Sunday, 10 January 2010

From Detention Drama to 'Dacoit' Declaration

In my own “coy” ways, I would terrorise my friends and family. But thanks to the Dantewada police, I have been declared a dacoit. No, this anointment didn't come in easy – it took several hours of mayhem and confusion and conspiracy. And so the story of the practical joke begins....

On January 5, the inmates of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) in Dantewada woke up to find that Himanshu Kumar was missing. We panicked a bit, but realised that what he had done must have been the best. He couldn't afford to languish in jail for having raised his voice for the scores of tribals whom the government plans to eliminate to be able to hand over their land to profit-hungry mining companies. It was essential that the gory David versus Goliath battle for survival continue to be fought, and new ways had to be found. That's how we understood the rationale behind Himanshu's disappearance.

The seven security personnel outside the VCA, who had been posted for Himanshu's “protection” and constant vigil, were surely unaware about Himanshu's disappearance; for they seemed to be calm and staid, going about their usual activity of languidly sitting with their guns on their laps. But the inmates of the Ashram – about 10 of them – realised that there was no point in staying behind. By 7 am, the Ashram wore a deserted look and my preconceived notions of bravado, or the lack of it, as I saw it that morning, began to run in my head.

Moral obligation

Nevertheless, four of us decided to stay behind – filmmaker Nishtha Jain, writer-journalist Satyen Bordoloi, law student and AID volunteer Suresh Kumar, and I. We took this decision as we were concerned about the four tribal women who worked as maids in the Ashram – we knew that if the cops learnt about Himanshu's disappearance, those four women would be the most vulnerable. Given Chhattisgarh's record of tribals disappearing after they are summoned for a genteel questioning, we didn't want four casualties right before our eyes. There was little we could actually do to fight off the protectors-turned-persecutors, but we couldn't elude ourselves from doing that very little too.

We planned to leave Dantewada for Hyderabad by a 5 pm bus that same evening, and it was decided that we would drop all the girls, along with their luggage, to one of their homes before we could leave the Police State. Around 3 pm, Satyen walked outside casually and got into a conversation with the young Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were guarding the Ashram. During the conversation the SPOs learnt that Himanshu Kumar wasn't in the Ashram anymore, and as Satyen later told us, the anxiety and cold sweat on their forehead was too conspicuous.

We got a jeep-taxi and began to stack in all our luggage. The Ashram was locked and I looked back at the remnants of tireless effort of 17 years of one single man. The taxi driver turned the car key, and one cop came, and switched it off. He told us, “You cannot leave.”

The drama begins...

We got off the car, sat for a while, but soon realised that we were not being told why were we stopped. It was 4.30 pm then, and more cops arrived. Almost all of them were busy talking into their mobile phones. None of them, except for one stout lady constable, wore any uniform. Heading the team looking over us was Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) on Probation, Rajan Jaiswal. This petite Denzel Washington-lookalike refused to talk to us, and said that all we should do was just sit. Realising that it would be one long drama with many different acts, I tried to argue that we had a bus at 5 pm, that we needed to get our ticket money back. He promised to get the cash back for us; I didn't believe his words.

The value of a tribal

We sat under the tree where Himanshu fasted for 10 days and spun the charkha. Suddenly, we saw about 25-odd tribals walk in from the main road, towards us. Some of them went ahead and spoke to Lakhimi, one of the tribal women with us. She told us that they had arrived from a distant village to attend the Jan Sunwai (public hearing) which was scheduled to be held two days later on January 7 – wherein Home Minister P. Chidambaram had promised to show his presence but was told to stay away by the Chhattisgarh administration as they feared that their dirty linen would be out for the nation to watch and condemn.

I don't know when and how – we were all too busy making phone calls and sending SMSes to out friends about our illegal detention – but about 10 minutes later, we saw that the 30 people were distanced from us. The tribals were taken about 100 metres away from us, into an open field, and were surrounded by four SPOs. I tried to go towards them but was stopped. Precisely at that moment I saw the difference my education and urban upbringing could make in that situation – those tribals and I were illegally detained, but my English-smattering and names-dropping skills could bail me out; but the tribals would only slip further into the quicksand. I knew I would be out sooner or later; I wasn't so sure about the vulnerable 30 who trust everyone so blindly. That's when Satyen and I realised that the 'joke' was going too far.

About 15 minutes later, we saw three grey Boleros, without any number plates, approach those tribals. Some men got off, they wrote something on some papers and slowly, the tribals were made to get in. I ran for the video camera and began to document what was happening. The SPOs stopped me, but I gave a straight look and told them that I couldn't be stopped from filming. Satyen too, by then, had begun to document. The 30 tribals were packed and sent into nowhere, and as I turned around in horror as the truth set in, many pairs of male eyes were staring at me, some of them looking at me through their mobile phone cameras.


My restlessness grew and I yelled out, “Who are you people to take my photograph without my permission?” Silence. “Who are you? Why don't you tell me?” I heard a faint voice that said, “We are journalists.” I yelled back, “Why don't you then ask the cops what they just did to the 30 tribals? Can't you see the blatant way in which those people would soon be declared 'missing'?” Silence. One of them asked, “Who are you to come here and film them?” I replied that I was a journalist from Mumbai.

I wasn't happy with what they were doing. Evidently, their idea of journalism was skewed; their idea of choosing to report on what made them feel safe was revealed. It was getting nauseating – here were several men without any uniform who claimed to be cops and had turned to be the black cat on our way back home; there were several more men who claimed to be journalists. Identification crisis.

Soon an argument ensued between us – Nishtha, Satyen and I told them that they had no right to film us, and that we doubted their claim to be journalists. They retorted: “Who are you to come here and shoot whatever you want?” “Why have you even come here?” In about a moment, I saw one stout and mustached 'journalist' attacking Satyen – he had grabbed Satyen's camera and even slapped him. I tried to intervene but suddenly moved my head sidewards to see that the cops present – about 30 of them – stood still and watched the drama silently. I yelled back at them, “Can't you see that our friend is being attacked? Why don't you stop that attacker?”

Reluctantly, two cops intervened and instead of controlling the mustached man who was determined to do damage to us with his strong hands and words, the cops pushed Satyen aside and told him to cool down. We both had lost our calm. We yelled back, “Don't you see yourself whom you should be asking to cool off?” The cops just stood, did nothing.

I walked back, breathing heavily and feeling disgusted upon seeing that the cops were chatting in a freewheeling manner with the 'journalists'. I wondered about what I had learnt in journalism school, about the pen being the fourth estate in a democracy. It was 5.30 pm by then. The sun was setting and the evening winter wind was slapping our nervous backs. We had the taxi driver relieved; we took our luggage inside the Ashram and sat – thinking, planning, making frantic calls to media persons and friends who we thought could help us out, but wondering in horror about the fate of those 30 tribals.

Camera! Action!

We anticipated the next act of the drama – our cameras could be stolen. But coincidence was something that was not desired as we were just thinking about the cameras, where there was a knock on the door. Before we could scamper to hide the cameras, the door had to be opened and Jaiswal ordered us to hand him the cameras. I didn't care much about the documentation of the ego scuffle, but I couldn't afford to lose out the evidence that I had of the tribals being whisked away. The 10 cops who entered the house snatched the camera from Satyen's hands, but I held on to the other. The stout lady constable was ordered to exercise her force on me, along with her colleague. They pulled my hands, grabbed my shawl and I crawled on the floor to safeguard the camera. I kept on yelling that I wouldn't give them the camera, and those women wouldn't let me off their hands. Cat fight which wasn't funny.

After several scratched from the lady cops' long nails and my arm almost being twisted, my friends told me to let go. Reluctantly, I let the camera loosen from the tight grip of my hands but I followed the cops out into their jeep in a mad pursuit. I yelled at them, “How do I know that you guys are cops? Where is your identity card?” Silence. One of them showed me his card upon repeatedly asking the same question, but he only showed me his photograph – he hid his name on the card with his fingers. I was too mad by then and it took my friends a lot of cajoling to calm me down. Why wouldn't I get angry?

We sat inside the Ashram, thinking. In just about an hour, one of us was beaten, I was scratched badly, our two cameras were snatched away, and the 'journalists' meant to report the truth had disappeared. The idea of the Police State was not an idea anymore; it was a reality and we were its victims now.

What am I ready to die for?

Nishtha had made a call to someone she knew in the Planning Commission, who in turned made a call to the Collector of Dantewada, Reena Kangale. About half hour later (it was now around 7 pm) a gentleman from the Collector's office arrived. He said that he was an IAS officer and the SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate), and that we should feel assured of safety in his presence. We heard him rebuking the cops aloud, and he soon told us, “Please pack all your bags and come along with me to meet the Collector at her office. We are making arrangements for your safe exit from Dantewada.”

But we couldn't leave the four tribal women behind. It was something that our conscience wouldn't allow us to do – we just saw 30 tribals vanishing; it would take no time for the Police State to eliminate these four women for their association with Himanshu. What was I willing to die for? It had boiled down to that one simple question, and the answer was slowly becoming evident that evening.

But Nishtha wanted to get out. She realised that to keep the movement going on, she had to get out of the murkiness and spread the word aloud, around. We differed on our means and not on our goals. Reluctantly, all four of us got onto the SDM's car waiting for us, with only Nishtha carrying her luggage. As the car sped, I shuddered to think what could happen to those four women. Everything else was naught.

We reached the Collector's office and only Nishtha was summoned in. The rest three of us sat in the car – thinking, laughing at ourselves, crying about injustice, asserting that god was dead, knowing what we were ready to die for. We knew that Nishtha would be given the chance to take us along with her to Raipur; we also knew that we would be told to forget about those four women. I knew what were my priorities and I settled in peace with the thought of knowing what I wanted and would do.

After 45 minutes, Nishtha emerged from the meeting and told us exactly what we had expected. We told her, while the SDM watched us, that we wouldn't leave behind the four women to their fate. Nishtha told us that while she was in the meeting with the Collector, the Superintendent of Police (SP) Dantewada, Amresh Mishra, had spoken over the phone with the Collector, wherein he mentioned that the local journalists had written a complaint against us, stating that we had assaulted them, that we had snatched their cameras, that there were no cops around while all that had taken place, and that our cameras were stolen by local villagers. I was amazed how creative storytellers we had in our country's administrative set-up!

The SDM was angry that we hadn't brought our bags along, since he assumed that we too would leave for Raipur from that very spot. “The situation is not good on the streets. People are against you. I cannot drive you back to the Ashram to get your belongings,” he said. We told him our decision, and he was mad that we were being unreasonable. “Why are you worried about those four women who have voluntarily gone to work for Himanshu Kumar and are now facing the consequences? They are not your problem.” I wanted to think alike too, but the concern of the women was a problem in my conscience. I wouldn't have been able to face myself if I left them alone. We told Nishtha to go ahead and that we would fend for ourselves, as we wanted to stick by with what our hearts told us. We were not practical; we were emotional and content.

Conspiracy theory

She was driven off in a car to Raipur; the SDM took us back towards the Ashram. He took us through the main road, which passes by the Dantewada police station but the car had to be halted just there – about 40 'journalists' were protesting against us. They demanded that we should be arrested; that we shouldn't be allowed into Dantewada. And I thought I was in independent India!

Satyen asked the SDM why didn't he bring us through the parallel lesser-known route, since the SDM knew that the streets were burning with rage. The SDM replied that he didn't know about the tension. Conspiracy? Joke!

We saw that apart from shouting out slogans, the 'journalists' had their hands full with stones. Somehow the SDM managed to get us out of the car and escort us into the police station, after which the police station's gates were locked so that we could not be mobbed. For another 15 minutes, the shouts continued and one inspector (again, in civil clothes) told us that we had to give our statement. It took me one long hour to dictate all that I had to state – of course, the inspector was harried that I was getting into details. “Don't put your feelings into the statement.”

Yet I continued to narrate my story to him for my statement, until we got a call from an advocate friend. He told us that there was no reason why would any person be made to write a statement in the police station. When we enquired with the inspector, he told that us that it was only for general information. We looked back at him, grilled him, until he admitted that the journalists had filed a complaint of assault against us, and that we had to give our version. We realised that we too had to counter back. So I asked the cop for his FIR book, but he said that he had none. He told me to give an application if need be, which could be converted into FIR. Since it was around 10 pm at that time, he said that it would be fine if we filed the complaint the next day too. There was something fishy – why were we detained? What were the charged levied on us?

I wrote down our story in brief, and mentioned in the end that since we could be subject to stone pelting which could hurt us, and further harassment by the journalists and the cops alike, a case of culpable homicide should be lodged. The cop returned me my carbon copy of the letter with only his signature. We again argued for another 15 minutes about the stamp that was needed. He said. “If you talk about signatures being copied, what's the proof that the stamp cannot be copied?” Such innocence!

We argued and finally manged to get the copy of the letter stamped. We were told that since the complaint against us by the journalists hadn't yet been converted into an FIR after a suitable investigation, we were free to go home. The cop even insisted that we would be given police protection till the time we would be in Dantewada. He bid us goodbye in his own jeep, with four more armed SPOs – young boys who had just begun to develop a mustache, and shivering in the cold – to guard us for the night.

We reached the Ashram, and to our relief, the four women were safe. The three of us felt jubilant about 'Satyamev Jayete'. But that was an illusion, just for the night.

'She is a dacoit!'

The next morning, on January 6, a team of 25 people from the National Alliance of People's Movement (NAPM) joined us, including Medha Patkar and Sandeep Pandey. We narrated the  incident of the previous night to them – something that they had already heard about. By then, we had also read newspaper reports that “a team of journalists from Mumbai had assaulted their local counterparts in Dantewada... a case under 395 IPC has been filed against the journalists from Mumbai for snatching away the cameras of the local journalists”. We checked up on 395 IPC – turned out that it was 'punishment for dacoity', with further explanation: “Whoever commits dacoity shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Meanwhile, the cop who had taken down our statement the previous night came to meet us – dressed in complete uniform and his name badge which said that he was Rajesh Kumar Jha – and said that we should leave Dantewada as soon as possible.

Kavita Srivastava, national secretary, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) decided to meet the aggravated journalists. She returned with their bone of contention – they were furious that we had called them the 'brokers' or 'pimps' for the police. So a meeting was decided with them later in the evening to sort out our differences.

During the meeting, it was strange to see that the main issue of allegations of the mutual assault were sidelined, and was replaced with the character assassination of Himanshu Kumar. Finally, all was sorted out as we expressed the nature of culture shock we experienced in Dantewada, which resulted in a miscommunication. We exchanged notes about ourselves and expressed our need to be in touch with them so that we could work together on reporting about the macabre situation in Dantewada.

As we bade them goodnight, we asked them if they thought whether we had snatched their cameras too. “No, you did not snatch our cameras. We haven't said anything like that to the police. We have only learnt from you that the cops snatched your cameras.”

We knew that a different game on a different court was being played by the cops against us.

The next day, Kavita went to meet the SP of Dantewada and asked him about the charges of dacoity against us. Also present in the meeting were the local journalists. Somehow, Kavita managed to get him to promise that the dacoity charges against us would be dropped. But as we have seen many times, and been eyewitness to in our 10 days in  Dantewada, the Indian administration has an unbroken record of broken promises.

  • For now, we have a fax copy of the FIR which cannot be deciphered.
  • We are willing to take back our complaint against the journalists, provided they take back theirs.
  • We journalists – from Mumbai and Dantewada – want to work together again in future.
  • But guess we all know how the cops love to scamper behind dacoits who enter into their territory.
  • Till that time when I receive a warm welcome into Dantewada police station in my next trip, the 'dacoit' tag will loom over my personality, and life. 
  • But I still don't know why was I detained.


    1. you were detained, because you and others have the primary need to find out the truth and also have enormous compassion in you for people who are less fortunate than you. The Indian police and state (interchangeable entities) are primarily mysogynist, xenophobic and feudal--so they hate women, outsiders and those who believe in rudimentary democracy

    2. Hii Rana,

      Thanks for writing in. Yes, the underlying reasons why I was detained are evident. But the point is, if the government claims to have nothing to hide, they would allow us to roam freely. Wish more more more people would be willing to just land in Dantewada and then see who can stop anyone from roaming about!

    3. Journalists od Dantewada and Mumbai have already been divided by Himanshuji, there are no chances of working together.Priyankaji, have faith in Pious Maa Danteshwari, do not defame her land called Dantewada; after doing these you can work with any one whom you want in Chhattisgarh.

    4. Your efforts to protect that camera, if anything, is a reflection of what you learnt in journalism school whilst others were snoring through class. What a long way you've come since I used to read your byline in the competition's product. :)

    5. Allie, thanks for the compliment. But guess what? I got the camera back after much haggling with the cops, but they deleted all the data!

    6. I had two similar experiences with the police -- one in South Gujarat in August 1987, and another in May 2009.

      If you are Mumbai-based, I would like to meet you and discuss. IN any case, I would like to talk to you on phone.

      I too am a journalist -- a former newspaper journalist, but now an independent professional, who publishes trade journals for a living.

      Please call, or revert with your mobile number, and the est time of day to call you.

      Krishnaraj Rao
      98215 88114