On the 17th of May, 2009, during the demolition of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, I was taking pictures and the instant the archway of the Ashram's gate was broken by the bulldozer, I was picked up by a policeman, had my camera confiscated, then beaten repeatedly by some CRPF personnel and some members of the STF.
I was then locked up in a police van.
Some thirty minutes later, two policemen entered the van, that now had about three other people, and then taken out into the open. Now I was beaten again by three-four policemen by lathis, specifically from the STF who started to abuse me, by saying: 'Saala *********, tum humare khilaf likhta hai?' (You *********, you write against the police?)
'Tu Badepalli gaya tha na, *********?' (You had gone to Badepalli, hadn't you, ********?)
Eventually, I was let back into the van and kept there for another few hours in the summer heat. I was repeatedly abused by passing policemen yet also treated kindly by a few sympathetic policemen from the CGP (Chattisgarh State Police). I was then taken to the police station and released after a medical check-up under police supervision that didn't even bother to check for any bruises.
Now, to the police.
All you have done is helped motivate me, and offered me more clarity than before. I shall not pack my bags and leave, and even if I do, I shall be back. Your lathi-wielding policemen actually 'complimented' me, mentioning the stories that I've done as they beat me, and I was happy that someone was reading my work. In fact, the mention of Badepalli by the policeman who beat me, where 19 homes were burnt on the 26th of April, 2009, is really the first compliment I've gotten for that story. But before there are anymore incidents as such, when your 'boys' think it's necessary to beat up journalists who delve for the truth and listen to the whispers of a suffering people, I believe the time has come for a little clarity between us, and you must know what I am doing here.
You, are, my police.
I do not pay my taxes for you to kill villagers and burn villages without the proper conduct of law. I do not accept that you earn the right to live in the grey world, believing you have the right to do as you wish, as long as it is for the greater good. Yet what is this greater good? This funny little thing called Law & Order. There is no such thing as the greater good and I don't give you the right to be the defenders of denial, of the status quo that ensures that people remain ignorant, unaware, apathetic, and live a meaningless insecure egocentric life in the pursuit of wealth, self-indulgence, power with the daily dosage of IPL matches, saas-bahu shows and parties, when more than half the country starves its own soul for a single meal.
I believe in shattering the mirrors of the status quo with a hammer and you wish to protect it. I believe people have the right to dissent, to protest and to ensure that the state does not get away with the power, that we, the citizens, have bequeathed upon it. And this protest, this dissent has every right to exist in a democracy. The stone that is hurled at the police ordered in to curb an angry mob who've been betrayed by an incompetent or corrupt administration, is democracy.
I believe in the Rule Of Law, as flawed it is, as absurd it can seem, and you believe you are it, when you are not. I believe the Indian public has every right to know what it's police does in our name. And whether you can live with your actions or not, I can't.
Yet does this make me a Naxalite sympathizer? Maybe to you, but I know where my conscience lies when it comes to the actions of men who give themselves unlimited power to do as they wish. There's no secret that the Naxalites are also capable of brutality, authoritarianism and the very kind of actions that your SPOs have become infamous for. The Naxalites are as brutal and I am not going to hide the fact that I disagree with their methods, their violence and even their policies. I have heard the other voices of the people – the very tribals whom the Naxalites apparently fight for. I have heard their anger, and I have seen them cry about their helplessness. Bastar possesses it's own world at times, when concepts like human rights, Marxist theory and development become completely irrelevant as a man is being hacked to death.
I have spent more than 50 days in Bastar, and spent lots of time around policemen and SPOs, and each time, a certain thought would pass my mind - about them getting killed by IDPs, or by the Naxalites, and I would shudder each time. This is where I can even understand the patriarchal love of the police superiors regarding their juniors, their boys.
The possibilities of a violent death hangs over their heads. And that is not a fate I'd bequeath upon even the evilest of men in the world. And not a single ounce of anger I have for the policemen who beat me at the Ashram. It is their power that I have loathing for.
And I am aware of the moral burden of my work: reporting atrocity only fuels more atrocity. And the war between the police and the Naxalites is acted out on who possesses moral authority, played out onto the stage called the press and public opinion. Yet does keeping quiet make anything any better? If I don't report a single killing, does it cease to exist? If I don't take pictures of a burnt village, does it cease to exist? If I don't report a disappeared 12 year old girl, does she cease to exist? No, there are the people who lost their loved ones, and there are the people who live and die in those villages. Their sadness and their rage will exist, whether I am there or not, whether they, the many brave and dedicated reporters, are there, or not.
Truth, is always more important than chaos. We will write, because we know that if we keep quiet now, we shall all pay for it tomorrow. And we shall bring out the voices of people who possess real moral authority – the villagers who just want to live and want nothing to do with the police or the Naxalites or the Salwa Judum, yet circumstances are such that they have no choice but to take sides. And you had visited the village of Samalwar, and slapped people around because they spoke to me, because they helped me write a story on a fake encounter and the cold-blooded murder of a 19 year-old boy.
These are not the actions of a police, this is, in simple, goonda-giri. These are signs that further manifest India as a Police State, and further manifest that the Police in Bastar merely exists to repress the Adivasis of Bastar. And of course, I shall not fall prey to the laziness of prejudice.
Truth is, that even as your STF were beating me, there were certain policemen who protected me from further beatings and harassment. There are no words to express my gratitude to them, not just to protect me, but to remind me about their own humanity. I would hope, as far as hope goes, that those young boys never lose their sense of decency, and their conscience, being actors in a play that wants them to lose their souls, and in the name of duty, learn the value of brutality. All I could offer them, for their kindness, is a thank you, and I know there was no other way for me to show my gratitude to them, for fear that their superiors would reprimand them for being human beings. And I hope, as far as hope goes, that they don't fall victims to Naxalite violence.
Not all policemen are guilty of atrocity and this is an indictment to all forms of prejudice – we must learn to value individuals, not look at things as a whole and condemn it all because that would make life so easy and simple. Prejudice, in the end, is merely lazy thinking. I don't look at the actions of the police as indicative of the entire police forces character. Most are merely following orders, and many are slaves to a paycheque, others are trapped in catch-22 situations where they can neither fight the counter-productive policies of their superiors nor remain public servants who work for the people. Many have seen their friends and comrades die, and are blinded by hatred. And most find it hard to play the game and still keep their conscience, or in simple, their posts.
Yet we find ourselves as antagonists and this is merely the beginning. There are chances that we meet again under violent circumstances, and your conscience-less violent gorillas would come after me again. Well, let them.
Yet, I do have one request, I myself, feel that I didn't deserve those beatings for one reason alone – I don't think I wrote enough, or took enough pictures, and I request that my next beating take place after I have actually done a significant amount of work.