Embattled Lines

A few journalists in Chhattisgarh persevere in the face of extraordinary pressure

The family of Santosh Yadav has struggled to make ends meet since his arrest in 2015. Like a few other Chhattisgarh journalists, Yadav worked in the face of coercion and intimidation from the state’s police. indian express archive
01 February, 2017

Yeh raat mein sapna dekh raha tha sarkar ke khilaaf,” Kamal Shukla, a veteran reporter said. I was travelling with him for a few days in Bastar, in December, and Shukla was describing the dire conditions journalists work under in the district. “If the police claimed this about a journalist they had arrested,” he said, “the courts in Chhattisgarh have no right to ask whether the police had proof.”

His younger colleague, who wanted to remain anonymous, added: “If a journalist were to tell even 5 percent of the truth in a newspaper here, black clouds will begin to gather over the individual’s head, prison gates will creak open, and a gift of jan suraksha will be made to him.”

“Jan suraksha,” or, more properly, the Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, also known as the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, refers to a piece of legislation passed by the state assembly in 2005. It allows the police to detain anyone who displays a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law.” This is the legislation that Shukla was talking about when he said the police has the right to divine one’s dreams and crush dissent. The state of Chhattisgarh has used the legislation to create an atmosphere of fear and repression for journalists, and punish those who dare to stand up to it.

In Dantewada, in late December, I met a young, unemployed journalist named Prabhat Singh. When he still had a job, he had filed about two dozen RTI requests and investigated corruption and killings by the police. Last March, Singh spoke publicly in support of a proposed law to protect journalists. The law, mooted by journalists themselves, aimed to protect them against fake claims made against their work, as well as from their arrests and continual harassment.

For his stance, Singh was called “anti-national” by fellow journalists in Chhattisgarh. In response, he tapped out a message on his phone to a WhatsApp group called “Bastar News.” He wrote that the journalists speaking against the proposed law were just those who were already in the police’s lap. (Singh used the word “mama,” slang for police.) On 6 March, he also filed a police complaint against those who were threatening him online. On 19 March, the news channel ETV terminated Singh’s contract without giving any reason for doing so and, two days later, he was picked up by policemen in plainclothes. He spent 96 days in prison in Jagdalpur.

Singh was arrested under Section 67 and 67A of the Information Technology Act for “publishing and transmitting obscene material in electronic form,” as well as section 292 of the Indian Penal Code. He is now out on bail and has no regular job. He told me, “Log bahut darre-sahme se hain”—people are now terrified. Like the other media persons I spoke to in Chhattisgarh, Singh used the word “pressure” (as in “hamaare upar bahut pressure hai”—there is a lot of pressure on us) to explain the working condition of journalists. The pressure is applied not only through widely known stories of police violence or incarceration, but also through direct phone calls made by the police or on its behalf to coax and coerce.

Singh told me that those journalists who have sided with the state, freely publishing police handouts about fake encounters with Maoists or suppressing reports of rapes of tribal women, have been rewarded with government contracts. These contracts are for construction projects, or for providing supplies to camps run by paramilitary forces.

Kamal Shukla, too, supported this allegation. On my last day in Chhattisgarh, just before we said goodbye, Shukla mentioned that Bastar’s police chief, SRP Kalluri, told him that if he put a stop to the movement to fight for journalists’ rights, he could collect Rs 1 crore in cash and enjoy a trip to the United States on a six-month fellowship. When this offer was made, Shukla shared the news with the local press. The police did not issue a denial.

A 2016 report by Amnesty International, titled “Blackout in Bastar,” is useful for those seeking to understand why journalists in the district are concerned for their safety and rights. These are some of the journalists mentioned in the report: Santosh Yadav, arrested for allegedly aiding terrorist groups; Somaru Nag, arrested on the charge of being a Maoist sympathiser; Malini Subramaniam, whose home in Jagdalpur was attacked by vigilante groups, forcing her to leave Bastar; Deepak Jaiswal, arrested on a seven-month-old complaint; the BBC Hindi journalist Alok Putul, forced to abandon an assignment in Bastar after receiving threats (the Amnesty International report mentions that a senior police official had let Putul know that he preferred spending time with “nationalist and patriotic” journalists).

Santosh Yadav, arrested under the Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, remains behind bars. He was first lodged in jail in Jagdalpur, where he was badly beaten by the authorities for taking part in a hunger strike by prisoners, and was later moved to Kanker Jail, further away from his family and lawyer. Born and raised in the small town of Darba in Bastar, Santosh Yadav worked as a stringer for Hindi dailies. I wondered what about his reporting was so dangerous or damaging to the police state that is Chhattisgarh. When I put this question to the social scientist Nandini Sundar, author of The Burning Forest, an authoritative book on the unrest in Bastar, she appeared to find it naive. Sundar told me, “I’m sure Santosh Yadav was doing good reporting, but even if he wasn’t, he could be arrested. Everybody and anybody is getting jailed in Bastar.” Sundar said that the Chhattisgarh police feels free to file false cases with impunity. She added, “It is a state of emergency. The police has some kind of bloodlust. They want to harass, kill, arrest. This lust has to be satisfied daily.”

In Bastar, I found out that some reporting Yadav had done about Adivasi villagers being hounded by police made him sought after: on the one hand, by villagers who wanted him to help them (he responded by putting them in touch with human-rights lawyers), and, on the other, by the police, who wanted to turn him into an informer. Once, he was thrown in a thana and kept there for three days. On another occasion, according to an August 2015 bulletin by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, “police ordered Santosh to take Rs 5 lakh to catch Maoists and bring them to the police but he refused to do so.”

Yadav was arrested on 29 September 2015. This happened soon after he had reported on a police action during which five villagers from Badrimahu had been thrown into jail. The men said they had all been falsely accused of digging up a road. According to Yadav’s lawyer, his client was publicly threatened by the additional superintendent of police of Bastar in Darba village, while he was speaking to relatives of the arrested men. A few hours later, Yadav was picked up by the police and charged with the same crimes as the original five from Badrimahu—including criminal conspiracy, murder, and membership in the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

In late December, I drove past the tall yellow walls of the prison where Yadav is being kept. A four- or five-hour journey away, in Darba, his wife takes care of their three small children. It was dark when I reached Darba. Yadav’s wife, Poonam, is in her twenties. Their oldest child, a seven-year-old girl, was finishing her homework. The other children were sleeping on a cot, bundled together against the cold. A little infant goat bounded in through the open door and hopped into my lap.

Poonam works part-time as a nurse but the money she earns is not enough even to pay for the children’s school fees. Santosh’s younger brother, who says he will not marry till his brother is out of jail, helps out with his wages. Poonam’s youngest child, a 15-month-old girl, had a fever that night. She was only a couple of months old when Yadav was taken away. The baby does not have a name yet because this, too, must await her father’s return. So many lives stalled on the whim of the police.

Before I left I asked Poonam if she had any cuttings of her husband’s writings that I could photocopy and return. She said she did not. While her husband was around, he had kept some copies of the newspapers where his stories had appeared, but then money was needed and all that stuff was sold to the raddiwala.

I returned to the United States from India, and just the other night I watched on television Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony. Denouncing president-elect Donald Trump’s apparent mocking of a disabled reporter, Streep spoke up on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organisation dedicated to press freedom. I sat up in my seat when I heard that name—the CPJ has sent letters to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, Raman Singh, asking him to intervene in the cases of Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag. (Nag was acquitted and released in July 2016.) In November 2016, the CPJ also honoured Malini Subramaniam with an International Press Freedom Award for her courageous reporting from Bastar. In the Golden Globes speech, Streep called for a “principled press,” and I thought of someone she is extremely unlikely to ever know: a poor reporter with a young family, in prison in a remote town in India. Here is a principled journalist. In a police state where everything conspires to make you complicit, he has refused to become an informer. The question before us is—what will it take to get him out?