What if man dies in the forest, and no one is around to see it?

Last week, the  Chhattisgarh police were caught in an extraordinary encounter in the forests of Dantewada. The encounter was interesting not just in the event itself, but also in the Police’s attempts to shape media perception during and long after the encounter.

On Kafila, we devote a considerable amount of our time trying to decode how the press covers particular events. Perhaps this post shall go some way in explaining why our morning papers look the way they do.

If the police are to believed, on August 4 this year, the Koya commandos were caught in a Maoist ambush, yet through brilliant rear-guard action emerged completely unscathed, along with the body of a “Maoist fighter”, a 12 bore shotgun and two IEDs to boot.

The “ambush” caught a lot of us in the press unawares: something had happened in the forest – but what? A series of strategic leaks had primed the media to expect “major losses” among the security forces – so when the police emerged from the jungle unscathed, everyone was expected to heave a collective sigh of relief.

However, for once, the Chhattisgarh based press was skeptical.

My first piece for The Hindu mirrored this confusion:

Suspected cadres of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) ambushed a contingent of the Chhattisgarh police in the thickly forested Kirandul region of Dantewada district, but failed to inflict any losses on the police.

The police have claimed to have recovered the body of one Maoist.

Surprisingly the press wasn’t the only one asking questions, even senior policemen and intelligence sources were disputing the official versions of the story and were willing to concede that the encounter was possibly staged.

However, the encounter has raised questions among the intelligence community regarding its duration and intensity and the nature of the armed engagement.

“Frankly we are very confused,” said a senior intelligence officer speaking on condition of anonymity, “What was the police doing in the forest for nearly eight hours? What was the nature of the engagement?”

Intelligence officers were also surprised that not a single policeman was injured in the ambush that lasted more than two hours.

By the second day, the word on the street was that the Aug 4 encounter was a “very well planned operation” customized for media consumption.  The long-drawn out encounter continued through the day, culminating in a “all is well” style happy ending.

However, the Chhattisgarh police offered up a very different reading of events that blamed the media for creating a sandstorm of rumours that ultimately stymied a major operation.

In my second piece, a very different picture emerged; a picture that suggested a police force blundering its way through a fog of confusion, fighting off not just the Maoists but a hysterical media and a political class unwilling to cope with the fallout of further police casualties.

We were asked to consider the myriad problems of police work in Dantewada:

At 10 a.m., the Koyas chanced upon a Maoist company and a fierce exchange of fire ensued. The Koyas split further into two teams of 40 fighters each and in the course of the battle, they lost touch. One team was pinned back, while the second made it to the top of a hilly feature from where it sent an SOS via cellphone as wireless sets had stopped working in rain.

“In the present circumstances, if you lose contact you expect to lose lives,” said the source, referring to the ambushes in April and July this year in which more than 100 CRPF men were killed.

The SOS was relayed to the police headquarters, from where the national media got wind of the story. As the police struggled to locate their missing teams, rumours of massive casualties began to circulate in the electronic media.

And:

sources have spoken of the pressure to deliver a “big kill” in response to security personnel getting killed by the Maoists. In this instance, the Koya commandos were allegedly instructed to “return safely at all costs” as further police casualties could have proved politically untenable.

Eventually, the forces scattered the Maoists, recovered the body of an alleged Maoist fighter and returned to Kirandul at 9.30 p.m. that day.

However, sources kept insisting that there was more to the encounter:

A senior police officer implied that the supposed encounter could have been a cover-up for the killing of Kunjami Joga, a 25-year-old resident of Kutrem, who, the police claim, was a Maoist fighter killed in the course of the encounter.

Almost a week after the encounter, we managed to reach the site of the supposed encounter.

the villagers have a very different account of the circumstances that led to Joga’s death.

About 11.30 a.m. on August 4, the villagers say, a party of the Koya commandos cordoned off Kutrem and took positions outside several houses in its Kotwalpara neighbourhood. Kunjam Hidme, 40, sat quietly in her house when she suddenly heard a policeman scream, “Hold your fire, don’t shoot!” followed by a burst of automatic fire.

“Kunjami Joga was stepping out of his sister, Karti Budri’s house, when he was shot,” said Hidme. He was unarmed, and was wearing a blue shirt. “I could hear him shouting ‘Ma, Ma’ as he lay on the path.” Hidme says the commandos hurriedly dumped the body on a wooden cot they took from one of the houses and left the village soon after.

As became apparent, the ham-handed campaign to influence media coverage was continuing:

On August 7, the villagers say, the Koya commandos visited Kutrem again, this time with a carton of biscuits and sachets of Haldiram’s mixture. “The force called a public meeting outside the primary school,” said Kunjami Aiyte, Joga’s aunt, “They said, ‘If the press comes, tell them that Joga was killed in the forest, not in the village’.” Aiyte says the police then gave Rs. 1,100 to the gathered villagers for “food and alcohol.” The biscuits and mixture were distributed among the children.

“The Koyas gave me Rs. 2,000 and told me to keep quiet about Joga’s death,” said Kunjami Lakhma when asked whether he had been given any compensation.

This information is shocking on many levels, particularly that the police had the audacity and insensitivity to try to buy silence with Rs 3000 and a pack of biscuits.

But that aside, it think it offers us an insight on how and why we reporters fall prey to our sources. In a “breaking news” situation – particularly in the case of an event that occurs far away – the only people who can give us information are the police – and obviously they have a vested interest in managing the story.

Why my other sources were willing to speak in contradictory voices is something that surprised me as well. I think it has to do  with the frictions arising between various wings of the police, CRPF and civilian government. But – even those issuing contradictory statements have their own axes to grind.

So i guess, this post has become a long-winded way of saying “there is no substitute for actual grassroots reporting”.  Apologies for taking so long over the moral of the story :)

4 thoughts on “What if man dies in the forest, and no one is around to see it?”

  1. Dear Aman,

    Thank you for this fascinating unpacking of the background to your recent report. The ‘Rashomon’ slash Kafkaesque character of the miasma emerging from the Koya Commando-Chhatisgarh Police (different factions ?)-Intelligence Apparatus testifies to the panic buttons that the state seems to be pressing, on the ground, on its own belly. And yes, your championing of old fashioned reporting that does not rely only on ‘sources’ from within the machine, but keeps its nose close to the ground is very exemplary.

    In the writing that you are doing, and in the work that is now beginning to come out in print, Kashmir, maybe, just maybe, we are at the cusp of another profound transformation in Indian journalism. Let’s hope this moment has staying power.

    best

    Shuddha

  2. Every encounter stinks of misdoing. The brave forces trained to protect VIP’s of the great country should be a part of bollywood.

  3. Interesting read.

    Do the CRPF have immunity from the law when they face life threatening situations? Those who are sent to protect the ‘system’, does the ‘system’ protect them.

    Once must read an first hand account from a CRPF constable.

    It is indeed sad when CRPF jawans are forced to payout biscuits to protect himself when he was put in a situation which endangered his life.

    Who is the real villain here?

    The nervous scared CRPF/Koya commando jawan who killed an innocent tribal or the system who created the ‘killer’ and the ‘victim’ ?

    Of course …. lets all blame the politician and absolve the “Judiciary”. After all we do not want “contempt of court” on our heads do we?

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