empathy, because it seemed I had chanced upon the real world. In university, they said that India was a democracy, that public opinion matters, that public opinion can shape policy. Suddenly, I wanted to transport this real world to the public I came from.

In the days that I stayed on, I would understand why in the lived experiences of the people in Srinagar, Kashmir is occupied territory. In the days to come, I would understand why — in their lives — it is irrelevant whether the rest of India agrees. In days to come, the inanimate blob of ‘them’ would become he, she, and perhaps ‘us’.

Five years later, many more real worlds have opened themselves up to me. Five years later, at every hut I visit now, I try to explain that I have no special powers, no powers at all. But if they want to tell me their story, I’ll listen, and try to transport it. At times, there are moments of futility. “Why should I talk to you?” says a frail tribal woman. “Will it bring my son back? Will it ensure that my second son will not be killed tomorrow?”

I understand now that the real world owes you nothing. It doesn’t need you to transport it, and sometimes doesn’t want you to. But then she emerges from her mud hut and offers rice on a banana leaf plate. She insists you eat. I never know what to say. Perhaps, in the real world, sharing a meal is the most you can do. Perhaps that is the beginning of how ‘them’ becomes ‘us’.

At times, there are moments of futility. Then I remember the bright pink chamber of a doctor in Lalgarh. Jatin Pratihar was arrested on false charges of being a Maoist. I wrote about him in a story titled Operation Blind Hunt. He was released on bail a few months later, but must appear at the Lalgarh Police Station every week. He has now stopped trekking inside Lalgarh’s villages for treatment. The Maoists accuse him of being a police informer. “We know you’re a Maoist in disguise,” the police taunt him at his weekly appearances. “I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Pratihar says. “I try to not to leave the house.” When he does, he says he carries a copy of Tehelka with his picture in it, as if his only proof of innocence. “I show it to all the police officers who taunt me,” he says, almost with a hint of pride. Somehow, it keeps me going back. Somehow, it keeps me wanting to bring him, to bring them, closer to us.

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.

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