Thought Box

A Conversation With Freny Manecksha

A Conversation With Freny Manecksha

by Vinta Nanda September 8 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 19 mins, 20 secs

Freny Manecksha brings stories from Bastar and Kashmir in her latest book Flaming Forest Wounded Valley. She gets into a conversation with Vinta Nanda about her journey and observations about the struggles of the most ordinary people in India.

What happened when a siege was laid in Kashmir? Coils of razor wire were unrolled, creating martial units to be manned by security forces, and mobile phones and the Internet were cut off. How did communities withstand the months and months of shutdown? What happened when a beautiful and vast meadow where pastoral communities have taken their animals to graze for centuries, was leased out as an artillery firing ground? People lost their limbs, even their lives and watched in horror as a flock of sheep got blown up. Children cowered in classrooms as guns boomed and shells exploded in a firing exercise. How did people reclaim this ground?

How were Adivasis impacted when they were forced to leave the forest and ordered by the Chhattisgarh government to live in makeshift camps by the roadside or else be outlawed? Villages emptied out and there was massive displacement with the Salwa Judum unleashing unimaginable terror and violence on those who resisted. Sarkeguda was one such village but its inhabitants came back later to begin life afresh. How did the villagers react when seventeen of their people were killed one night in a field, under the open skies?

How did they successfully contest the official story of it being a gunfight against Maoists? By spirited protests and confidently affirming their truth in court.

Through stories of resilience, the book Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar and Kashmir, authored by Freny Manecksha, celebrates the idea that heroic deeds are performed by ordinary people.

Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai who began her journalism career working with the tabloid Blitz. She has also worked with The Times of India, Mid-Day and Indian Express. She left mainstream journalism after to pursue her areas of interest, which include development, gender and human rights. Travelling through the hinterlands of India including Uttar Pradesh, Marathwada, Bundelkhand and Odisha, she became interested in people’s struggles. For the past eleven years, she has travelled and written extensively from Kashmir and Chhattisgarh and has been published in Himal South Asian, The Wire and PARI. She is the author of Behold, I Shine Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children.

I get into a conversation with Freny about her travels and also share an excerpt from her book thereafter. Over to her then…  

You write, “My visits to Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Kashmir brought about a tectonic shift in my ways of seeing things. They set me on a learning course, and over the years, as I continued my journeys, I saw the horrific consequences of State repression in the name of ‘national interest’: death, dispossession and routine violation of human rights”. How revealing to you were these journeys and what made you decide to go?

I left mainstream journalism in 2004 and spent some years in travelling and writing reports about activities of civil society organizations.  I got an inkling on struggles of disadvantaged like the conditions of women manual scavengers in a UP district. Or “food security” for Musahars, a Dalit community, who literally live on edge of starvation. In 2010, after meeting up with M Suchitra a journalist from Kerala we travelled to Bastar, Chhattisgarh, where distressing accounts of the plight of Adivasis and land displacement were coming in.

We met with families squatting in the forests of Khammam in the adjoining district of Andhra. They told us they had been forced to flee their homes in Chhattisgarh, because of the Salwa Judum, a vigilantes force that had unleashed horrific violence against them. 

Later, I got the crucial understanding of why. It was the pursuit  of capital in the hinterlands of India with its eye on natural resources. Adivasis were literally sitting atop huge mineral wealth. At the behest of companies, with whom many Memoranda of Understanding had been drawn up,  a drive was initiated by the state to drive Adivasis out of their forest homes.  

The Raman Singh government set up Special Police officers of young Adivasis with an honorarium of Rs 1500 per month, gave them fire arms and the authority to go search out “Naxalite sympathizers” and deal with them. Others were told they could use their own axes, choppers and whatever they chose. These forces in conjunction with security forces perpetrated horrendous violence as they tried to force Adivasis out of the forest and into the resettlement camps. Some 650 villages emptied out and more than 60,000 suffered displacement.

In Kashmir, there were learnings of another kind, which I will answer in the subsequent question. 

Militarization, you learnt along the way, has an added dimension in Kashmir. Not only is it a deterrence against Pakistan in the territorial wars but it is also a weapon to quell Kashmiri dissidence and exercise control over the political aspirations of its people. Do elaborate on your view of the political aspirations of the people of Kashmir.

It is now 75 years since Independence and the creation of India and Pakistan. That is ample time to have gained critical perspective on colonialism, nation-states, on local histories that are at variance with these notions and affinities and to explore cultural links that transcend hard borders. The British left in a hurry, unmindful of the way lives would be so tragically disrupted and the violence that erupted as borders were drawn up.  The Kashmiris are among those who suffered the most, having to bear the brunt of all arbitrary decisions. They  were never consulted, not when the British “sold” the land to Gulab Singh of Jammu in 1846 with the Treaty of Amritsar. Nor when Maharaj Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of a predominantly Muslim population, hurriedly acceded to India in October 1947 when an army of North West tribals poured into the Valley at the request of Muslims of Poonch. The tribal outfits launched attacks in Baramulla. Military troops from India were flown in and it was the beginning of militarization in Kashmir and of conflict between the two nations.

Maharaja Hari Singh was replaced by Sheikh Abdullah, with whom Jawaharlal Nehru had a personal bond. From a podium in Lal Chowk, promises were made to the Kashmiri people that their political aspirations would be honoured but no referendum was ever held. Instead Kashmir became “contested territory”. As veteran BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead writes, “For both Pakistan and India the territorial claim to Kashmir has been central to their own concept of the nation _and the more that Kashmir became contested between these two regional rivals, the more difficult any compromise became.

“As  a consequence of its determination to hang on to Kashmir, Delhi chose not to accommodate Kashmiri nationalism but to smother it.”   

Political parties and institutions were repressed and people’s basic rights pushed aside. Both Kashmiri Muslims and for that matter Pandits too, were never ever brought into discussions on all the political decisions taken.

This became so starkly evident in 2019 when Article 320 was revoked. Curfew was imposed and all forms of communication severed a few hours before the announcement. People learnt of their fate and their homeland through  Amit Shah’s speech in Parliament. A young Kashmiri woman wrote poignantly of how she  huddled around a TV screen near the departure gate of Srinagar airport and went from uncertainty to the full horror of knowing. 

Even as history is bypassed so is the geography of Kashmir ignored. The landscape and Central Asian influences are clearly manifested in its culture. The Sufi shrine of the Khanqah-e-Moula in the heart of Srinagar is in the shape of a pagoda  and does not have the dome as a roof. It was built in honour of Mir Sayyid Hamdani, an Islamic preacher from Uzbekistan who is credited with bringing also the art of carpet weaving. These cultural affinities are overlooked as an imaginary of a “swarg” minus the local people is  constructed for vast sections of India.    

A Gujjar shepherd, who had been badly tortured in the nineties by armed forces on suspicion of showing militants the way across the borders, told me he had freely roamed the hills and valleys with his flock. “Then they began putting up fences and told me I had no right to be wandering  in what was our own land.”    

I have often had to reflect on borders, these memories of a people, their own desires  and how it shapes their politics. 

The seedling for your book, you say, comes from something said by a lawyer in Mumbai. You recall him saying that as middle-class urban Indians we were insulated from violence and have very little inkling of how life can be in other places. He was talking about an incident in which seventeen Adivasis were shot one night as they sat in their fields discussing the impending celebrations for Beej Pandum (a festival before the sowing of seeds). Do tell us more of what you learnt?

That particular incident was the Sarkeguda encounter, which occurred on 29 June 2012. The news agency PTI and other news outlets carried the official statement that Maoists had been killed in the forests of Silger and that it was a moment of triumph for the Central Reserve Police Force. But the villagers of Sarkeguda disputed this the very next day. They said that 17 people from various hamlets were sitting that night to discuss when to hold the sowing ceremony. The CRPF and police forces came upon them and opened fire even though they shouted out they were unarmed. Among those killed were also minors - young boys and a girl. The next day another villager was clobbered to death in cold blood when he tried to step out of his home.

Questions about this fake encounter were first raised by Adivasi leader Manish Kunjum of the CPI and the state Congress party joined him and disputed the UPA’s home minister P Chidambaram’s statement that they were Maoists. Under pressure, the Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh announced a one man commission. I attended some of these hearings in Jagdalpur and elsewhere. It was a revelation. I saw challenges Adivasis and marginalized communities face in pursuing justice, of how they are routinely treated with suspicion as “Maoist sympathizers” and how they were told their testimonies could not be relied upon.

Later, Kamla Kaka, Ratna and Rita, three women who had spearheaded the fight for justice explained their concept of justice. It was not about who actually fired the bullets but of how they wanted the state to be made accountable. They want the security forces to stop repression on all Adivasis. “Sab ke liye insaaf chhaiye.” (We want justice for all).

The judge concluded that the villagers’ version was truth. There had been unwarranted and unilateral firing on the 17 killed who were unarmed and had been sitting in an open space in their own village and not in the forest, as the official version claimed.

Despite this path-breaking verdict, which held security forces guilty, the ground reality has not changed. The dangerousness of routine life for the Adivasi continues.  

You explore how indigenous peoples live in harmony with the trees, waterbodies and earth. You ask the following questions with regard to this fact: What happens to this construct when Adivasis are ordered to leave the forests they have lived in all their lives and are ‘settled’ in makeshift camps by the side of busy roads? How does that impact their right to life? It’ll be interesting to know your thoughts on this.

What is truly striking about the Adivasi vision of life is what a development practitioner, Arunopol Seal, calls the “ethics of reciprocity.” There are strict guidelines on optimization of resource usage through an ethical code. So if a cow is nursing a calf, they will not use its milk for their needs. When crops are harvested some of it is left for the birds. Mangos and fruits will be picked only after it is determined whether seeds are mature for regeneration. Most importantly, there are no circuits of capital so timber is not accorded higher exchange value. Seeds, flowers, the bark and even insects have their own worth, which is why trees are never relentlessly cut or the forest exploited for commercial use.

When Adivasis come head on with the state’s own notions of development, cutting down thousands of trees for widening roads, mining and ravaging the earth, there is bound to be clash of civilizations. The Adivasi is displaced, his means of livelihood and survival is gone. Struggles are taking place in Chhattisgarh against this destruction of a way of life. Akash Poyam, an Adivasi writer and journalist, has narrated how his grandmother’s village was acquired for coal mines by fraudulent means. Settlers’ children got education, jobs, control of land. Adivasis got meagre compensation and now work on their own ancestral land as labourers or servants. Soni Sori, the Adivasi activist told me that with the current model of education, children look down on their parents’ sustainable way of life and opt to become a chaprassi or peon in a government office.

You write about what happened in Srinagar’s Nawakadal gun battle when houses were destroyed in 2020 and how a community initiative managed to raise funds to rebuild them. It’s interesting to note how you saw light emerge from the darkness. Will you tell us more about what had happened and how the common people there rebuilt their lives? Also more stories of resilience that you encountered?

I have said this before but will emphasize again how both Kashmiris and Adivasis have a very strong sense of community and how it is this, perhaps, that enables them to sustain when under siege. This is despite the way the Indian State has deployed sections  of them in counter insurgency forces and thereby fractured families and society. There are examples in the book but let me recount  what is, for me, the most vivid example. I was in Srinagar in 2014 when the Jhelum burst its banks and a massive flood or sehlab occurred. I had to vacate a log-hut near the Nigeen lake hurriedly and was then told to vacate from a place where I had temporarily been given shelter. A woman, a total stranger offered me her home and said we could share whatever was in our fate. Volunteers went out every day in a boat or then improvised rafts to rescue people. Community kitchens were set up, people came in from Ganderbal bringing in supplies of grain and fresh vegetables.  This is the key to resilience. The concept of collective sharing, whether it is suffering or joy.

In the chapter Siege you have written how the journalists managed to reach out to the rest of the world during the extended lockdown period post the abrogation or Article 370 on 5th August 2019. As a journalist yourself, how would you explain the commitment journalists’ make to reach information to people at large when pitted against all odds?

As a fellow journalist I can’t even imagine the ordeal of  what it must have felt to be desperately seeking ways to tell your story, to put it out there and been frustrated by the physical road blocks that prevented movement, curfew, the internet shutdown and then of course the lack of important triangulation - of seeking verification from the authorities themselves. “We were living this siege, not just having to report it,” as one journalist wrote subsequently.

What is also remarkable is how independent journalists still felt compelled to document, to record, to film, to capture  images or then make their notes, with the mission of bearing witness. They owed it, they said, to the Kashmiri people to listen and record the narratives and then tell the world. “It was a cat and mouse game,” said one photo journalist as he spoke of the way cameras were hidden in vegetable bags. Data was collected in a pen drive and taken to New Delhi to file away or upload.

Even when the Internet was partially restored, the pathetically slow speed made it a nightmare for reporters to communicate. For some time journalists were allowed to access the Internet only at the official media centre. That meant if an editor sought clarifications or additional details, the reporter was forced to make three or four trips over two days. It says so much of their persistence and dedication that they continued to do so.

Today the Internet is restored and there is no siege but there is an “enforced silence” with the introduction of the new media policy that prohibits reporting on encounters, on killings, protests or anything that can be seen as detrimental to national security. Surveillance is heightened especially for social media. There have been several arrests of young journalists. A number of cases have been registered.

Some journalists have been put on an arbitrary, no fly list. They cannot leave the country and go abroad for reporting, to receive an award or attend a function. When they go through immigration they are told simply they cannot fly and the ironic “Without prejudice” is stamped across the passport. This is a deliberate denial of right to livelihood.

Mainstream regional papers carry little other than government handouts or “positive” news. Indeed many copy editors and reporters have been replaced by staff from the I&B ministry, according to one source. International organizations like Committee to Protect Journalists have publicly expressed their concern.  


Anatomy of Human Destructiveness: Life and Death of Young Arjun

Even as Soni was offering the tricolour to Lakshmi, a particularly brutal extrajudicial killing was taking place around the same time in another part of Bastar. The killing of young Arjun would be a horrifying example of the way the State flaunts its ability to intimidate, imprison and finally murder an Adivasi youth with impunity. It would also serve as an example of how the State manufactures dominating narratives that muffle the truths of suffering people and communities in resistance.

The German philosopher and writer, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote, ‘State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly, it tells lies, too; and this lie grows out of its mouth: “I, the State, am the people”.’

Legal luminary Upendra Baxi uses this quote to illustrate how the politics of dominance thrives because the government continues to nurture a monopoly on determining what is the public interest and the common good. Increasingly too, there are many attempts to do politics over human rights and discredit those who champion it. One such manipulation by the government, to insinuate what is ‘good’ for the people, came in November 2021. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) held a debate at an official function in November 2021 with the subject: ‘Are human rights a stumbling block in fighting evils like terrorism and Naxalism?’ The NHRC Chairman, Justice Arun Mishra, a former Chief Justice of India, was present at the function.  

Human rights activists and civil society have to constantly find ways of articulation against this singular voice of authority. In Chhattisgarh it was trade union worker, lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj (jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case), who has contested official narratives.

Bharadwaj, who took up the cause of workers and Adivasis who were being branded and killed under the pretext of tackling Naxalism, wrote: ‘I could only grasp the enormity of the information blackout - the silence, half-truths and sheer lies - call it the “wall of silence” that exists between Bastar and the rest of Chhattisgarh, when as an active member of the Chhattisgarh PUCL [Peoples Union of Civil Liberties] I joined several fact-finding teams to investigate fake encounters.’

In the Golapalli incident, the shiksha karmis and students killed allegedly in ‘Naxali cross-firing’ had actually been murdered by the police and security forces even after they repeatedly asserted their identity. In Narayanpur the ‘dreaded Naxalites’ turned out to be Adivasis who had returned to their ancestral villages in search of work.

Bharadwaj observes how in the media, one saw repeatedly ‘a total silence about ordinary people on the one hand and cymbal-clashing war cries against Maoists, always pictured as AK-47-toting, with sinisterly covered faces, on the other.

‘Each time we uncovered the truth, which, mind you, was absolutely self-evident to the local people and tried to cross the wall, it was buried again under a heap of papers, false statements, half-hearted enquiries, politically loaded commentaries and the inevitable conclusions justifying the atrocities.’

I remembered these words as I read up the file and timeline on Arjun Kashyap’s case. Time and time again, various levels of falsehoods were being peddled as official truths, with absolutely no regard for the law. I had first learnt of this minor Adivasi’s detention in jail and then his transfer to a juvenile home by another journalist. She had gone to Bastar and reported on the efforts of a legal aid team to get bail. She called me in utter shock some months later, to tell me she had learnt he had been killed in a patently fake encounter.

It was through this journalist that I came to learn more about the legal team who were defending Arjun, before he was picked up and mercilessly shot. Known as the JagLAG (Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group), it comprised a group of lawyers who offered free legal services for the Adivasis of Bastar and was set up in 2013.

Shalini Gera, who has remained in Chhattisgarh since the inception of JagLAG, told me how the impetus to work out of Jagdalpur in Bastar came after Soni’s arrest and the custodial violence meted out to her had made national and international news.

Gera had been working as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry in the Bay Area in California and had lived in the USA for twenty years. She holds a PhD in neuroscience besides an MSc in mathematics. But as she laughingly told me, ‘None of this is relevant to my current work.’ Her LLB from Delhi University is all that matters, she added.

Explaining her decision to explore avenues in social justice and her radical switch in career, lifestyle and change of country, she said she was increasingly restless in the USA. ‘Call me a bhatakti atma’, that ‘wandering soul’, was how she put it.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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