War and Peace in the Western Ghats


(This post from mohana sundaramʹs Facebook Time Line)

Reposting this because ʹWar and Peace in Junglemahalʹ recently managed to summon Tolstoyʹs ghost via the court and the media...
In this essay, Gauri Lankesh refers to a Naxal-State peace initiative she had led: "It was as if in death, Saketh had begun to shine as the new star on the Karnataka sky," Gauri Lankesh (ʹTehelkaʹ, March 5, 2005) writes on Saketh Rajan ʹSakiʹ, peopleʹs historian of Karnataka and insurgent anthropologist of the Western Ghats, who was killed by government forces in the forested hills of the Malnad region. "The mapping of the intellectual and activist in one person has stirred the hope and imagination of a people who looked in vain for some ideal. That such a man had been brutally felled by the police created a sympathy wave for the Naxal cause. It was then that the police panicked...
I knew Saketh when he was my senior at Bangalore University and also at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. He went underground sometime later..."
Lankesh then goes on to narrate her struggle against the Stateʹs assaults on democratic space in the aftermath of Sakiʹs killing and how she was ousted from the editorship of ʹLankesh Patrikeʹ by her brother under Sanghi and police influence.
// The last two weeks have been the most traumatic in my life. At one go, these two weeks have shown how various forms of violence operate: the shrinking democratic space, the betrayal by the so-called mentors of our age, a government that has no control over the police and, above all, what domestic violence can do. Feminism declares: the personal is political. In my case, it has come true both literally and metaphorically. It all began with the killing of two Naxalites by the police in the Western Ghats on February 6. As news trickled in, it became clear that one of the Naxalites killed in the ʹencounterʹ was the CPI(Maoist) state secretary, Prem. But the fact that Prem was none other than Saketh Rajan shocked many. From the colleges of Mysore to Delhiʹs JNU campus, people started speaking of the intellectual brilliance of Saketh whom they had known nearly two decades ago before he went underground.
Even as the police gloated over the prize ʹcatchʹ, people from various fields mourned Sakethʹs demise. Above all, many spoke gloriously about the two books he had authored as ʹSakiʹ. The two volumes of ʹMaking Historyʹ are remarkable for looking at Karnatakaʹs history from ʹbelowʹ. In fact, some portions are prescribed texts at a couple of universities in the state. Even Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh said on record that he was ʹfeeling terrible that such a brilliant man had been killedʹ.

Saketh Rajan was underground for about two decades. It was as if in death, Saketh had begun to shine as the new star on the Karnataka sky. The mapping of the intellectual and activist in one person—a rare combination in the recent political culture of Karnataka—has stirred the hope and imagination of a people who looked in vain for some ideal. That such a man had been brutally felled by the police created a sympathy wave for the Naxal cause. It was then that the police panicked.
There is a personal touch to the story that follows. I knew Saketh when he was my senior at Bangalore University and also at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. He went underground sometime later.
After two decades, he resurfaced in June last year when I was one of the few handpicked journalists to attend the Naxalitesʹ first press conference in Karnataka. It was then that I met Saketh again (he had now taken the alias of Prem). The press meet shattered a few myths being spread by the police. For one, they were not Naxalites from Andhra Pradesh, but people born and brought up in Karnataka. Secondly, they were not some ragtag gang of "misguided youth", but a political party that had taken up the cause of Adivasis in the Kudremukh National Park. In their briefing, they said they were ready for talks, but would look forward to the government first meeting some demands of the Adivasis.
Soon after this press conference, the chief minister reacted positively saying the Naxal issue was not a law-and-order problem, but rather a socio-economic issue. It was in this background that the Citizenʹs Initiative for Peace (CIP) was formed. Our intention was to create a climate where the government and the Naxals could initiate talks in the larger context of the peopleʹs longstanding needs and development issues. The Adivasis had been fighting against their eviction in the name of a national park and for their traditional rights, but successive governments had not addressed their concerns.
While we appealed to the Naxals to lay down arms, we also appealed to the government to cease combing operations as the first step towards holding talks. We were worried that the police, who had killed two women Naxals in November 2003, would end up killing more. If that happened, there would certainly be a Naxal backlash. Sakethʹs death triggered what we had feared for so long.
Soon after Saketh and his colleague were killed, the CIP approached the government with some demands. We sought an inquiry into the ʹencounterʹ, appealed once again to stop combing operations, and demanded a second post-mortem according to NHRC guidelines and the Supreme Court ruling. Finally, we said, if no one claimed the bodies of Saketh and his colleague, we would give them a decent funeral.
Although the chief minister agreed to hand over the bodies to us, the police and the administration put up legal blocks. They said only the immediate kith and kin would be given the bodies. There was another problem: no one knew the young man who had been killed with Saketh. Some suspected it was Shivalingu from Bellary, and his parents had been sent word to come and identify him.
That was when Sakethʹs aged mother came into the picture. Only after I gave her the assurance that we would not take Sakethʹs remains to Mysore, she said the government should hand over his body to us. While the police assured her that the chief minister had agreed to hand over Sakethʹs body to us, they made her sign a letter saying the government should dispose off the body. On the basis of this letter, Karnataka DGP SN Borkar announced the police would themselves perform the last rites.
On television, Sakethʹs mother vented her fury against the police for deceiving her. She faxed a letter to the chief minister saying her sonʹs body should be given to the CIP. By then the second post-mortems had been completed and we were on our way to collect the bodies. It was then that we got word that the police had left with the bodies to an unknown destination. Some activists at the morgue were brutally beaten up when they tried to block police vehicles. We were told the police had taken them to the crematorium at Wilson Garden. We again got in touch with the chief minister, who in turn tried to get in touch with the DGP. When we reached the crematorium, we couldnʹt find them. We came to know that the bodies had been taken to a crematoria at the other end of town and that, finally, the police themselves had conducted the last rites.
This high drama showed that the chief minister had no control over his police force. And the specious excuse he gave was that there was a communication gap between him and the police chief. Imagine, communication gap in Bangalore that claims to be the technology capital.
In between, the police ensured that Shivalinguʹs poor and illiterate parents could not get in touch with us at all. To begin with, they were detained at a police station near Raichur and brought to Bangalore only at our insistence. They were kept at the police commissionerʹs office so that they could not get in touch with us. Even after the chief minister ordered that they should meet us, the police whisked them away to an unknown destination. To this day, no one knows where they are. And so no one knows for sure about the identity of Sakethʹs colleague killed with him in the encounter.
Though the CIP had tried to create an atmosphere for talks between the government and the Naxals, and had tried to ensure a decent burial for the slain, the Sangh Parivar started baying for our blood for ʹsupporting Naxalsʹ. Around the same time, the newspapers reported that the home department and the police were contemplating filing charges against us and would soon arrest us.
The Naxals retaliated by killing seven policemen in an attack on the Karnataka State Reserve Police near Pavagada on the Andhra border. This backlash created such a furore that soon everyone was demanding that we should be arrested.
We were flummoxed. To begin with, we never approved of or supported the Naxalitesʹ armed struggle. More importantly, whatever we did was within the bounds of law and in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution. And yet we were accused of being the main cause for the policemenʹs deaths.
My brother fell for the machinations of the police and the Sangh Parivar and used the opportunity to oust me from the editorship of ʹLankesh Patrikeʹ. When my father, the late P Lankesh, had started this weekly magazine, he did so to provide democratic space for the voiceless. Since its beginning in 1980, ʹLankesh Patrikeʹ has continued to fight vested interests and fascist forces. When my father passed away five years ago, the only reason we continued publication was to ensure that this democratic space was not blocked and his legacy stayed alive. That was when I took over as editor and the family nominated my brother as the owner and publisher.
But over the past couple of weeks, the pressure from the police and the Sangh Parivar was so much that my brother decided not to publish my editorial alleging it was pro-Naxal. The fact was that I had not yet written my piece! Anyway, what was clear was that my brother had used the prevalent turmoil to oust me so that he would gain total control. In another sense, it was also a move to silence me.
What happened to me could have been ignored as a dispute within a family. But it became apparent that the Pavagada killings had much wider ramifications. These breezy events over 10 days have shown how the State can clamp down on democratic space. The fear and suspicion remind one of the Emergency. As this piece is being written, university teachers are being quizzed for their views and activities. Phones are being tapped and policemen in mufti tail the dissenters. It is assumed that the Indian State is tolerant and democratic. But the limits of this democratic space comes to the fore only at moments of crisis such as this. It is in such moments that democratic voices need to stand firm because it is important to realise that democracy is more than votes and elections; itʹs a question of accommodating dissent. Questioning the State is an important aspect of this dissent that, we think, will help build a stronger democracy.

Keywords : saketh rajan, maoist, gouri lankesh. police, encounter
(2024-02-24 03:15:24)

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