Chhattisgarh and the danger of dissent

Paramita Ghosh

If Ajay TG had been smart enough to know where to point his camera, his films might have been showing in Osian today. As it stands, he is in Durg jail, 40 km from Bhilai, where his uncle would sell tea and his father would sell chickens near the steel plant. He started making films 7-8 years ago, photographing, as he says, in a statement, “daily life, festivals and rituals of Durg and particularly my own neighborhood, an old village now surrounded by urban growth.” He would also make posters of poems and put them up in banks and other public places “to reach a wider public than that reached by poetry books.”

In Chhattisgarh, these are acts of terrorism.

This week, www.releaseajaytg.in, a website, was set up by a committee for his release. Playwright Habib Tanvir, activist Aruna Roy, professor Dr Kamal Chenoy, director ActionAid India, Harsh Mander, law expert Usha Ramanathan, journalist Siddharth Vardharajan, among others, are its members. Renowned film-maker Mrinal Sen who signed the petition condemning Ajay’s arrest, says: “I wish I was 30 years younger, so that I could have physically joined you all in this campaign.” “Chhattisgarh was always a peaceful place and it is a great shame that artists, film makers and journalists are being targeted in this state,” said Tanvir. “The voice of a creative person is being silenced again.”

There is a reason why Ajay TG’s story started moving in this direction.

His camera angles, to start with, were wrong. British photographer Margeret Dickinson who taught him the use of the camera, notes that, “even as a student, Ajay instinctively tended to opt for a non-authoritarian point of view when developing a film”. For example, when he made a short on malaria prevention, the story Ajay told was not from the point of view of a health campaigner but from that of village children confronted with a friend’s illness. This is a man who joins campaigns against child labour and has strong views on violence.

Ajay joined the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Bhilai, a leading civil rights organisation, as a voluntary member. Dr Binayak Sen, is its general secretary. Ajay starts making films on human-interest stories: on old-age homes, health, the politics of power in two adivasi melas. He also makes a film on Binayak Sen.

Are these crimes?

National Award winning cinematographer Rajan Palit asks whether the decision to investigate state terrorism creatively is enough to be branded a Maoist. “For the last 20 years, even civil society efforts in Chhattisgarh to protect land, water, culture and livelihood have been attacked,” agrees film-maker maker Amar Kanwar, who put together the committee for the film-maker’s release. “The message the police is sending out is — if you see something wrong with the system, do not make films about it. They are making sure, what people see, are not told.”

The objective of Ajay TG’s arrest is not Ajay TG. It is to tell everybody else that if you film and if you write, this is what will happen to you. It is to tell the local journalist, the local film-maker and the local poet to look elsewhere and clear out of the way.

paramitaghosh@hindustantimes.com

(This report was filed in Hindustan Times, 20th July. After 93 days in jail, film-maker Ajay TG who was released from Durg jail late Tuesday (August 5) evening, begins a life outside it – under constant watch.)

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