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Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

The tragic death of Doordarshan cameraman Achyutananda Sahu along with three police personnel in a Maoist attack in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh early this week comes as a grim reminder how the apparently simple job of news gathering is actually fraught with risks. The Maoists have issued a clarification that they did not intend to target the media team but were targeting the policemen who were accompanying them. This brings us another tragic aspect of the ongoing war between the Maoist outfits and the law enforcement agencies that have regularly seen blood being spilt and precious lives lost on both sides. Just days before the attack in which the DD staffer was killed, the Maoists had blown up an anti-landmine bulletproof vehicle in the Bijapur district in which four CRPF personnel lost their lives. The blast was so powerful that the entire vehicle sank in the pit created by the explosion. That the Maoists have access to so much of high-grade ammunition despite strict control and surveillance on the supply on such materials by the law enforcement agencies is a matter of great surprise. In an immediate reaction to the killing of Sahu and the police personnel in the Dantewada incident, Information & Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore commented on Twitter, "These insurgents will not weaken our resolve. We will prevail." At a programme to pay homage to the deceased DD staffer, the I&B minister likened the DD newsgathering team to Army men who do not hesitate to venture into conflict zones at enormous risks to their lives.

According to the Maoists, they did not intend to kill any media person, for they consider them as their friends, not enemies. While no explanation would be sufficient to justify violence whether, against the policemen, media persons, contractors or government officials, the long-drawn war between the Maoists of myriad hues and the law enforcement agencies has left the people in disgust both in the conflict zones and in the rest of the country.

Much before the Maoists came on the radar of law enforcement agencies and they intensified their operations against them, some intrepid media persons managed to develop contacts among the Maoists and reached their camps hidden away in dense forest, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest human settlement. They brought back pictures of young men and women in poor clothes aiming to shoot a target with what looked like defunct rifles as they were getting ready for a showdown with the State and its 'coercive machinery'. This prompted other media persons to undertake similar treks into the wilderness of India's hinterland hit by the ultra-left activities, where the presence of government machinery was nowhere to be seen, where the nearest healthcare facility was 20 to 100 km away, where there was no road or electricity. The media reports worked as the preliminary information about what was going on in these neglected areas. This was followed by a trend of extortion, killing of contractors, kidnapping of government officials by the ultras who were steadily growing both in number and firepower at their safe havens. Soon, media persons on their jaunts to such safe havens began to come across security personnel whose number, resources and operations began to dominate the otherwise quaint landscape and uneventful lifestyle in the conflict zones, with reports of casualty increasing by the day.

What drew media persons to these apparently dangerous places again and again was their quest to see the Real India — the life of village folks in tribal land bereft of any modern-day amenities, the sight of extremely poor people surviving entirely by the available natural resources, the amazing range of lively customs and traditions, the marriages, the songs, the dances. The local food, the brew and the weeds were such a compelling attraction that those media persons who had time would frequent to these locales till recently when the war between the Maoists and the law enforcement agencies began to claim collateral damage. Social workers from Christian missionaries and tribal wings of RSS are still active in these conflict zones and are doing exemplary work while the paramilitary forces and the local police are trying their best to provide protection to the people and ensure normal life at the grassroots level.

Most of these tribal lands where Maoists have a stronghold are rich in minerals and in order to exploit the resources, the government desperately wants to get rid of the Maoists and bring the situation under control whereas there is a long-held resentment among the local people in the way the natural resources are being exploited and the benefits do not percolate down to them, and the manner in which they are forced to do low-level menial jobs for a living. The tragic death leaves the media fraternity in utter shock and disbelief. The paradise of irony that they had discovered early in their career is now out of bounds for all practical purposes.

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