Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not without my father

Away from the pseudo-activism of the Bollywood glitterati, a young assistant director of Taare Zameen Par fights for her father, who is under arrest on charges of being a Naxalite commander. Rahul Pandita reports.

Aamir Khan has probably never heard of Prashant Rahi. But on the day his maiden directorial venture Taare Zameen Par was released to critical acclaim, a young assistant director of his production team lay huddled, crying silently in one corner of a Mumbai apartment. Like the rest of the production crew, Shikha was very excited that the film for which she had worked really hard for months had finally hit the cinema halls. Her friends and relatives had begun to call since morning, and, in the late afternoon when her mobile phone rang again, she took it for yet another congratulatory call. But that phone call changed everything. It was a phone call from the police station.

In the newly-built state prison of Uttarakhand, on the outskirts of the capital Dehradun, a line from Iqbal’s immortal Saare jahan se accha Hindostan humara, written on a wall in front of the jail superintendent’s office reads, Hum bulbule hein iski (We are its bubbles) instead of Hum bulbulen hein iski (We are its bulbuls).

“So you have come to meet Prashant Rahi?” asks the young deputy jailer, and then instructs his junior, “Photo khincho inki (Get his picture clicked.) Anyone who comes to meet Rahi has to get his picture clicked first. A young man, perhaps a prisoner on duty, does that job, with a camera attached to a computer. He also then takes a printout of that picture.

In the visitor’s hall, 49-year-old Prashant Rahi receives his visitors with a warm smile. “Imagine, the policemen who claimed to have recovered a laptop from me did not even know how to operate that; they actually sought my help in getting it started,” Rahi tells this laughingly to anyone who cares to listen.

The Uttarakhand police claim to have arrested Rahi three months ago on December 22, from a forest area near the state’s border with Nepal, which they say was a temporary base of the Maoists. He is charged of being the zonal commander of the CPI (Maoist). Apart from the laptop which Rahi mentioned, he claims that some Maoist literature, which included books on Mao and a few pages of a magazine, taken out by the CPI (Maoist), was recovered from him. But senior police official refute that claim. “We also recovered a complete blueprint of the Naxalite movement in Uttarakhand which was commissioned to him by the top Naxal leadership,” says a senior police officer, who supervised Rahi’s arrest. The officer says that in the blueprint Rahi has written clearly that earlier he was a member of the People’s War Group, which merged with another Naxalite group to form the CPI (Maoist).

Rahi, a former journalist with The Statesman, says he was picked up from Dehradun itself on the afternoon of December 17, while walking on a road. “I was immediately blindfolded. The policemen in plain clothes said I was someone called Ram Singh who had robbed a businessman in Bijnor,” he says. It was only after senior police officials came to interrogate him, he says, he realised that he was being charged of being a Naxal leader.

Rahi is a very well-known face in the intellectual circles of Dehradun. He is believed to have translated a number of literary classics into Hindi. His friends say he was also very active during Uttarakhand’s movement for a separate statehood. He had also been trying to organise landless labourers against landlords.

“Let’s put it this way: Rahi always felt the urgency of doing something for the voiceless more than we do,” says Ashok P. Misra, a senior journalist and a former colleague of Prashant Rahi. “But to think that he was an active Naxalite commander is too far-fetched; I have a problem with the way the state has dealt with it,” he adds. Another former colleague and senior journalist, Rajiv Lochan Shah said that the state was trying to exaggerate the Maoist threat by arresting people like Rahi. “After the PM’s statement that the Naxalites posed the maximum threat to the country’s security, it seems that the Uttarakhand government wants to bite deep into the cake of Central funds allotted for fighting Naxals,” he said.

“If Rahi was indeed a Naxalite commander how come not even a tamancha (country-made pistol) was not recovered from him?” Shah asked. “The fact that we didn’t plant any arms proves that our recoveries are perfectly legal. Let Rahi’s fate be decided by the judiciary,” Inspector-General (Law and Order), Uttarakhand Police, M.A. Ganapathy said.

Rahi alleges that he was tortured brutally while in captivity. “At one point they said they will bring my daughter and force me to rape her,” he alleges. He says he was even forced to sign his confessional statement. “When I wrote ‘signed under duress’ they did not understand what that meant,” he says.

The police has filed a charge sheet against Rahi and, as per his lawyer, the chances of his release on bail in near future are almost nil. “There are lessons to be learnt from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh,” says the SSP of the state’s Special Task Force, Abhinav Kumar, “It doesn’t make sense to wait for anything big to happen and then act.”

Meanwhile, the battle has just begun for Shikha. A letter written to her by her father on the International Women’s Day is clutched hard against her chest (“He asked me to be strong”). Away from the pseudo–activism practiced by the glitterati of Bollywood, she is hoping that her father is freed soon. “There is a strange rule in the jail manual – I cannot send sweets for my father which he likes very much,” she regrets.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The making of a Naxalite

In his first ever interview, top Naxal leader Misir Besra tells me how a jackfruit tree led him to the Naxal movement.

When the police party approached the car in which Misir Besra was travelling, he did not run away. The strategy was perfect since Besra’s photo had never appeared in the police records. And looking at his face and physique, no one would ever suspect him of being one of the most-wanted Naxalite leaders.

But this time, the police were not taking any chances.

Besra was detained and his photo circulated among jailed Naxalites. In no time, his men identified him. After all, Misir Besra alias Commander Sunirmal alias Bhaskar was no ordinary foot soldier. As a member of the CPI (Maoist)'s politburo and the Central Military Commission, Besra headed the Eastern Command, supervising the party’s activities in Orrisa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and lower Assam. He was also the incharge of the Military Intelligence wing and helped the party procure arms and ammunition.

Besra was feeling cold when I met him in Jharkhand. This was his first ever interaction with the media. Upon being offered a cigarette, Besra politely refused saying he had quit smoking. “I had come to drink tea when the police came and picked me up,” he said with a smile on his face.

Besra has come a long way having spent 22 years in the jungle. While studying at a school in the Giridih district of then undivided Bihar, Besra says he witnessed a lot of discrimination against tribals. Later in 1985, as a student of Hindi Honours, he also showed keen interest in Political Science and read about the lives of revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose. “One day, I took mahua (local brewed liquor) to a shopkeeper and he refused to pay me. He asked me to run away or he would thrash me,” recalls Besra. Soon after this incident, an old jackfruit tree in his village was cut down by a few landlords. “They took away the branches but I decided that I would not let them take away the trunk,” says Besra. Along with a handful of friends, Besra guarded the trunk. “The Block Development Officer and the Tehsildar tried to convince me to let the affluent families take away the trunk but I did not budge,” he says.

According to Besra, this incident left an indelible mark on him. “Earlier, I was even influenced by Shibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha but soon it would appear to be a false movement to me,” says Besra.

In October 1985, a troupe of left-wing Akhil Bharatiya Krantikaari Sammelan came visiting Besra’s village. After listening to the revolutionary songs, Besra decided to join them. “I slipped away with them after the programme was over,” says Besra.

There was a time, Besra remembers, when the Naxalites were only in possession of a few double barrel guns. “Initially we were treated like dacoits by the villagers,” he says. But gradually things changed.

This was the time when disconnect between ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’ was widening. People in this area were increasingly getting discontented with New Delhi. People were increasingly going to bed with empty bellies. Healthcare and education were nonexistent. More than two decades later, nothing has changed in these parts of India.

Initially, the new recruits like Besra received training from the rebels of the People’s War Group (PWG), active in Andhra Pradesh. In 2004, PWG and the Maoist Communist centre (MCC), active in Bihar and Jharkhand, joined hands to form the CPI (Maoist).

According to Besra, many recruits leave after being inducted since they cannot handle the rigours of jungle. But most of them stay since this at least ensures that they get food to eat. Moreover, a gun in their hands also gives them a sense of empowerment.

During the 9th Congress of the party, held in Bhimbandh in Bihar, Misir Besra was the incharge of security. While returning back, his company raided a police picket in Lakhisarai district of Bihar, killing four police personnel. In 2004, Besra is said to have planned and executed an ambush in Baliba in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district in which 29 police personnel were killed.

In 2003, Besra met the chief of the CPI (Maoist), Muppala Laxmana Rao alias Ganapathi in Jharkhand. During interrogation, Besra told the police that Ganapathi dyes his hair. He keeps trimmed moustaches and sometimes shaves them off. Another top leader, Mallojula Kotheshwara Rao alias Prahallad is deaf and also suffers from severe health problems. Another top party functionary, Pramod Mishra, who is the incharge of Punjab, Haryana, New Delhi and J&K, is a fine sports person. Also, there is only one female member in the 17-member Central Committee. Her name is Anuradha Gandhi and she happens to be the wife of politburo member Koppad Gandhi, who is incharge of party documentation.

Besra says that the state committees of the CPI (Maoist) also exist in states like Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. “Without the participation of middle class, there will be no revolution,” says Besra. So how much success have they achieved in urban areas like Delhi? “Not much,” Besra confesses, “but our members are active there.” Besra’s admission is confirmed by the fact that recently Maoist literature and propaganda CDs were recovered in Haryana. In Delhi, an undercover Naxalite was arrested from Sangam Vihar in Delhi. An intelligence report by the Home Ministry states that Maoists are trying to engineer cast conflicts as a part of their strategy in states like Haryana. After the clash between the police and the workers of Honda factory in Gurgaon in 2005, a Honda showroom was attacked in Haryana’s Kaithal. The attack was led by Ravinder, a member of a left-wing organisation.

According to Besra’s interrogation report, Naxalites were also planning to target at least two police officers. One of them is H.J. Dora, former Director General of Andhra Pradesh Police, who lives in Delhi.

The Naxalite leadership is also looking for experts like Computer engineers. According to Besra, the Central Committee had asked for allotting a Chemist and an Electronic Engineer as well.

How does he spend time in jail? “I read a lot; I have just finished reading a novel by Agyey.

Is he in touch with his comrades? “No,” replies Besra in a matter-of-fact tone, “since I am under arrest they won’t trust me any more.”

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Who is Manmohan Singh?

Coke and Haldiram's have reached the worst-affected naxalite areas of Jharkhand but not the government. On the budget day, Rahul Pandita travels through the state’s remotest villages to discover that almost nobody has ever heard of Manmohan Singh, leave alone Chidambaram.

That day, the Block Development Officer, Lalan Kumar visited Gitildih village for the first time. He brought along with him a cheque of 12,500 rupees, 10 litres of kerosene oil and 50 kg of rice. But by then it was too late. A week ago, on February 3, when the entire national media was going gung-ho on the war of words between Jaya Bachchan and Raj Thackeray, a landless Adivasi labourer, Turia Munda climbed a tree and hung himself with a rope. Employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme, 48-year-old Munda had not been paid his wages for more than a month.

A year ago, Munda’s wife had died because of diarrohea, which takes many lives in this small village, 55 kms. away from Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. They leave behind four children. Three of them now live with their maternal uncle while the youngest, 12-year-old Jholu Munda has stayed back. A student of sixth class, he has stopped going to school ever since.

Gitildih village is a stark reality. It is because of villages like Gitildih that many people are left with no option but to join the Maoist fold. There is not even a sub-health centre for a population of 1,000 people. Only a nurse comes once in a week. The nearest hospital is ten kilometres away and the road is non-existent. When a person in Gitildih falls ill, the family prays that Ravindra Singh Munda has not gone anywhere. Ravindra is one of the four persons in the village who own a motorcycle. So the patient is taken on the motorcycle to Bundu town. But during monsoons, the road is submerged under water and the sick person has to be either taken on a cycle or somebody’s back. “My motorcycle is known as the village ambulance,” says Ravindra. In the months of July and August, diarrohea strikes Gitildih. In November and December it is malaria. Children die. Women die. And so do able-bodied men.

There are a few handpumps in Gitildih but most of them are dry. And those that work have contaminated water. So the villagers drink water from a nearby river. During summer the river dries up too. So they just lie down on string cots and stare at empty spaces.

There is no electricity either. Only a few boys have seen Jharkhand’s own Mahendra Singh Dhoni play cricket on a television set in the town.

Jagan Nath Munda is 65 and he collects firewood from the nearby forest to buy rice, salt and oil. Out of 20 other people who have assembled outside his house, only Munda knows that the Prime Minister of India is Manmohan Singh. “But I have never seen him; how does he look like?” he asks. Does he know which party does Singh belong to? Munda scratches his head for a while and then replies, “I think he is from a party called the BJP.”

Near the entrance of the village, Samla Munda points towards a building which looks like a building from Kabul after September 11. “This was supposed to be a health centre. But no doctor has come here for almost two years now,” he says.

Narsighpur and Mirgitand in East Singhbhum district are the last twin villages in Jharkhand, bordering West Bengal. 15-year-old Jhumri collects firewood and then walks barefooted on stones and thorns till Galudi town which is 14 kilometres away. If she is lucky, she might get 20-25 rupees from a dhaba owner. Then she will walk back to the village after buying rice from that money. If she fails to sell the firewood, she will have to remain hungry. Has she heard of Manmohan Singh? “Who is he?” she asks.

Like Gitildih, there is no electricity in Jhumri’s village. A High School is 14 km. away. There is only one well for water. A sub-health centre is 4 km. away. “But that exists only on paper,” rues a villager. “We are getting mowed down by elephants, wild pigs and naxalites – in that order,” says a teashop owner. “20 years ago, life was better. We had tough life but we were happy,” he adds. Has the NREG scheme made any difference? A villager laughs and says, "NREG is for the rich, not for the poor.”

Meanwhile in Gitildih, Jholu Munda kills time by killing birds with his sling. The naxalites have been urging villagers to join them. Next time when they pay a visit, at least one person from Gitildih may join them. The sling may just be replaced by an AK-47.

(This report appeared in the recent issue of The Sunday Indian weekly)