Total Pageviews

Thursday 11 February 2016


Lance Naik Hanumanthappa of 19 Madras Regiment passed away this morning. In life, he allowed us to believe in miracles. In death, he became the symbol of sacrifice in Siachen. His rescue will go down as an incredible effort by soldiers, air warriors, engineers, mountaineers and doctors to save a man who had used his training & survival instincts to dodge death. It inspires hope even in tragedy and tremendous respect for every man or woman who has ever volunteered to serve on the Siachen glacier.

Soldiering in Siachen

Patrol at a forward post

We were lucky to have spent some time in the company of some of these men and women, way back in 2006. This was during our filming at the Siachen base camp and various forward posts for Times Now's flagship weekend show 'Line of Duty', where we were practically lived a military junkie's dream capturing life along India's frontlines for over 3 years. 

Driving from Leh to Siachen via Khardungla Pass with Military Analyst & LOD Anchor Maroof Raza
We were in Siachen for close to 10 days - the world's highest battlefield to explore the extraordinary compulsions that has led to the conflict being described as one 'that is too painful to continue and too meaningful to end'. As we drove down from Leh to the Siachen base camp, via the Shyok-Nubra valley, I felt as though as we had been transported to an almost ethereal world. 

Driving along the Shyok-Nubra Valley

Shyok-Nubra Valley
I don't think I have ever seen a place that is as stunning or surreal as the Siachen glacier. It was tough to imagine that this paradise that can turn into hell. That this was the highest combat theatre on earth. Nothing prepared us for the experience that was about to follow - to witness the super-human effort taken to be a soldier in Siachen. And to think that everyone there was a volunteer. This was real High Altitude Warfare - on a 50 square mile war zone, slit by a 76 km river, of slow moving ice, slithering down, like a giant white tongue!

Aerial view of the Siachen Glacier

Aerial view of the Glacier

I thought I would share some excerpts from our script, still so relevant -

History of the Conflict 

NJ9842 - an innocuous little map point on the 1949 agreement turned out to be the most controversial co-ordinate in the history of the Siachen conflict. All because of 5 ambiguous words, ‘thence north onto the glacier’ - a phrase used to describe the ceasefire line between India & Pakistan beyond this point. Pakistan believes the line extends from NJ 9842 to the Karokoram pass, while India maintains the LOC moves along the Saltoro ridge from NJ9842 to Indira Col. Taking advantage of this ambiguity, Pakistan began allowing expeditions & reconnaissance exercises to the glacier. Such cartographic aggression on this remote, unmarked territory by Pakistan in the late 70’s & early 80’s forced the Indian armed forces to make a pre-emptive move into Siachen. Thus began Operation Meghdoot on 13th April, 1984. Within days, Pakistani forces moved in to gain control, but too bad, the heights were already taken! Since then, both countries have established anything between 120 & 150 outposts on the glacier. However, even today, the locations, routes, access and even names of some of these posts are a closely guarded secret.

Screen Grab of the Map from Line of Duty

International military analysts have always believed that it has been advantage India in this 32 year old conflict, almost a stalemate now – the Pakistanis cannot climb up & approach the glacier while the Indian troops cannot come down. This protracted saga has seen both countries lock horns to gain Actual Ground Positions on barren icy heights that easily tower over 20,000 ft.

Aerial View of the Glacier

Soldiering in Siachen

The battle on the roof of the world is therefore fought by part soldiers part mountaineers. Because, if they’re not firing at the enemy, they’re battling cryogenic temperatures, avalanches, bottomless crevasses & the sheer incline of ice cliffs. It’s a place where even 20 small steps can get the heart and lungs to work overtime, making soldiering difficult business.

And so, ceasefire or not, soldiering continues. Daily patrols are a must, if not for surveillance, just to tread on trodden tracks so that the trail does not disappear. It’s about maintaining good rope discipline - walking in columns of five, tied to a single rope. It’s about being sure of every step, so that the next one is not a tumble into a bottomless crevasse. It’s about surviving avalanches, where walls of ice, snow, mud, stone & shattered rocks come sliding down a steep gradient, swallowing everything in its path. Because soldiering on the glacier is not just dodging enemy bullets, it’s also about surviving elemental forces."

Ceasefire or not, soldiering continues
Saltoro Ridge

Snow Scooters

The Faith of OP Baba 
Technology may be a force multiplier in Siachen but the real driving force is the faith that goes beyond science. Here soldiering is a religion and heroic soldiers are no less than demi-Gods. One such tale is that of that of OP BABA, a Subedaar who is believed to have single-handedly defended a high Indian post. He subsequently disappeared. Legend goes that the spirit of the Baba cautions soldiers of looming avalanches & other calamities. There’s an uncanny superstition about the temple drill - and the patrol leader religiously offers a daily patrol report of his men to OP Baba at his shrine, irrespective of the religion of the soldiers. 

Patrol Report 

At a Forward Post with Srini
This is the land where only your best friends or your worst enemies visit you
The Siachen glacier maybe a strategic acquisition but as an old Ladaki saying goes, it still is the land where only your best friends or your worst enemies visit you. At -50C, where even an orange is as hard as a baseball and at over 20,000 ft where oxygen is rarefied, the human body is tested. Soldiers can’t sleep, lose appetite, some even complain of partial memory loss. Sweat here can be a dangerous enemy, because when it turns into ice, frostbite can set in. Touching a gun barrel with bare hands too can prove fatal. But the two most serious killers here are - high altitude pulmonary edema & the high altitude cerebral edema, where body fluids accumulate in the lungs and the brain respectively.

This is why after a hard day’s patrol, the hand and feet drill is a must. This is when the limbs are closely scrutinized for frost bites and then soaked in warm, saline water. It may look like a semi-social get-together, but it’s just the army’s way of mixing business with pleasure.

Srini getting into the Siachen gear

Inside the Cheetah 

We could barely walk in this gear... imagine what the soldiers have to deal with!

The Air-buses of Siachen

While good war tactics say ‘higher is better', war logistics maintain that ‘higher is harder to re-supply'. That’s the paradox in Siachen. But this has been overcome by the Indian Air Force and the Army aviation pilots providing air logistical support. Preparations for these daily missions begin well before dawn at the base camp, so that maximum numbers of sorties are achieved. From first light to early dusk, the rotors keep churning sortie after sortie, ferrying men and materials to forward Saltoro posts as high as 20,000 ft from the Siachen basecamp. Without this air support for troop maintenance & casualty evacuation, Siachen would have long been a lost battle for India.

Siachen Base Camp Helipad - as an MI17 prepares to take off

Choppers like the Cheetah & the MI 17 serve as air buses on this road-less ice tract that stretches over two trillion cubic feet of ice. They may look like tiny green dragon flies against the gigantic peaks, but they’re the lifeline of the glacier - carrying almost anything, from monthly rations of rice & kerosene & instant noodles to larger operational requirements like weapons, ammunitions,  fibre-glass igloos and ofcourse rescue/evacuation operations. It's a strategic nexus for the longest running & most demanding military air operation ever. And though every operation is well fraught with risks, these air warriors are 'Aapatsu Mitrum' or 'A friend to those in distress'. 

With the Siachen Pioneers

The first Indian flag hoisted on Pak soil - at the 10 Dogras mess, Siachen Base Camp 

There's a view that the Siachen glacier will be converted into a peace park. But the military in particular and the establishment in general is wary of Pakistan's intentions after the experience of Kargil. And until an agreement is reached over the Siachen dispute, many more good men will fall in the line of duty. 

Quartered in snow
Silent to remain 
When the bugle calls 
They shall rise and march again

You can watch the Line of Duty Episodes here -

LOD Credits

Asst Producer
Ian DSouza

Praveen Nagaonkar
Srinivas Naidu

Opening Titles

Mahesh Tinaikar

Wednesday 3 February 2016


Why did we choose to make a documentary on India’s witch-hunts?

Few people know that witch-hunts continue to haunt the tribal belts of India. It’s triggered by a centuries-old belief in the power of the witch and tragically claims over a hundred lives every year. The victims are mostly women, brutally murdered by their own people. Thousands more suffer tremendous physical & psychological abuse – stigmatised, tortured, either ostracised and forbidden social contact or forced to live in hiding.

We head out to the tribal belts of Assam where a 48 year-old widow is branded a witch and brutally lynched by her own people. In another part of the region, a witch-hunt survivor, banished from her own village for over 10 years, prepares to reclaim her life lost in superstition. Our documentary Witch-hunt Diaries is the story of these two women, caught in a terrifying, medieval ritual that claims over a hundred lives in India every year.

As the film moves between a murder investigation and a real-time rehabilitation, it takes the viewers into a land where ancient systems continue to be sacred. It reveals a land of magic and mystic rituals – where sorcerers cast spells, deities possess devotees, and witchdoctors turn into witches. It also sets up a clash of 2 worlds - where science often collides with the supernatural, and the rationalist questions the believer.

Deities possess devotees at Kamakhya

Why Assam?

Although Assam is a melting pot of diverse identities and ethnicities, there is a deep-rooted belief system that's part of Assam's social & religious fabric. It is therefore as much a land of conflict, as it is of magic and mystery. This adds an intriguing layer to the traditional narrative of the Indian witch-hunt, which we were keen to explore.

We also realised that this is a place where science collides with the supernatural. In order to strike a balance between the rationalist and the believer, it was important to draw the line between this sacred ancient belief system, and its exploitation to suit deeper, sinister motives.  These nuances would have only been possible in a story set in Assam.

But more importantly, we chose Assam because witch-hunt convictions were close to nil here. Anti witch-hunt crusaders were pushing for a strict anti witch-hunt law in the state. Towards the end of 2015, their efforts paid off, forcing the government of Assam to pass one of the strictest anti witch-hunt laws in the country, making any offence under the Act non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable. The state's law enforcement agencies too have now been given teeth to deal with such cases. We wanted to examine the efficacy of this law at the field level - for instance, would it be able to discern between the traditional belief system and its extremism which manifests in the social evil of witch-hunting? More importantly, can witch-hunt victims and their families truly expect justice, closure and deterrence?

WITCH-HUNT DIARIES - UNDERCOVER ASIA S3 from Mayurica Biswas on Vimeo.

On Location - Behind the Scenes

Crime Scene - Temple of a self - proclaimed God-woman where the witch-hunt victim was lynched by an angry mob.

We went in expecting hostility - given that we were investigating a witch-hunt murder in a village, where many were part of the mob that lynched the victim. We knew we had to get to the truth of who and what led to the witch-hunt, without antagonising the people involved. We decided to go ahead without any formal protection, so as to maintain the sense of an independent investigation. Also, this was in the heart of an insurgency belt, where the local police measured their steps. The filming therefore, had to as non-intrusive, and observational as possible.

But as we spent time there, and got to know the people involved, it drove home the point that witch-hunts spare no one. We discovered that behind every witch-hunt lies a story of complex social dynamics and ruined lives. There are no winners here. It was heart breaking to see how allegations of witchcraft drove daggers between mothers and daughters. Clearly, this is a world where the belief in witchcraft is stronger than witchcraft itself.

Human Rights Activist & Lawyer Sanalembi Devi with the daughter of the witch-hunt victim.

It was also fascinating to be filming in this space where magic and supernatural is ubiquitous. One of our most intriguing shoots was when a local faith healer not only agreed to let us film his secret rituals, but also wanted to conduct an experiment on volunteers from our crew. He said that he would try transferring the spirit of the ‘Gods’ into them, and they would then go into a trance. This was an opportunity we could not pass. So we headed to his place well after midnight, where he had already set up for the ‘experiment’. While the experience was undoubtedly eerie and exciting, the result of the 2 hour-long séance were ambiguous to say the least. 

Spirit Transfer Experiment

Our crew volunteers, though completely in their senses did admit to feeling a light, ‘unnatural’ tremor, while a stranger who was also a part of the experiment, did indeed go into a very violent trance-like state. He may or may not have been a plant. According to the faith healer, our volunteers lacked faith and were perhaps not open of surrendering to the spirit, or did not believe in the idea of spirit transfer, and therefore the results were not the same.  This experiment unfortunately did not make it to the final cut of the film, but you watch a brief video of that clip here.

The other story in the documentary – that of the real time Rehabilitation of a witch-hunt victim in Goalpara, was one of our most challenging shoots, at the fag end of the schedule. We hit a sudden roadblock when the local police in an unexpected volte-face, refused to accompany the Rehab team to the victim’s village. They had originally agreed to help the victim negotiate truce with the hostile villagers who had banished her from their village. The victim hoped that with formal police intervention, the villagers would allow her to reclaim her life lost in superstition. However, the police's lack of support completely jeopardized the Rehab Mission and the safety of the team. The Police even warned us not to go ahead as it could potentially snowball into a dangerous law and order run-in with an angry mob. But with so much at stake and witch-hunt victim hoping to rebuild her life again, we decided to continue with the Operation. Our best bet was to convince the Village Chief to align with us, hoping that it would buy us our insurance. Fortunately for us, he agreed to facilitate the meeting.

     Can witch-hunts be taken up a central subject and be declared illegal in India? Can the law be sensitive     enough to discern between a belief system and its exploitation for vested interest through social evils like witch-hunts? 

Given that faith healing is a part of the social fabric, and that faith healers hold hold tremendous clout in the region, it would be beneficial to get them to complement modern medicine, instead of being at loggerheads. This has to be a systemic effort.

Need to also systematically carry out a detailed grid wise geographical survey of the region to locate natural sources of radio-active elements in the region, that can even be mined as an asset.

Channelize the social bonding of the region for constructive community building activities instead of witch-hunts etc.

Need for education, medical facilities and better infrastructure.

Thursday 5 March 2015

The Other Side of Badaun

(Voices Under the Mango Tree, an investigative documentary on the Badaun double hangings premiered on Channel NewsAsia in February 2015. Produced by Storyteller Films for the series Undercover Asia, this blog though goes behind the scenes to capture some of the quirks of this region as discovered by the team while filming the documentary.)

Badaun, a tiny dot on the map of Uttar Pradesh is a little over 6 hours from Delhi. To put it in perspective, that is as long as it takes to go from Delhi to Shimla, Bangalore to Chennai or London to Edinburgh! Almost in the heart of this small town is a brand new hotel that boasts of wifi in all rooms. Not just that – the hotel is right above a supermarket that is so well stocked that I contemplated doing my monthly groceries before leaving Badaun. It retailed brands we don’t always get in Mumbai. Their restaurant served delicious North Indian staples like dal tadka/makhni, tandoori chicken and alu parathas. We knew it was going to be a tough shoot, but we had found an unexpectedly comfortable base camp – our home for the next 10 days as we investigated the case. What we didn’t know was that this was going to be the first of many twists that would challenge both - our perception of Badaun and the double hangings.

The 'Mango Tree'
In May 2014, two teenage cousin sisters were found hanging from a mango tree in Katra Shahadatganj, a tiny village on the banks of the Ganges – about 2 hours away from Badaun. Within hours, horrific images of the crime scene went viral on social media and immediately sparked global outrage. Unfortunately, by the time we got there 5 months later, the case was far from closed. A web of lies and political intrigue had turned what seemed like an open and shut case into a classic mystery with twists and red herrings. Now, everyone was a suspect – the accusers and the accused. All theories of how the girls died were as possible or impossible as the other. No one had pieced together the 10 hours between the girls’ disappearance and the discovery of their bodies the next morning.

Home of the Victims
Within a day or two of our shoot, it was clear that nothing was as it appeared. There was this great cloud of secrecy that shrouded the village. Everyone may have had something to hide. Or a perspective they did not want to reveal. This was Badaun's Rashamon. There were layers, waiting to be peeled.

And peel we did. It took us time to gain trust. To convince we had no preconceived notions of what happened. We were neutral, unbiased and willing to start from scratch. Most of our on-cam interviews were done twice, some thrice and even more - a series of questions and cross-questions to get as close to the truth as possible. But in this story, truth was always going to be a premium. We were dealing with a seasoned group of people who always gauged how much we knew, before they answered.

Nazru - key eyewitness

When they finally opened up, stories tumbled A policeman whose identity we have to protect, admitted to some shocking procedural lapses. The accused-and-then-freed Yadav men agreed to narrate their version of what happened that fatal night on-cam. But the most stunning revelation came from the key eyewitness, almost at the end of his third interview. It was an extraordinary twist that completely altered the line of investigation. Much as I would like to reveal the findings here, I'd rather let our documentary do the talking. (Watch the tease here, followed by the link to the full documentary.)

In retrospect, I think by the time our team reached the village months after the incident, Katra Shahadatganj was fatigued by the case. The novelty of the media attention had worn off. It was now an irritant. On the very second day of our shoot, as we were filming the mango tree at dusk, the Outpost Incharge of the Village Police Station came up to our team and subtly warned us about staying back in Katra after dark. He said we were pretty much on our own, and there was little he could do to protect us in ‘tamancha land’ (Tamancha is a country made revolver). In other words, don’t push the wrong buttons! I must admit, he spooked us out a bit.

A couple of days later, we trooped into his Police Outpost, to film one of the key locations of the incident. We expected hostility and to even be denied access. However this time, he was much nicer and even allowed himself to be filmed. I’m not really sure what led to his change of heart, but he even agreed to help locate the Yadav men who were untraceable then. Perhaps, he realised that we were not out to paint Katra with the same brush as everyone else before us.

The Police Outpost is a nondescript brick/mud house in the heart of the village that triples up as home, kitchen and a police station. All the 5 cops stationed at the Outpost live, work, bathe and sleep in the same space. Electricity is an erratic luxury for about 3 hours a day. This is where the fathers of the victims were held that night and abused by the local cops who were said to have sided with the Yadav men. Although the cops from ‘that night’ have either been transferred or suspended, the new lot was hesitant about discussing the case insisting they had nothing to add. But in an informal off-cam chat, they admitted that the local police were to blame for mishandling the first 24 crucial hours of investigation. However, they also added that policing these regions was challenging. "The average people to police ratio is 1:1000. We have 2 Police Outposts covering 60 to 70 villages among 30 constables. We have roads that don’t let us drive over 30 kms/hr. We don’t have enough women constables to investigate crimes against women. And then we are at the mercy of politicians who transfer us for decisions that don’t please them. We work 24X7, are transferred every 2 or 3 months, our families cant be with us. Despite this, no matter what we do, we are inevitably the villains in most cases."

The graves of the victims by the Ganges
But it does not take away from the fact that the outpost police did not search for the missing girls that night or actively enlist the support of the bigger police station 5 kms away. It does not take away from the fact that 2 girls lost their lives that night.

All said and done,  Katra Shahadatganj is truly fed up of this blot on its reputation. As the Village Head tells us, “In a radius of 50kms around this village, there are no high schools or colleges. There is no source of employment – no industry, no factories. We were anyway backward; this incident has not just created a permanent social stigma, but taken us further back in time. Why can’t someone adopt our village and make us a part of the ‘ideal village’ campaign with better infrastructure, education, sanitation, roads and security for women?  This is a refrain we heard often in that region. 

It’s another story though, that the Village Head (Pradhan) was not really the official head of the village. Although like most politicians in this country his posters followed us everywhere, the truth was that his wife held the official post. We were later told that this was routine - the position of the Village-Head fell under the women’s quota. Therefore, like Laloo’s Rabri, this Pradhan too did his bit for ‘gender equality’. Infact, I think it was our fault that we allowed his face on all the posters to overwhelm us; we didn’t really read the copy that described him as poet, thinker and social worker!

He is also an actor. His cronies proudly claim that their boss is a seasoned Meghnaad (Ravan’s son). We soon discovered that many in this village had dual identities, often also known for the iconic Ram Leela characters they had been playing for years. Be it Ravan or Ram, they were quite happy to flaunt their own mythical doppelgangers. Suddenly, we had found a pool of talent for all the reconstruction that we had to do. Infact, the actor who played Nazru in our film was part of this same Ram Leela cult. While his day job was at our hotel, he did moonlight as an actor in Bhojpuri music videos, but more importantly, he was a renowned ‘Ravan’ in his hometown. And he came to our rescue when we were unable to find a girl, willing to be cast as one of the victims. He convinced the hotel receptionist who agreed on the condition that the female crew drop her home at night after the shoot. Surprisingly, she was a natural on camera and thankfully without the trappings of the Ram Leela-isque melodrama. But we were in for a bigger surprise when we drop her home that night; she lived in a neighbourhood in Badaun where her house didn't have a door!  

Hidden stories like this popped up now and then. We found a feisty young girl who had not only abandoned her husband and in-laws in Delhi after being repeatedly abused for Dowry demands; she had also a filed a case against them and now regularly follows up in court. She was also studying again to complete her schooling and keen to do a vocational course in order to become financially independent. Her impoverished family was very supportive. The irony was that she was not just a very good friend of both victims, but also their neighbour!

Tamancha territory
If there is another quirk in these belts, it’s that everyone is loaded… with a tamancha or a country made pistol. We had asked someone in a village to organise a whole set of props to help reconstruct the crime. We had also very tentatively asked him to source a tamancha, but were skeptical about it being organized at such short notice. He just smiled and said, "Don't worry, that is really the easiest of the list." All I could then say was just make sure it's not loaded!" And while we were filming the scene that night, a whole bunch of young boys from the village were so inspired that they decided to show off their gun collection to this media crew from Mumbai. I think they were quite amused to see how terrified we were around guns, even though the boys claimed they were not loaded. Isn't it ironical that most of us from urban Indian spaces live out our lives without seeing a real gun, while here it’s almost as common as a mobile phone. 

Voices under the Neem tree
At the end of our shoot, we filmed a focus group discussion with about 50 men at a village close to Badaun. It was like a chowpal, but the voices we captured on camera were disturbing. A middle-aged man proclaimed, “mobile phones corrupt girls and they use it to slyly court and confuse boys. Poor boys, what can they do”. Another young chap grinned and said, “A dog can only tempted with a bone. It’s hardly the fault of the boys as you cannot clap with one hand. The girls and their parents must also be punished”. But the most chilling voice came from someone who everyone called the ‘Kejrival of Badaun’ for always calling a spade a spade. He said he would “carry out a shootout and kill his daughters if they brought shame and dishonour to the family”. Many in the group agreed with him. This is deep rooted misogyny that may takes generations to wipe out.  

Clearly, the story of the Badaun hangings goes well beyond that night. It lays bare some of the most disturbing mindsets and social norms that perpetrate gender violence in India today. So, were the girls murdered or victims of honour killing? Or is there a far greater sinister truth that lies in their graves? The voices are all out there… but will they ever reveal their secrets?  Like I said, in this part of the world, nothing truly is what it seems.

For more on the case and the actual investigation, do watch #VoicesUndertheMangoTree