In Bastar, a Journalist Is Caught in the Crossfire Between Police and Maoists

A phone call from police to Mangal Kunjam, informing him that he was on the Maoists' hit list, led to a chain of events he was no stranger to.

Mumbai: Around three weeks ago, 28-year-old Mangal Kunjam received a phone call from the local Kirandol police station in Dantewada, informing him that he is on the Maoists’ “hit list”.

For a reporter belonging to an Adivasi community and living in the conflict-stricken Bastar region, threat to life is not particularly new. But what felt strange, Kunjam says, is that soon afterwards, the banned Communist Party of India (Maoists) purportedly issued a letter claiming that he had never been on their hit list and that it is was, in fact, the state’s “conspiracy” to stop him and others like him from working freely in the region. 

Kunjam had received the call from D.K. Barua, a police inspector attached to Kirandul police station. Kunjam says Barua had informed him about a specific “intelligence input” claiming that the Maoists were looking for him and have been plotting to eliminate him. The reason behind their plans to find him were not known, the police official had told Kunjam.

“I was concerned as to how and why I became their (the Maoists’) target. But the police said no information was known,” he said. The Wire called up Barua and he confirmed that a call was indeed made and that they had received “specific inputs” about the threat to Kunjam’s life. 

Since the phone call, Kunjam has had to curtail his movement and one or more reporters have always offered to accompany him when he has set out for reporting work. 

“It is not easy to be a journalist in Bastar region,” Kunjam says. “More so when you are an Adivasi journalist,” he adds.

“You are looked at with suspicion by both the Maoists and the state. Your work is never looked at as independent of your identity and either way, you get branded as an ‘agent’ of both police and Maoists,”

The Darbha Division Committee of the CPI (Maoists) have denied the police allegations and in the handwritten press note issued early this month, the banned party has claimed that Kunjam was never in their list. “What do we benefit from killing a journalist like Kunjam?” the letter asks, further claiming that the police have intentionally stirred controversy in the region to pressurise and keep a close track on journalist movements. 

Letter issued by the Darbha Division Committee of CPI (Maoist).

Although the CPI (Maoists) have denied responsibility in Kunjam’s case, local journalists claim that at least 40 surrendered persons, especially those belonging to the party’s Sangam or cultural group in the past have been warned of dire consequences.  

So, what could have possibly put Kunjam in such a precarious spot? Kunjam says, it is a combination of both—his activism and critical reporting on corporate projects in the region.

Kunjam reports for a Raipur-based newspaper Tarun Chhattisgarh. Along with his reporting, Kunjam and other community leaders have been agitating against the iron ore mining project in Dantewada’s Bailadila hills for the past several years. Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL) had been given the contract to develop the mine in 2018 by NCL, a joint venture of National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) and Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC). The agitation began when BJP-led Raman Singh government was in power and has intensified in the years after the Congress was elected to power in the state. 

In June last year, following the villagers’ strong protests, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel ordered a sudden stop to all work related to iron ore mining in the area. But that protest did not sit well with the government and the mining company, Kunjam alleges.

Also read: In Setback to Adani, Chhattisgarh Govt Sends Notice to NCL Over Mine Allotment

He says that around July last year, he was informed by his police sources that plans were made to have him arrested in connection with the May, 2019 attack on a state police vehicle, which was allegedly plotted by Maoists. Seven state police personnel were killed in that improvised explosive device (IED) attack. 

“After every attack, the police arrest local Adivasi youths en masse. In at least 85% of the cases, these arrests are baseless and are meant to only settle a personal score. So, when I was informed I could be picked up next, I took the warning seriously,” Kunjam says. Kunjam had to go underground for a few months before other journalists in the district found out what had been happening and decided to intervene.   

During the BJP’s rule, arrests of journalists was a common occurrence. Chhattisgarh police, particularly in Bastar, would arrest and hound journalists who worked to expose police excess in the name of anti-Maoist operations. “The situation may have changed a bit since the Congress government came into power but the fear of being wrongly implicated in criminal cases still lingers,” Kunjam says. 

So does the intimidation and threats from Maoists. Along with Kunjam, another Zilla Parishad (ZP) member was also informed about the possible threat. Barua confirmed that he had made a similar call to the ZP member too.

Also read: Journalists in Bastar Are Still Waiting for Change

“The moment we are informed about any possible attack, we reach out to people. In the recent cases both Kunjam and the ZP member are active in their respective villages and are used to venturing into the deep woods for their work. It is important that they know that there is a potent threat to their lives,” Barua adds.

In July, this year, one NMDC Kirandul project employee Mithhu Markam was allegedly killed by the Dokapara rebels. Markam was called in to the Jan Adalat, a public court set up by the Maoists and killed after he was held “guilty” of being a police informer. A senior police officer said that Markam was not in contact with them and he was killed on the basis of baseless charges levelled by the Maoists. Barua added that had they had any intelligence input on Markam, they would have tried to save him too. “He did not come to us. We would have found ways to save him,” Barua claims. 

Stories of both wrongful arrests or Maoist attacks are very common in the villages of South Chhattisgarh. Kunjam says the profiles of those being targeted are very clear. “Both police and Maoists are focussing on our educated and assertive youths, who believe in the Constitution of India,” he adds.