No one expects helicopter chases in real life. But for the six members of a fact-finding team from the Human Rights Lawyers Network (HRLN) who arrived in Jharkhand to investigate the impact of Operation Green Hunt on the lives of tribals, the prospect didn’t seem all that fantastic. They were, after all, in the heart of the jungles of Ghatshila, a highly sensitive area bordering West Bengal’s reddest region. Worse, they were gate-crashing a combing operation by paramilitary forces. Indian Air Force helicopters flying overhead were not unexpected. By then, of course, reality for the team (HRLN is a collective of lawyers and social activists from across India who fight legal cases free of cost for citizens whose rights have been denied or violated) had assumed suspense thriller proportions.
Gathering information in a combat zone is a logistical and emotional nightmare. The black and white logic of people holding guns leaves little room for negotiation for those caught in between. There are no guarantees. And paranoia becomes a constant state of mind.
“We made an assessment of the situation before we set out from Delhi. We kept a low profile right from the start. One strong suggestion was to take a big team. We decided on what the publicly stated purpose of the fact finding would be, what roles would be assigned to each, the format of questions, what risks to take and not,” says Aparna Dwivedi, head of the team. “We didn’t inform the local media that such an exercise was being undertaken, and we didn’t go to the administration for security.”
There is no getting away from the secrecy and strategising that goes into what should be, in a democracy, routine and necessary—talking to people about their fundamental rights. But information is handled as if it were an explosive device. No one wants to be caught sharing it.
So what does it take to gain access to interior villages in districts declared ‘Maoist affected’? And what does it take to win the trust of tribals and convince them to share their stories?
What doesn’t take much, though, is to be branded a ‘Maoist sympathiser’. Another six-member team from the Central Democratic Rights Organisation, which was in Jharkhand the same week on a similar fact-finding mission, had been arrested and later released by the police. To escape the Government’s Emergency-like measures, then, there are rules to be followed on information seeking and sharing, especially when the itinerary shows a distinct preference for districts where Operation Green Hunt is underway.
Within two days of arrival, two members of the team began to wonder if their mobile phones were being tapped. “We had a doubt about our phones being tapped; there was an echoing of the voice. Of course, I cannot be 100 per cent sure that they were indeed being tapped,” says Ahmed Raza, a lawyer at the Jharkhand High Court and member of the team.
But they are pretty certain of the surveillance machinery kicking in quickly. So words such as ‘Maoists’, ‘Operation Green Hunt’, ‘CRPF’ and ‘Naxalites’ disappeared from phone conversations. There is no telling what can be construed as ‘intellectual support’. “There is only so much coordination we can do with local NGOs before we travel to a district,” says Aparna, “They always insist on meeting first and then talking.”
The team, of course, had to depend on local NGOs with a long history of working with tribals to gain access to villages. Without the goodwill that the local contact person brings, recording testimonies from tribals at such short notice would have been impossible. “Fortunately, we had a strong network of local social activists who have been working in those areas for 10-15 years,” says Sarita Bhoi, who heads the Dalit Rights Initiative at HRLN, “They would accompany us in our vehicle to the villages. Otherwise, there is no guarantee of our safety [either from armed rebels or the police].”
Even so, they would never spend more than an hour-and-a-half in a village. The trick is to get out before word spreads of their arrival. “For local NGOs, the risk of taking a team like ours cannot be overstated,” says Aparna, “After all, they are bringing in outsiders. They will be questioned by the locals on who we are. And by taking us, they also risk breaking the rapport that they might have built with the local administration, which will ultimately question them should something go wrong. The contact person also takes on the responsibility for the team’s security. Given such pressures, to accompany us on a risky mission takes a lot of courage.”
There have been times, adds Sarita, when almost no one has been willing to take the chance. “Once, I called 15 different people, and 14 refused to help us. When I get down to telling them the purpose of the fact finding, they prefer not to get involved.”
For the team, the choice of the local NGO determines the fate of the mission. Fortunately for the HRLN, through its local legal unit in Ranchi, it has built a network of like-minded NGOs that support each other. “The basic challenge, of course, is trying to zero in on NGOs that are working specifically on tribal rights,” says Karuna Dayal, who is part of the anti-trafficking initiative at HRLN, “Trying to identify key NGOs that can take us to targeted areas where Operation Green Hunt is underway was very difficult. On one hand, we had to convey to them what we were coming for. At the same time, we didn’t want to give away too much too quickly. To do that would be to put ourselves at risk.”
The decision to make travel plans on the go, adds Raza, worked to their advantage. The less reaction time people have, the better the chances of facts found.
Not that the team didn’t have any close encounters. On more than one occasion, police detention seemed imminent. Like in Chaibasa, a town in West Singhbum district, bordering West Bengal. The team was having dinner at a restaurant. As customers began to leave, their tables began to be occupied by men who they suspected were surveillance officers. “We were almost certain that the minute we got up to leave, we would be arrested,” says Sarita.
“It is not difficult to spot outsiders in a place like Chaibasa. And from our conversations and activities, if they get wind that we are from a human rights group, they become suspicious that we might be ‘pro-Naxal’,” Aparna says, adding, “Though they dress in civilian clothes, it is easy to identify them by their body language. They watch you. At restaurants, they’ll sit at a table not too far away so they can listen to your conversation.”
Sanjeev, their driver and guardian angel of sorts, was the last word on risk assessment. His local information network and 15 years of driving experience through the jungles of Jharkhand made him an invaluable asset. “Whenever a bus or truck passes by, drivers pass on information to each other,” confides Sanjeev, “We have our codes. And through our local network of drivers, we get to know if the area we are headed to is safe or if something is happening.” Driving to villages under the control of armed rebels, needless to say, is not good for business. “Every driver tries his best to avoid chance encounters with members of ‘the Party’ (Communist Party of India-Maoist).”
Sanjeev says he has come face-to-face with Maoists at least a dozen times. He recalls a time when he was driving back to Ranchi from Jamshedpur. “About 50 of them were crossing. The rule is to park on the side and wait for them to cross. Should you honk at them, that’s the end of you and your vehicle. ‘Lal salaam’ is their greeting code. And they have a slightly different handshake.”
Sanjeev, however, refuses to talk of the time that he and the person he was driving were kidnapped. “I have no tension with Party people. But the Party might have issues with people in the vehicle. The only person you can trust in these
situations is yourself. The Party moves in groups of 40-50 people. And there is no telling how a situation can go. And in the event of kidnap, whether you live or die depends on whether the government agrees to the Party’s demands,” he says.
For the HRLN team of lawyers and social activists—four of them are in their twenties—there was no way of preparing for moments when they thought the next bridge they crossed would blow up, or when they had to drive on tough terrain for an hour through pitch darkness in terror of guns going off. The emotional toll was heavy.
“Tackling differences and contradictions within the team was also a challenge,” recounts Sarita, “We all had our mood swings. It is frustrating when there is enthusiasm, sometimes over-enthusiasm, to explore further, but the risk was too much. There were days when we felt emotionally drained by the tension.”
Says Chandan Kumar, who is part of HRLN’s anti-trafficking initiative: “When I saw Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, I believed what happened in the movie was only possible in a different age. I don’t carry that illusion anymore. Hard as it might be to believe, there are people who are convinced that they can bring about a revolution... I met a young man who spent five days with us. The whole time, he wore one set of clothes. And he knew only one thing: that a revolution was going on and he had to join it.”