With press freedom under attack, are elections in Bastar truly democratic?

Chhattisgarh is in the final stages of electioneering preparing for first phase of Assembly elections to be held on November 12, 2018. While six seats belong to Rajnandgaon, twelve seats will be contested as part of Bastar region. The state of Chhattisgarh completed 18 years of its formation this past November 1. The BJP government has been in power for the last 15 years in the state. However, people here have experienced extreme social and political instability. Perhaps to mask that, press freedom has come under severe attack from the government.

Press Freedom Under Severe Attack in Bastar 

The Chhattisgarh police recently detained three journalists- Siddharthya Roy, a journalist working with The Diplomat, veteran journalist Kamal Shukla and video journalist Bhushan Choudhari. All three had travelled to Narayanpur to cover the run-up to the state Assembly elections scheduled for November 12. They were detained for eight hours. And only let off after significant pressure from human rights activists across the country.

Narayanpur is part of Bastar in Chhattisgarh and has been a hot-bed of Naxalite activity.

What do the people of Bastar want?
In an exclusive chat with Sabrang, Kamal Shukla talks to us about his experience, and clarifies misconceptions around the electoral process in Bastar. He also talks about the challenges villagers face and myths around the notion of ‘development’ in the area.

पुलिसिया वातावरण में पत्रकारिता : कमल शुक्ल

It must be noted that earlier this year, Kamal Shukla was booked on charges of sedition, adding him to the long list of journalists against whom the Chhattisgarh government has slapped spurious sedition charges.

Kamal Shukla starts by asking a basic question that is central to enforcing democratic institutions in the region, he says it is important to ask what do the people of Bastar want, “Do they want to get connected to the democratic systems/ institutions? Do they consider themselves citizens of India?”

In this connection he recollects the experience of his journey to the remote villages of Chhattisgarh, usually disconnected from the imagination of ‘development’ in the name of ‘Naxalite activity.’

“A couple of years ago, the people were hesitant to talk to journalists. But this time they surrounded us to talk to us,” noted Shukla while vividly describing every small detail.

He says, when he reached the villages, the people asked if he and the others had come as a representative of the government of India.

“If you have come as a representative then please send across our message that we want to participate in the elections, we want to vote,” they said. But they lamented, “The polling booths should be close to where we stay. Why do they ask us to travel 40-50 kilometres [in order to vote]?”

Shukla strongly feels that booth shifting is a mechanism to completely destroy the democratic institutions of the region and strongly claims in that Adivasis are indeed interested in casting their votes.
“It’s completely false to say that the areas in which Maoists are active, voting doesn’t happen or that people aren’t interested to vote.”

Shukla says that as people start talking, they complain that there are so many issues; the roads are in dilapidated condition, no school teacher comes to teach in the schools. However, these find no mention in the contesting parties’ manifestos. All manifestos talk about construction of roads, that too not for the villagers but for the armed forces to be conveniently able to travel inside.

“It’s the government that’s preventing people from becoming a part of the democracy —- and the mainstream,” he alleges.

“Interestingly the people who said this (demanded to vote) were the same young boys and girls who had even been captured on accusations of naxalism. If they were with the Maoists then why would they put forth such a demand?” asks Shukla.

He highlights the issue of false cases, in which police issues a press release about a certain Adivasi saying how they are Maoists. However, in 98% of such cases people are acquitted.

Shukla’s trysts with Police at Narayanpur
He relates the experience to how they were treated when they went to Narayanpur, “When we were stopped in Narayanpur, our cameras were snatched away in an unconstitutional manner.”Despite showing their identity documents to the police, they weren’t allowed to go and were informed that the police officials were waiting for some ‘senior officer’. The guest reporter, Siddharthya Roy, asked them to take them to these ‘higher officials.’ They were then taken to the Superintendent of Police’s (SP) office only by 9 pm after significant amount of pressure. The data from their memory cards was copied and a recovery software was run to find deleted files. They were repeatedly told that if they had sought permission then they would not have to face such problems.  Needless to say that nowhere in the world are journalists expected to take permission from any authorities to report from the ground.

In this context, Shukla recalls an interesting conversation with the SP from this visit.

SP Jiten Shukla: “You know, the journalists of Narayanpur are very good..they work as per our wishes”

Kamal Shukla: “Sir can you elaborate, how?”

SP Jiten Shukla: “Whatever we say they comply by it, agree to it”

A media Black hole
“I would say the condition of media in Bastar is that there is no media! There is the local media which reports from the ground. No established media houses want to give the journalists of Bastar a decent salary. Hence they have to work like contractors, they need to find other sources of livelihood,” said Shukla while talking about the plight of the local journalists.

“They have a lot of compulsions and work under a lot of pressures, they can’t defy the police,” he adds.

Shukla feels that the journalists in Bastar don’t have an alternative. Interestingly, he says, the news is always about the two development blocks in Narayanpur. If one pays attention to the stories from this area, only these two blocks are mentioned, there’s no mention of Abujhmad villages, another area in which the Naxalites are active.

“Since there is no media in these villages, the political parties don’t even go in these areas to campaign,” he adds.

This has led to a complete isolation of the people from these villages from the democractic procedures and mechanisms. “You have kept an entire population away from the ‘festival of democracy’ then how can you say that the people are not interested to vote?

Highlighting the existing conditions, he says that the Abujhmad area has not been surveyed, number of people, voters etc. isn’t known to the government.

Contrary to ‘popular’ perception, that Naxalites seem to be coercing villagers into not voting, Shukla says, “It is totally wrong to say that because of Naxalites’ boycott of the elections, people of Bastar don’t cast their votes.”

“Government shouldn’t approach the people only when they need votes, they should go otherwise too,” he adds.

He feels the best way to deal with this is to “implement constitution”. He adds that government has not shown any interest in implementing the PESA, 5th Schedule or 6th Schedule in these villages.
Shukla comes to a conclusion that the situation is not fit in Bastar to have a democratic and fair election.

“Governance had been removed from villages and shifted towards cities while the villages have been militarised and more and more armed forces have been left even in the interiors and remote corners.”




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