Dantewada: As Chhattisgarh heads towards Assembly elections, the conflict between the state and the Maoists in their strongholds of Bastar division — particularly in Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma — has spiked.
On Tuesday, a police party accompanying a team of three Doordarshan journalists came under Maoist ambush in Nilawaya forests in the Aranpur police station limits of Dantewada district.
Doordarshan cameraman Achyutananda Sahu, sub-inspector Rudra Pratap Singh and assistant constable Mangal Ram were killed in the crossfire. Two other constables and a DD reporter were injured in the attack that seemed like a pre-planned operation in which over 100 armed Maoists took part. They even threw grenades at the troops but those did not burst. They were forced to retreat once the reinforcements arrived. The road on which the police team was attacked was under construction and motorable only by a two-wheeler.
Inspector General of Police Vivekanand Sinha said that one AK-47 rifle and a walkie-talkie set were missing from the scene of attack.
This was a rare incident in which a journalist was killed in a direct Maoist attack. The trend in Bastar region till now had been that journalists face the ire of the police and the administration for reporting on tribal concerns against mining and deforestation activities, which align with the Maoist propaganda.
Special Director General of Police (anti-Naxal operations) DM Awasthi said in a press conference after the incident that the encounter between the security forces and the Maoists lasted for around 50 minutes and was not related to upcoming elections. He said it was a planned ambush conducted after a Maoist warning against continuation of road construction in Aranpur.
While increased deployment of forces and frequent operations have pushed the Maoists deeper in the forests across Bastar division, Aranpur — which is around 60 km from Dantewada and only about 14 km from Jagargonda — remains one of the sectors where Maoist activity has been at its peak. Traveling to Jagargonda from Aranpur requires a detour of 172 km via Sukma and Dornapal as the stretch between the two villages has been mined by the Maoists.
This election would be the first time when Nilawaya village would have a polling station in two decades because the last time villagers here voted was in 1998. Stories of such villages, which polled zero votes in past and are witnessing a concentrated effort to motivate the tribal population to vote, are being covered by journalists this season. Before the Doordarshan crew reached Dantewada, Tanima Biswas reported from the region for Mirror Now about villages where polling booths are to be set up for the first time.
Local scribes said that the Maoists must have observed a pattern of movement to Nilawaya as efforts were being made to spread awareness and get media coverage of the democratic push in the Maoist-infested belt, where painted messages and pamphlets circulated by the Maoists have been calling for boycott of elections.
The three Doordarshan journalists were reportedly travelling ahead of the police party of about 40 personnel on a motorcycle. DD cameraman Sahu was on a motorcycle with SI Rudra Pratap at the front and the first bullet hit him, police sources said.
Sahu’s last post on Facebook was a collage of photos/videos showing the beauty of Bastar region from his ‘election yatra’, but only hours later, he was shot down while shooting the developmental works being taken up in the Aranpur area. Messages of condolence started trickling down on Sahu’s post by Tuesday afternoon.
The Bastar division in Chhattisgarh, which comprises seven administrative districts of Kanker, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Bijapur, Dantewada, Bastar and Sukma, has been a perilous ground for journalists, with many facing the state authorities’ ire for reporting Maoists’ side of the story and being branded Maoists themselves. The risk involved in working from the region has forced many to leave the state. But this is the first incident when journalists have come under direct attack by Maoists.
Earlier this month, journalists Kamal Shukla and a cameraman who were accompanying Pulitzer fellow Siddharthya Roy (who covers South Asian affairs for The Diplomat) on a reporting assignment in Narayanpur district were detained by the CRPF at their Kurusnar camp. They had entered the tribal areas from Kokrajhore police limits and had spent a night inside the forests due to poor connectivity and ongoing tribal festivities, according to Roy. The journalists were questioned for eight hours and their tapes copied by the troops before they were released.
With inputs from Shankar Sukma, Rishi Bhatnagar and Hitesh Sharma
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