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Chhattisgarh and the danger of dissent

Hindustan Times, July 20, 2008

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.

Having started making films 7-8 years ago, he would capture “daily life, festivals and rituals of Durg”, and particularly, says Ajay, in a statement, “my own neighborhood — an old village now surrounded by urban growth.” In Chattisgarh though, these are acts of terrorism.

This week,, a website was set up by a committee for his release. Playwright Habib Tanvir, activist Aruna Roy, professor Dr Kamal Chenoy, ex-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.”

Tanvir says, “Chattisgarh was always a peaceful place. It is a great shame that artists, film makers and journalists are being targeted in this state.”

British film-maker Margeret Dickinson who taught Ajay 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 film on malaria prevention, Ajay told the story from the point of view of village children confronted with a
friend’s illness.

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

Are these crimes? National Award winning cinematographer Rajan Palit asks whether the decision to investigate state repression 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,” says 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.”

Implying then that the objective of Ajay TG’s arrest is to tell the local journalist, the local film-maker and the local poet to look elsewhere and not come in the way.