NAGPUR/NEW DELHI — A series of lapses by state broadcaster Doordarshan and the Chhattisgarh police, and a callous disregard for safety, resulted in the death of cameraman Achutyanand Sahu in an ambush in Bastar — one of India's most dangerous conflict theatres, HuffPost India has learnt.
Doordarshan management, the Chhattisgarh Police, and Information and Broadcasting Minister, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, have hailed the slain journalist as a martyr to deflect any criticism of their role in his death, but a review the events of October 30 reveal Sahu's death was avoidable.
Tellingly, Sahu is the first journalist to be killed in an ambush in Chhattisgarh since the Maoists set up base in Bastar in the 1970s.
HuffPost India spoke to policemen, intelligence agents, troopers with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and senior Doordarshan management to establish a pattern of complete disregard for even basic safety procedures.
Abhishekh Pallava, Dantewada's Superintendent of Police, justified not following Standard Operating Procedures on the grounds that these procedures were meant for Kashmir, and not Chhattisgarh — where the conflict has claimed almost 8,000 lives since 2005.
The three-man Doordarshan crew had no hostile environment training, no safety equipment like bulletproof jackets or helmets, and no prior experience of reporting Chhattisgarh, Doordarshan CEO Shashi Vempati told HuffPost India, claiming that the conflict in Chhattisgarh was "irrelevant" to the reporting assignment — which was elections.
The journalists were sent into a sensitive area, with known Maoist presence, with a team of just 10 policemen astride motorcycles, presenting a clear and visible target. Senior members of the CRPF's elite CoBRA unit have along criticised the Chhattisgarh police's tendency to travel on motorcycles in Maoist areas.
"You are a sitting duck on a motorcycle," a senior CoBRA member said. "Your hands are occupied, you can't shoot."
Security was so lax that even the policemen accompanying the journalists did not wear bulletproof jackets — a clear violation of standard operating procedures, Abhishekh Pallava, Dantewada's Superintendent of Police admitted in an interview with HuffPost India.
While the road traversed by the journalists passes by a series CRPF camps, a senior CRPF officer confirmed that the Chhattisgarh police did not inform the CRPF that they were sending a team of policemen and journalists into the area.
On October 30 2018, the Doordarshan crew set off for Nilawaya village on the Samel-Aranpur route to showcase how a voting booth would be set up near Nilawaya for the first time since the Salva Judum in 2005, an intelligence operative told HuffPost India.
"Till recently, Nilawaya was a completely Maoist-run village, we have only just won it back," the operative said, adding that the village was still considered very sensitive. While some media reports state the journalists were reporting on road-building works along the Aranpur-Jagargunda axis, the operative disputed that, noting that road construction work was occurring a few kilometres beyond Nilawaya.
The three journalists, including Sahu, were accompanied by 10 policemen provided by Pallava, the SP of Dantewada. The party of 13 was astride 7 motorcycles. None of the men wore bulletproof jackets.
"BP jackets should be used but even our people were not wearing it that day," SP Pallava admitted. "We should use it; the SOP says so." Pallava justified not following the Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP, by claiming, "This SOP is for J&K. Because there the jihadis can fire on anybody."
345 people have died in the Maoist insurgency this year, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, including 89 civilians and 64 security troopers. In Kashmir by comparison, 68 civilians and 75 troopers have been killed.
The journalists and policemen stopped a few times on the way to take selfies and upload them to Facebook — a textbook error of telegraphing their location, making it easy for the Maoists to track them.
SP Pallava told HuffPost India he sent only 10 policemen with the journalists, because the CRPF had already deployed companies in the area. His policemen, he said, were overwhelmed by 300 armed Maoists.
CRPF officers said Pallava had not informed them that his policemen would be in the area, and said it was very unlikely that 300 Maoists had participated in the attack. "We had companies operating in the area, we would have known if there were 300 people assembling with guns, in an open field," the CRPF officer said.
An elite CoBRA operative was particularly incensed by the fact that the men were on motorcycles. "We have raised this issue multiple times," he said. "On motorcycle, you present a clear and visible profile for a shooter even at a distance."
Doordarshan's top executive Shashi S. Vempati, the chief executive officer of Prasar Bharati told HuffPost India that the state broadcaster did not provide any conflict training, safety equipment, or safe operation guidelines to their reporters before embedding them with a police unit in Chhattisgarh.
In an interview with HuffPost India, Vempati — who describes himself as a "Technocrat, Innovator and Commentator", but telling not as a "journalist" — revealed how the senior management of India's state broadcaster has little sense of the daily risks undertaken by journalists as they go about their duties.
Vempati said that he was not aware whether Doordarshan had any training program for reporters who were deployed in conflict zones.
When asked how Doordarshan prepares journalists going into conflict zones, Vempati said, "Normally the crew go by the advice of the specific authorities," he said.
Journalists, he said, are advised by Doordarshan to follow the advice of the relevant authorities.
In this case, Vempati said the authority was the "CRPF," but he was not aware whether the CRPF had advised the embedded journalists on how to proceed in a conflict zone, or whether journalists had heeded the advice of the CRPF or ignored it.
A senior CRPF officer confirmed that they had no idea that the journalists were in the area.
When asked whether Doordarshan has training program for journalists going into conflict, Vempati said, "I will have to get back to you on it."
On why the three journalists were sent into a conflict zone without any kind of training, Vempati said that journalists were sent to cover an election, and not the conflict.
Describing the conflict as "irrelevant" in this specific case, he said, "In this case, they went for election coverage."