A LONG time ago in Dantewada, when I had first gotten into trouble for doing my job, a veteran journalist very calmly told me, “This job is a marathon, not a 100 metre sprint.” Since those words were first uttered to me in May 2009, I myself have used them countless times with those who have followed me.
Tarun Sehrawat sprinted across us at the age of 23, and you are suddenly stuck with the redundancy of your own marathon.
The war you don’t see, the war you remember, has a funny way of catching you back home. There are always faces around the street bend who can remind you of those who have died, or those you feel you have lost. Tarun dies at 23, and you can never seem to get over the fact that he is never going to grow up with the rest of us, and we are surrounded by generations of young people who may never even know where Dantewada is. Tarun may never see the end of the war in Dantewada, something that none of us may either. He will never see his work, his photographs of Chidambaram’s war, at the end of peace.
A few weeks before their ill-fated trip into Abujmarh, Tusha Mittal had called and asked me to accompany her to Dantewada. At that point, it was only meant to be Tusha and myself, and I would have been taking on the duties of the photographer if her editors approved. I had said no, because if I had gone, I would have been sprinting on the tightrope for reasons best undisclosed. Yet for the past few days, I have been constantly wondering whether Tarun would have been alive if I had gone on that assignment.
We all take risks on the job, there are precautions but there are also unforeseeable circumstances. For many, especially local reporters, freelancers and stringers, the only precaution to work in a place like Dantewada is to not work at all. And there are some circumstances, for which we still have not been able to fight back. There have been no antibiotic to kill the spectre of false cases put on journalists, from KK Shahina in Karnataka, Laxman Choudhary in Odisha, to Lingaram Kodopi in Dantewada to Seema Azad in Uttar Pradesh and to the highly publicised case of Syed Kazmi in Delhi itself. We are powerless against State violence. Will we ever learn what happened to journalist Hem Chandra Pandey, who was killed with Maoist leader Azad? Of course, there were others too. Sushil Pathak of Dainik Bhaskar was shot dead by unidentified persons in Bilaspur in 2010. Umesh Rajput killed in 2011. Chandrika Rai and his entire family killed in Umaria, Madhya Pradesh, in 2012. And, there was J Dey, whose shooter did not know he was killing a journalist.
Another risk we all took when we ventured into the jungle was the fear of the SPOs (Special Police Officers). “In the district headquarters, they are harmless to people like you,” said an activist, “but in the forests, they are the kings, they will do what they want.” Luckily, none of us who worked in Dantewada ever met them in the forest, we always waited when we knew they were in the forest, and always tread carefully on the bloody leaves of this civil war that started its dance of death in 2004. We were all told the story of the Bijapur Superintendent of Police (SP), who was recorded via walkie-talkie by the Maoists, saying, “If you see any journalists in the area, just kill them,” during a Salwa Judum rally that could have also been called a rampage. He went on to hold a position in the Human Rights Commission. Many of us even knew the SP, telling his interviewer that: “We will shoot anyone who comes from the other side of the Indravati.” This is where Tarun and Tusha had gone.
Tarun was a photographer in every sense of the word — a witness, an adventurer and a thorough worker. I’m still trying to come to terms with how off-guard we were.
Our images will forever be filled with crying widows and mangled human beings, and we do take risks to get those images
Tarun had gone home to Delhi after Abujmarh and had even worked on another assignment when other members of his team were being treated in a Raipur hospital. They were literally at the edge of life while Tarun was working. When he finally got himself admitted to the hospital, his condition deteriorated rapidly, to a point where even the doctor didn’t understand what was going on. This is the 21st century and in our minds we know that malaria is a curable disease. No one could ever imagine you’d die of malaria or jaundice or typhoid if you had access to the best healthcare in the country. Many of us working in central India have contracted the disease, we work knowing there are absolutely no foolproof precautions to avoid it. We work knowing our privilege, denied to the local population, that we have access to the better hospitals in the country.
Tarun probably didn’t imagine this was the risk that would claim his life. And now we will have to live with the fact that “23” is going to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Twenty three, the age of the angel of death in Dantewada.
EARLIER, I didn’t even know the age of the youngest girl who was killed by the security forces in Gompad because the Muria and Koya Adivasis don’t have the concept of age. Some said she was eight, some said she was 12, but they all knew she was small, their hand held across their waist to described her height. There was an infant who was killed in the Errabore Salwa Judum camp when the Maoists had attacked it in July 2006. The Maoists would try and justify it in their own words, “In the commotion that ensued in the darkness, it was unfortunate that two children also lost their lives. The SPOs and Salwa Judum hoodlums are known to use local people, even children, as shields for their protection, knowing the Naxalites will not harm them. But in the darkness, this was not possible and the unfortunate incident also occurred.”
The death of children is only an “unfortunate incident”, sometimes almost forgotten and apparently you are not creating the situation that is leading to their death. Yet, the local reporters would show me the photos of what had happened. In 2009, I remember an image a local reporter showed me, of a woman holding her baby in her arms, the baby had a hole near its hip. It was a bullet wound and the photograph was taken in the hospital. The mother looked back at the camera with helplessness in her eyes. They were from Cherpal and the baby was shot by the CRPF.
It was this that took us all into the jungle. To destroy the myths of war. It was our call to duty that drives us to go towards the gunfire, riots, police firings, demolition squads, the angry and weeping villagers who sing their grief as they carry the casualties of war. Our images will forever be filled with crying widows and mangled human beings, and we do take risks to get those images. We all took them, we calculated the risks as much as we could, but we knew we had to, as we were so few, and working together and condemning competition to the back of our heads was something we did to keep ourselves safe, to work as a pack. We knew we had to capture the war the warmongers don’t show. Photographers have front-row seats to the end of the world. Tarun was there with us on those front-row seats. I just wish he hadn’t got up and walked into it.
Javed Iqbal is an independent journalist and photographer.