Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From 'Sexy Insurgency' to 'Writing Revolution'

Originally published for The Indian, Australia. Reprinted for Afternoon Despatch & Courier, Mumbai, India

“Who is on the Maoist side? Who is on the side of the State? 
And it is the ordinary tribals who are getting stuck in this war between the Maoists and the State. Reporting from conflict areas is always hard.” - Rahul Pandita 


In the last two decades, Rahul Pandita has travelled a long way. From his home terrorist-infested state of Kashmir to the urban jungle of New Delhi and further into the Maoist red corridor, he has travelled more on foot rather than surrendering to the editorial comforts of media. A journalist with print and television experience, Rahul is also a recipient of the Red Cross Award for Conflict Reporting 2011 and Northeast Media Fellowship 2001.

For the first time since the days of the Naxalbari movement, a young journalist narrates not a touristy impatient tale, but an on-ground picture of the modern Maoist movement. With direct access to the top Maoist leadership, he provides an authoritative account in his latest book Hello, Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement, recently released in Mumbai. It tells how a handful of young men and women entered Bastar in Central India in 1980 and created a powerful movement that New Delhi now terms as India’s biggest internal security threat. Aditya Raj Kaul in conversation with Rahul Pandita.

How did your reporting from the Maoist conflict zone begin?
Well, I’ve been in journalism for about fifteen years now and very early in my career, I had begun to travel and report from the theatres of war in the heart of India. I’m referring to 1997-98 when every journalist worth his salt would go to Kashmir because Kashmir was the ‘sexy insurgency’. But in the forests of Central India, I could get a sense that in the coming years, the Maoist issue would turn into something big. So I kept on reporting, documenting the lives of ordinary people. Of course, we know now that from 2004-05 onwards, the Maoist insurgency turned into what New Delhi now calls ‘India’s biggest internal security threat’. So, in a way, in the mid-90s itself, I had expected it would have far reaching impact in the coming years.

Were the Maoists apprehensive initially about interacting with someone from far-off urban ‘New Delhi’?

Not really! What happens in these areas is  — and it is true of all conflict zones  — that such areas are like snake pits, one doesn’t really know who is who. Who is on the Maoist side? Who is on the side of the State? And it is the ordinary tribals who are getting stuck in this war between the Maoists and the State. Reporting from conflict areas is always hard. But gradually I established contact with Maoist guerillas, and over the years, we have formed a working relationship. Now, I am not a Maoist sympathiser. And the Maoists know it. But in my reports I try to be as close to the truth as possible and they know it and respect it. The high point of the trust Maoists have in me came in 2009 when I got this rare opportunity to meet their supreme commander Mupalla Laxman Rao popularly known as Ganapathi. I think I am the only journalist he has met in person. He has done a couple of interviews with the BBC through e-mail. But that is it. And then, all of a sudden, I get this interview.

Is the latest book a diary of your journey into the jungles of Bastar?

In 2009, Kobad Ghandy, who is one of the senior Maoist ideologues, was arrested from Delhi. He writes a lot of articles and essays. Before his arrest, there was no difference between a terrorist killed on the Line of Control and a Maoist Guerilla killed in the jungles of Bastar, as far as ordinary people were concerned. But after his arrest, I think that perception changed largely. People came to realise that here was this person who was educated at the Doon School and he was the classmate of the likes of Sanjay Gandhi and Kamal Nath. He (Kobad) came from a very well-to-do Parsi family. And yet, he chose to be a part of this movement. Along with his wife Anuradha, who was also a brilliant student, he chose to live a life of hardship in the jungles of Bastar with tarpaulin sheet as their bedding.  We can question their ideology etc. but I don’t think we can raise a question about their commitment. After his arrest, I thought that this book must come out, based on frontline reporting. Primary sources have been used in 99.9 per cent instances. Most of the books on Maoists read like party literature. But I have kept it very racy. There is a lot of storytelling.

You’ve been a war correspondent for over a decade, covering the Gulf and even at home in Kargil. How hard has it been to report from a troubled zone?

Reporting from a troubled zone is always hard. Like I said, Conflict zones are like snake pits. When I was reporting from Baghdad in 2003, we were at this hotel called Hotel Palestine. As a conflict reporter, one knows that there is very thin line between guts and stupidity. You’ve to keep your eyes and ears open. You remain alive and bring back that story to your readers. Otherwise, when you are dead, you are a bad journalist.

Have you faced any difficulty from the state for covering such a sensitive developing story?

It always helps when you are from the national mainstream media. It is not that easy for the state to touch a journalist who reports from New Delhi, a correspondent from one of the most trusted weeklies. In that way I haven’t been touched directly but as one of the handful of journalists who reports extensively from conflict areas, over a couple of years I would say from the time Binayak Sen was arrested, there has always been this paranoia and we always have this fear that someday the state might hit back at us and brand us a Maoist sympathizers, which is very easy. The Government has done this in the past, they will send a police party to your house or your office and they will pick up some Maoist literature to say that this is objectionable material. The spectrum of sedition is so vague that anybody can come in that domain.

You yourself belong to Kashmir, another troubled state. How difficult or different is covering Kashmir from the Maoist zone?

Kashmir and Maoist zone are completely different problems. As far as I’m concerned, of course, there is a human angle to both tragedies but Kashmir to me is more of a political problem. As for Maoist insurgency, it took the Government of India many years to reluctantly accept that it is not a law and order problem but a socio-economic problem. And I don’t think they still understand it. I think the dimensions of the problem are very different. Over the years the Maoist problem stares back at us at our faces, and the situation there is much grimmer than what we have in Kashmir as of now.

Do you tend to get emotional while covering poverty or hunger? How do you reconcile with it?

As journalists we are told while training that our job is to report and detach yourself from what we’ve seen and report. But there are times when you just cannot do that. Sometimes while reporting from these areas, you tend to become a pressure cooker of emotions. It is very difficult to detach from what you’ve seen. Also,
when you have a reference of context to a better life. So, when I go to Orissa and look at a child who is malnourished, who is on the verge of death and when you visit a particular village and see an old person, aged far beyond his time, and you speak  to him and he says, ‘Sahab, my son died last week’. On asking how, he’ll say he died of a ‘disease’, ‘bookh ka bhimaari’. For such people,  it is a disease. Then you come back to a metropolis like Delhi where you have access to far better life, meet friends in a bar over drinks and end up spending Rs.1,500 for meals for two, which is the amount tribals earn in more than three months.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Autumn of Love

Every year while celebrating the arrival of spring the chords of emotion create ripples through my veins. Today the sea besides me has turned silent. I lay hidden on the boulders besides it with questions galore. The evening is hidden somewhere behind the sea. Darkness isn't far away. It is a matter of few moments. Life has brought me here at a new pedestal in haste. Just as the evening sets in every passing minute, autumn seems to have set in life. The process of detachment has begun. All this while I thought I was in consistent never ending attachment. Now, I remain in waiting for the tide of time to return.

I stare at the melancholy around the sea. Strange shadows seem to be running on these boulders where I sit. In search of a soul. The lost soul of the body. Perhaps, I see my own reflection. My eyes cannot match the pace of the running shadows. I float effortlessly like a bird lost in the vast skyline of desire!

It is an unannounced journey far away from home. In an unknown land of dreams two hours away from the land of reality where I remained in exile all these last twenty two years. In exile, every shelter is home. I remain in exile, at home!

The separation has left me sleepless. I am like a wandering shadow in love. Shadows have a short life span. They die much before an opportunity to clench hands of the beloved till eternity. Shadow is dead before turning at the fork on the road. The fork for which I waited has disappeared in a sweet fragrance. A girl named love is lost. Lost she is. Before those hands could meet to rest forever in union!

Those eyes understand love. The echoes of my silent heart reflecting in them. Her face like a fairy. Smile as a tender flower. I wonder how many rebirths will it take to find my lost beloved?

The lifeless shell on the sea shore shook me from this solitude! Only to become a catalyst in itself!

I want to turn the wheels of time. And, scream before the world, to get me the one who is lost. The one who let me drown in the depth of the sparkling eyes of faith. The kohl eyes!

Like that poet who is a phoenix writing his last song longing for love before being consumed by the flames of his own fire! I see my own reflection in the phoenix.

In such times when I weep for the lost beloved through the gloomy night, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, the phoenix above, gives me solace.  

In the 'Pinch of Separation' (translation into English of the song 'Maae Nii Maae') he says:

My songs are like eyes
That sting with the grains of separation.
In the middle of the night ,
They wake and weep for dead friends.
Mother, I cannot sleep!

Soaked in perfume,
But the pain does not recede.
I foment them
With warm sighs,
Yet they turn on me ferociously.

And need guidance myself.
Who can advise him?
Mother, would you tell him,
To clench his lips when he weeps,
Or the world will hear him cry.

Tell him, mother, to swallow the bread
Of separation.
He is fated to mourn.
Tell him to lick the salty dew
On the roses of sorrow,
And stay strong.

Who are the snake handlers
From whom I can get another skin?
Give me a cover for myself.
How can I wait like a jogi
At the doorstep of these people
Greedy for gold?

Listen, o my pain,
Love is that butterfly
Which is pinned forever to a stake.
Love is that bee,
From whom desire,
Stays miles away.

Love is that palace
Where nothing lives
Except for the birds.
Love is that hearth
Where the colored bed of fulfillment,
Is never laid.

Mother, tell him not to
Call out the name of his dead friends
So loudly in the middle of the night.
When I am gone, I fear
That this malicious world,
Will say that my songs were evil.

Mother, o mother
My songs are like eyes
That sting with the grains of separation.
In the middle of the night ,
They wake and weep for dead friends.
Mother, I cannot sleep!