It is equally difficult to report on Maoist excesses, like killings of suspected police informers. The rebels have a tightly controlled party line, and the leadership engages with the media on its own terms, restricting travel in villages under their control. On June 1, the party wrote an open letter arguing that the concept of neutrality does not hold in a class war. “The rebels believe that a journalist is either a voice of the oppressive state, or of the poor, whom the Maoists represent,” Ravi said. “I believe that it is my job to report on all sides. But that is unacceptable to them.”

In this climate, some journalists have paid a heavy price. In the middle of 2005, troops and a vigilante group began deploying scorched-earth tactics, burning more than six hundred Adivasi villages in hopes of rooting out the guerrillas. The campaign went largely unreported in Chhattisgarh’s media. That September, Kamlesh Painkra, an Adivasi journalist, wrote a story for his Hindi newspaper, Hindsatt, on how vigilantes had torched a village called Mankeli, forcing its residents to flee. The story attracted the attention of national civil rights groups that soon dispatched fact-finding missions.

Irate local officials repeatedly pressured Painkra to retract the piece. “The vigilantes would call me at night and detain me outside a makeshift center, where I could hear inmates being beaten and tortured,” Painkra said. When Painkra resisted, he said his newspaper’s owner was forced to fire him. He abandoned journalism, and works as a health educator for Doctors Without Borders. “It is very difficult to swear by concepts like justice and truth in one’s journalism,” said Painkra. “I could not do it.”

Mangal Kunjam is attempting to do so. The twenty-year-old idealistic newspaper reporter is an occasional contributor to Swara, and a rare Adivasi journalist in the state’s mainstream media. His knowledge of the local geography, and of the Adivasi language and culture, has helped him cultivate a network of sources in the villages, though not without risk. “The police have told me that if I am ever reporting in a village where they happen to come on a search operation, it might be the end of me,” Kunjam told me. He said he carries on despite the intimidation because he feels educated Adivasis like him were duty-bound to report on his community’s problems.

Choudhary, CGNet Swara’s founder, acknowledged that given the current environment, the outlet offers only a small step toward democratizing the media for the Adivasis. “The big challenge remains: How do we reduce the power of money and increase the power of people in Chhattisgarh’s journalism?” 

 

Chitrangada Choudhury is a Fulbright-Nehru scholar at Columbia University, and a former reporter at the Hindustan Times. Her reporting on the civil war in Chhattisgarh won a 2010 Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize.