Erica Jong had once said: “Every nation gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfight. Italy the Church. America Hollywood.”India Prime Time TV.
A still from a Hindi news channel portraying noted human rights defender Professor G. Haragopal (fourth from top) as “Naxal sympathiser” (written below)
Are human rights “activists” Maoist sympathisers? If recent media debates following the Maoist ambush in Bastar are anything to go by, then one would be led to believe it is so.
The May 25 ambush claimed 29 lives. This included Congress leader Mahendra Karma, who was obviously targeted for his active promotion of the vigilante group Salwa Judum against the Naxals. This has polarised the debate sharply into “either-you-are-for-us-or-against-us” terms. The mainstream media has been shrill in condemning the bold attack by the Maoists and those – reluctant to endorse the use of state-sponsored violence or promotion of unconstitutional groups like Salwa Judum against them – are categorised as “human rights activists” – a media-created undefined and slightly nuisance category of people who don’t immediately agree with simplistic ‘kill kill’ solutions. They are ripe for condescension and attacks in media debates, especially those aired on prime time news channels.i News reports quoting politicians asking human rights organisations to not sympathise with Maoists have also appeared in the press.ii
Frame of reference
Professor G. Haragopal from the Centre of Human Rights, University of Hyderabad, who has a twenty year track record of mediation with the Maoists in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere was unceremoniously dismissed by Arnab Goswami on Times Now as being “ academic”. This for critiquing the frame of reference used for constructing the Maoist problem in the mainstream discourse. “I was similarly attacked for speaking on behalf of the tribal population in Chhattisgarh in a show on NDTV Hindi where one of the panelists said that I should be ashamed of defending them,” he said.
This only reveals how prime-time debates on TV are designed not as moments for serious debate and reflection by the brightest and the best minds of the nation but as tawdry spectacles such as one may find in a cockfight in some back alley. Noted civil liberties lawyer Kamini Jaiswal, refuses to appear on TV after a particularly embarrassing episode in which her point of view was scornfully dismissed. “The channels only want you to speak on their terms. Why is nobody asking the crucial question as to why things have come to such a pass,” she said.
News is often selectively portrayed for its sensation. Barely a week before the May 25 ambush, eight civilians and a CRPF constable were killed in Ehadsameta village in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh, in an alleged encounter. But this incident was not accorded the same level of prominence that the Bastar attack received in the media a few days later. The Sunday Guardian reported on June 1, 2013 that the CRPF had ordered a probe into the killings as did some other papers.iii But as V.S. Krishna, state general secretary of the Human Rights Forum, Hyderabad, points out, “When the Maoists kill someone from the state or the political class it makes big news, but why does the killing of innocent civilians not merit similar kind of coverage or condemnation?”
CHRI Director Maja Daruwala emphasised that there has to be space for discussing different viewpoints on the Maoist issue in respectful terms without attributing motive. “By labeling human rights defenders who remind us of the rule of law concerns that create violence we play into the hands of extremists on both sides. Whether it is the CRPF jawan being killed or the Naxal or the caught in-between villager — who TV debaters like to dehumanise as ‘collateral damage’ – in the end the violence is the bursting boil symptom of the infection within.” The Rammohan Report, which inquired into the killing of 76 CRPF jawans in 2010, has pointed out how the lives of jawans were treated casually by sending them in without the knowledge of the terrain.iv But beyond the sensation of it the media has not wanted to ask the hard questions about how these poor young men were sent into such a situation of vulnerability, what consequences will flow for their commanders and most importantly how future incidents will be prevented. And by reducing the space available for public debate on the Maoist question serious harm is being done to arriving at solutions.
Democratic approach needed
Although sections of the media have been unkind to advocates of human rights, many of the suggestions put forth by them call for a sensible, democratic approach to resolving the Maoist crisis. In the jingoistic atmosphere where everyone talks past each other it is easy to miss possible solutions that would get heard if a well modulated approach were privileged. Murali Karnam of Human Rights Forum, Hyderabad, has been visiting the Maoist violence torn areas of Dantewada regularly since 2008 and worked among the displaced tribal population in Khammam district. He objects to being compelled into the framework of the dominant discourse, where you have to be Maoist or anti-Maoist, or for or against the state. Civil society actors do offer up a thousand points of view that are their own and they do not have to necessarily be bound into the strait jacket of the binary discourse. “Democracy offers numerous options for winning over the disgruntled,” he says, “If there is no protection for the life and liberty of people living in places like Dantewada, then the state’s counter-insurgency operation in the name of protecting law and order is obviously unjustified. The risk to civilian population in these areas due to the government’s move to send in more forces is a huge concern,” he said.
However, with sections of the mainstream Indian media uncritically joining the clamour for a security solution to Maoism, the legitimate concerns expressed by advocates of human rights have been ignored. Professor Haragopalrecounted how the media refused to acknowledge the crucial role human rights advocates have been playing as mediatorsbetween the Maoists and the state.“After the release of Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon who was abducted by the Maoists, the first question that was posed to me during the press conference was how much money changed hands,” he said. “In Chhattisgarh when we went for negotiations with the Maoists, the journalists and the bureaucrats stayed away from us. The media should be aware that I have always been critical of strategies like kidnapping and murder which Maoists indulge in as it endangers the lives of the civilians in their areas of operation. In 1993 when I first took part in negotiations with the People’s War Group and the CPI (Maoist) party I wrote to them criticising their strategy of abductions,” he said.
Human Rights are fundamental
When the state violates its own laws it loses credibility as its own legitimacy is derived from the Constitution and the framework of rights it lays down. Professor Haragopal pointed out that both in Orissa and in Chhattisgarh the governments have arrested tribal people and put them in jail without genuine due process as part of their counter-insurgency operations. This has led to a situation where the state has jeopardized its moral authority to oppose the Maoists. “The Radha Mohan committee constituted to look into the release of prisoners arrested on charges of being Maoists has not met even once. Why is the media silent on this,” he asked. Human rights advocates have also condemned the use of extrajudicial killings, as evinced in the case of Edesmata, by the state. The truth is that the moderate voice of the human rights advocate is an impediment both to the encounter specialist and the Maoist rebel. And the need of the hour is to create an independent discourse and voice without favouring this or that camp that seeks to mediate a path to peace through the constitutional frame work.But by largely remaining silent on these issues and labeling the non-partisan, liberal voice of human rights advocates as Maoist sympathisers, sections of the mainstream media are not only colluding with the state but also cutting the branch in which they themselves are sitting. As Professor Haragopal rightly puts it, “Where do the media derive their freedom from? It is from the same fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Let them not forget that.”
The author is Media and Communications Officer at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.