|Three years is a short time in the history of a three decade long extremist movement. But if television appearances are a barometer of success, from near anonymity in 2007 to steady fame in 2010, the Maoists have finally arrived.
Compare Tuesday's attack that left 75 CRPF men dead in Dantewada, to another one that took place almost exactly three years ago, in the month of March, in the same district. It was again staged in the early hours of the morning. The location was a girls hostel in Rani Bodli that doubled up as barracks for policemen. Maoist guerillas surrounded the building, opened fire, hurled grenades, lobbed petrol bombs, setting the building on fire. The policemen had even less ammunition than the central forces. They stood no chance. Those who survived the fire fell for the bullets. At final count, 55 police men were dead.
"Horrifying photographs of the burned, disembowelled bodies of the policemen amidst the ruins of the blown-up school building" describes Arundhati Roy, in her essay published in a news magazine last month. The SP of Dantewada showed her the pictures of the Rani Bodli attack. Roy writes, "They were so macabre, it was impossible not to look away".
But most people did not have to look away; the pictures of the Rani Bodli attack barely found space in the media. Television channels did not fly down reporters. Broadcast vans were not rushed in. The attack was not the subject of prime time debates. It managed to get just about a minute on Nine pm news. Newsroom apathy was understandable: naxalism was an obscure concept, the conflict was taking place in a jungle in a 'remote region', the people dying were tribals or cops, both were poor or nameless, neither influenced rating points.
Something changed that last year. The Maoists came 170 kilometres close to Kolkata, to a place coincidentally but rather appropriately called Lalgarh. 'Red versus Red' said the catchy headline. Adivasis with bows and arrows setting ablaze the homes of CPM workers made for good images. West Bengal's high voltage politics, a hyper articulate and argumentative intelligentsia, high density journalism ensured Lalgarh stayed in focus. And a hooded figure called Kishenji who gave interviews and took phone calls, suddenly made naxalism look more real, more threatening, more of a national concern. Never mind that Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa had been in the grip of more intense conflict for much longer.
Ever since Lalgarh catapulted naxals into TV headlines, every tiny bit of news on them is now tracked with breathless urgency. Every train derailment, kidnap, or strike is reported with zeal, reporters are rushed to the spot, at least the spots they can rush to. Sadly, much of the area witnessing naxal conflict remains unmanned and underreported. Most national television channels have a dozen reporters in the city of Mumbai, but none in Chhattisgarh.
As Tuesday's attack showed it is possible to fly down central forces in Dantewada but they cannot work without local intelligence. Quite the same way, a journalist travelling from the cities to regions of naxal conflict faces serious limitations. If the absence of terrain knowledge makes access difficult, not understanding local languages inhibits direct communication with people. Add to this, the usual perils of reporting from a high strung conflict zone, the agendas, the misinformation. Good judgement can ensure not falling prey to propaganda, seeing through the filters, but good reportage can come only through a long term, steady engagement. But how is that possible, if the only time Dantewada finds space in the news is when it explodes with an attack?