The life of a witness

Sunday, 17 June 2012 - 11:30am IST | Agency: DNA
Javed Iqbal recounts what it is like to venture into Dantewada to record the violence and pathos there.

Tarun Sehrawat, a young Tehelka photographer succumbed on Friday to illness — malaria, jaundice and typhoid — contracted during a foray into Abhuj Marh in Chattisgarh. Javed Iqbal recounts what it is like to venture into Dantewada to record the violence and pathos there.

I first met Tarun Sehrawat and the intrepid Tusha Mittal in January 2010, when we found ourselves with the same duties — of trying to investigate why the state of Chhattisgarh had kidnapped Sodi Sambo, a Supreme Court petitioner, and a woman who was shot in her leg during the combing operation of Gompad that took nine lives. She was in a Jagdalpur hospital, and we were outside her ward trying to get access to her. Tusha Mittal would harangue every stubborn official with such gusto, that you were certain that war reporting was best left to women. Tarun and myself sat quietly, joking and taking photographs of one another while Tusha did her job. He had no malice and insecurity that most photographers had for their own. And his innocence was something that you were very glad you could find in a place like Dantewada.

The next time we met, we found ourselves on the way to the villages of Tadmetla, Timmapuram and Morpalli. These were which was burnt down by the security forces in March of 2011. Tusha and I were this time at each other’s necks like a bunch of Laurel-and-Hardy’s on steroids, regarding the best way to deal with the logistics of going into ‘the jungle’. Tarun, as usual would smile to placate our anger at ourselves. We all did do our jobs eventually, and Tarun’s images were an absolute justification of our profession.

Tarun was a witness to our state’s grand security operations in Central India. He has photographs of burnt homes, of widows whose husbands were killed by the security forces, of women raped by security forces, of fragile old men with country rifles who the state refers to as the greatest internal security threat, and of Abhuj Marh, his final assignment, where few have ventured. But one of his most heartbreaking images would remain a photograph of a family in Dantewada sifting through their burned rice trying to separate the ash from what they could eat. That’s what he witnessed. That’s what only a handful of people from the outside world have ventured in to see, including some of the bravest and most brilliant journalists and photographers I have had the honour to work with.

Yet it’s death from Dantewada that follows you around, as with each story of encounters, and killings. Just a few months ago, the controversial superintendent of police Rahul Sharma took his revolver and shot himself. Assistant Superintendent of Police, Rajesh Pawar who I confronted about a fake encounter was gunned down by the Maoists some years later. And now a tortured adivasi journalist Lingaram Kodopi wishes to die in jail, as there’s no way he feels he can get justice in this country. Each name is jotted down in my collection of notebooks, of those killed, of sons named along with their fathers — Madvi Kesa s/o Bhima, Madkam Deva s/o Bhima, Madkam Admaiah s/o Maasa, and countless others. But sometimes I don’t know whether that list will have any meaning, when all that tends to happen, is that the war goes on.

A cellphone becomes the purveyor of madness and death. ‘There’s been an attack in your favourite village’ an activist once called and told me, and I went into a daze, and hated him — how many favourite villages did I have? Then came the final message about Tarun — ‘Pronounced brain dead.’ And this just a few days after friends had told me that he was making a full recovery.

We all think we’re invincible. We venture into roads that could be mined with IEDs, one of which exploded a day after two of us passed, killing three security personnel. We venture into the haven of the malarial monster, the killer of people that doesn’t discriminate like we do. In Basaguda, I remember the sight of a CRPF jawaan holding the hand of another jawaan, whose body was sapped of energy, eyes bereft of life, who would say the dreaded word: malaria. It was an absolutely tragic sight to watch these two towering men, pathetically broken down. “You don’t even have to ask about the mosquitoes. Around 80% of us suffer from malaria at some point or the other.” But mosquitoes have also killed one of the Maoists’ iconic leaders: Anuradha Ghandy. And for the ordinary adivasis, their stories are left to statistics, sometimes to a world beyond statistics.

In Jharkhand, an old adivasi miner who was left to die of asbestos exposure spoke to me, while three young children, slept behind him. All three had high fever. All three had malaria. In fact, a few months into the job, it became standard operating procedure to not just document the atrocities committed on a whole people, but to finally ask about illnesses in the  village. At one visit to an IDP settlement at Warangal last year, our investigation team became a medical team, and we had to take on the  responsibility of taking people to the nearest clinic.

Some quarters mention how Tehelka should’ve guided Tarun with some precautionary measures but unfortunately those are never enough and some circumstances can’t be helped. Tarun had no option but to drink pond water, in a place where water, even after boiling, would turn yellow. A few years ago, my adivasi guides, a few other journalists and I faced a similar problem. And we had to walk over 15 kilometres of hillocks in a summer that can blaze to 48 degrees, and our water supply ran out. We had to drink from a miasmic river. And we all did and we were lucky.

 I used to take anti-malaria pills every week in my first forays into Central India, but still ended up in the middle of nowhere with high fever, huddled up in a bus station, alone and wrapped in a shawl, shivering like my bones would shatter, with my mind drifting away, waiting for a family friend to come and save my life. And I was lucky. Malaria was bombed out of my system. To most people in Central India, there’s no rescue. Where Tarun had gone, no doctors venture. In fact, in some of the areas in Dantewada and Bijapur where Doctors Without Borders did go to work, they were accused by the state of Chhattisgarh of ‘helping the Naxalites’.

The angel of death of Bastar, made of iron ore, is touching and destroying everything that is beautiful. Tarun had a long way to go. Twenty three, the age of most SPOs and Maoists, is not the age to die.


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