CHITRANGADA CHOUDHURY - Arrested, tortured, jailed in South Bastar // Malini Subramaniam - Chhattisgarh remains a difficult place for both citizens and journalists

Nag was a rare Adivasi journalist in the region. Yadav was a very active reporter, and villagers often approached him for help since he knew Gondi and Hindi. Picked up in July and September end, two Hindi language journalists from the Darbha block in southern Bastar have been under arrest, charged with supporting Maoist rebels, and subjected to custodial torture. The lack of clarity around their alleged offences and the lack of clear evidence, highlight the perils of being a rural reporter in the militarized and polarized resource-rich region of South Chhattisgarh where the state and Maoists have been locked in a decade-long battle.

Santosh Yadav, who used to gather news for multiple Hindi newspapers including Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh, was arrested by the police on 29 September. His name was subsequently added to a case where 18 villagers are in prison, charged with an encounter on August 21 during a road-opening operation by the security forces in which a Special Police Officer was killed. Somaru Nag, an Adivasi journalist who was a stringer-cum-news agent with theRajasthan Patrika was arrested on July 16. He has been charged with keeping a look out on the movements of the police while a group burnt a crusher plant employed in road construction in Chote Kadma on June 26. Nag’s younger brother, Sonaru, said Nag had been picked up from their mobile phone shop on the outskirts of Darbha town by policemen in plainclothes on July 16, and was shown as being arrested on the July 19 at the Parpa police station. Sonaru said the family subsequently met Nag in prison. 

“We saw that he had been beaten up very badly. He told us, ‘please speak to the other journalists and ask them to help me get released.’ When he has committed no crime, how can he admit to the crime the police are pressurising him to...”, their letter of July 25 said. Sonaru says the family has no clue why the police arrested Nag: “Someone pointed to him, and that was enough for them to pick him up. They also took away his bike.”   

Yadav had been harassed and tortured by the police for over a year, before his arrest last week - a fact highlighted by the August 2015 bulletin of the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) though it does not name him. On May 25,  2013, Yadav, a Darbha resident, was one of the first reporters to reach the section of the valley where armed Maoist rebels assassinated and injured over 50 people, from Congress politicians to migrant Adivasi labourers.

According to Kamal Shukla, a journalist based in Kanker district of North Bastar, Yadav’s speedy presence on the scene following the killings was reason enough for the police to believe that he was tied to the Maoists. “Your editor says rush to the spot, and a stringer has to do that. Just doing our job makes us suspect in the eyes of the police and the Maoists,” said Shukla.

According to reporters in the region, from June this year, the police pressure on Yadav grew. Harjit Singh Pappu, the Jagdalpur-based Bureau Chief of theDainik Chhattisgarh, a paper for which Yadav used to gather news and take photographs, said “The last time I met Santosh was two to three months ago. He told me that the police had kept him in custody, stripped him, and threatened to beat him.”
According to the PUCL bulletin, and a October 4 representation to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by the Human Rights Defender Alert organisation, Yadav was under great pressure from the police to become an informer.

Bastar’s Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav denied allegations of torture and police pressure on Yadav and asserted that the arrest was a legitimate one: “We had been continuously watching his movements. He was very active in that area, and had links with the local (Maoist) commanders. He used to supply material to them.” The SP said he had no information on Nag’s arrest.

Both reporters have had little support from the publications that used their work. Sonaru says they met the Patrika editor in Jagdalpur who told them that, since Nag was already under arrest, there was nothing he could do. In a front page written piece, Sunil Kumar, the Raipur-based editor of the Dainik Chhattisgarh, said Yadav used to work for them in the past, and since the matter was in the court, due process demanded that the police get an opportunity to prove their allegations, but also demanded that the state government disclose the basis of Yadav’s arrest. He acknowledged that reporting in the villages of Bastar was rife with danger: “Police na-khush toh giraftaari, aur Naxal na-khush toh maut (Upset the police, and face arrest. Upset the Naxals, and face death.)”

Nag and Yadav are being currently represented by an all-woman legal aid team called Jag-LAG, which is based in Jagdalpur. Nag has been charged under the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act; Yadav under the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act (CPSA). Their lawyer, Isha Khandelwal added, “When the police presented Yadav in court on October 1, they claimed that he had confessed to being allied to the Maoists. Along with the other villagers, he has been booked under acts, which make getting bail very difficult. It is likely to be a long haul.”

Enacted by the Chhattisgarh state government in 2005, ostensibly to aid the fight against the Maoists, the CPSA designates a range of activities as ‘unlawful’, including representations by an individual or an organization "...which interferes or tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order.” Worryingly for journalists and rights defenders in the state, all offences registered under this act are non-bailable, and sweeping powers and discretion are given to the district officials, while framing charges.

“I fear for Yadav’s life. Even if he is released, there is a great likelihood that he will be targeted by the Maoists,” said Shukla, recalling prior assassinations by Maoists of two journalists in the region - Sai Reddy (also booked by the police in 2008 under the CPSA), and Nemichand Jain. The Maoists justified both killings saying the journalists were police informers, though they subsequently apologised for Jain’s death, in the face of a media boycott. 

In prior communications to journalists, the rebels have argued that the concept of neutrality does not hold in a class war. Such extreme views mirror that of the state security forces. Pappu said, “You have to go to villages, go to the jungles, meet people. You have to report the other side also. But the police thinks that if you are meeting them (the Maoists), you must be a part of them.” 

Simultaneously, the police do not hesitate to deploy local journalists to reach out to Maoists when they feel the need, such as to carry out negotiations for the release of kidnapped officials. In this dangerous reporting landscape, rural stringers are especially vulnerable by virtue of having little social capital, and living and working on the frontlines. Sudha Bharadwaj, a Bilaspur-based human rights lawyer and PUCL member pointed out, “They don’t get the immunity, protection or working conditions that journalists in the national media get (even though no outside journalist can really report in these areas without a local journalist’s assistance for travel, and interpretation of the local Adivasi language).”

Nag was a rare Adivasi journalist in the region. Yadav was a very active reporter, and villagers often approached him for help since he knew Gondi and Hindi, according to Khandelwal. “Many villagers came to us for legal aid, via him,” she said. Nag and Yadav’s are among a string of arrests of villagers made in the Darbha area by the police in past weeks, she added.

Bastar’s journalists are planning a meeting on October 10 in the state capital of Raipur. Shukla and Pappu said the aim of the meeting was to demand recognition by media organisations and state and security officials of journalists working in the conflict zone, to devise a strategy for greater safety and protection against arbitrary police action, and to protest the incarceration of their colleagues. “Over the years, the situation in Bastar has become such that if you want to be a journalist”, said Shukla, “the expectation is that you be dishonest with yourself, close your eyes, and pretend that you can’t see anything.”

A murmur of amusement rippled through the corridor in Jagdalpur court on October 1, as Joga*, a panchayat member of Bhadrimahu village, read out the headlines in the previous day's newspapers to a group of his neighbours. "About 150 villagers from Bhadrimahu village of Darbha block descended 14 kilometres by foot to reach Darbha thana seeking security against the Maoists," one of the newspapers reported. 

The report went on to quote SRP Kalluri, the Inspector General of police, Bastar, as saying: "The population of Bastar is now wake. They are fed up with the Maoists, which is why the villagers reached Darbha thana." The Superintendent of Police, Ajay Yadav, was quoted to say : "The villagers want peace now... It was only after much persuasion and sufficient assurance of protection that the villagers left for their homes."

Listening to the reports, the villagers could not suppress their laughter, despite the grim circumstances that had brought them to the region's administrative centre. The policemen were lying, they said. They had trekked from their village on September 29 to secure the release of five village boys arrested by the police. A local journalist, Santosh Yadav, had noted their testimonies. Hours later, he too was arrested by the police. Now, the villagers had gathered in his support outside the courtroom where he was being presented by the police.

The case of the five missing boys: It all began on August 26, when five young men from Bhadrimahu village – Boti Sodi, Kuma Kawasi, Somdu Hunga, Deva Hura and Budra Muka – were picked up by the police from the weekly bazaar at Darbha, about 14 kilometres away.
When the boys did not return from the market, gathering news that they had been picked up by the police, the family members of the boys trekked to the Darbha police station to enquire about them, said Joga. All they got was a denial: the police said they did not have the boys.

Later, however, the villagers discovered the boys had been sent to prison on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy and attempt to murder. The police claimed they had helped the rebels in laying an ambush on security personnel on August 21. An assistant platoon commander of the Special Task Force of Chhattisgarh police was killed in the ambush and a constable was injured.

A week after the boys were picked up, the police official heading the Darbha thana sent word to the families that they could collect them, on the condition that one member from each of the families came down personally to the thana. A meeting was held in the village. It was decided that a group of villagers would accompany the family members to Darbha on Tuesday, September 29, as requested by the police. With the weekly bazaar falling on Wednesday, the villagers felt they could combine the visit to the thana with their weekly purchases.

On Tuesday, the villagers reached Darbha around noon. A couple of them went to the thana while the rest gathered on the ground near the school.  At the police station, the villagers were asked to wait. They were told that the boys would be released once the "bigger officers" arrived. As they waited, they were served lunch. They politely declined the food but the policemen insisted they eat. The villagers meekly ate the dal, vegetables and rice offered on plates made of leaves.

After a long wait, the Superintendent of Police of Bastar arrived. There was a brief hunt for a translator for the speech that was about to commence. "We are now friends," Ajay Yadav, Bastar SP, reportedly said. He assured the villagers that henceforth the police would neither chase them nor fire at them, and the villagers need not run when they saw security personnel approaching them. In token of the new friendship, the police gave a sari each to the women and a checked lungi and umbrella to the men.

The Inspector General of police in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, also addressed the villagers. They were then invited to talk about their problems. None got up to speak. "We didn't know what to say," said a young boy from Bhadrimahu, recalling the events. A panchayat member added: "We came as it was promised that the arrested boys would be released!"

As the evening set in, the villagers left the police station, clutching their saris, lungis and umbrellas. The police told them the boys would be released after a couple of days. Ajay Yadav, the superintendent of police of Bastar district, however, denied this version of events. He insisted that the villagers had not been summoned by the police – they came of their own volition, seeking police intervention against Maoist harassment. "We have been interacting with the villagers for long over matters that cannot be disclosed to media," he told Scroll.

The arrest of Santosh Yadav: Twenty-five-year old Santosh Yadav, a local journalist, was among those who covered the event at the Darbha thana. Hours later, the police showed up at his residence. "The police came looking for him around six in the evening," said his wife, Poonam Yadav. She informed them that he was not home. Yadav did not come back home that evening. His family gathered that the police had picked him up from outside a shop.

The police has arrested Yadav on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy, attempt to murder, association with terrorist organisation and supporting and aiding terrorist groups under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. The superintendent of police denied that Yadav's arrest had anything to do with the Bhadrimahu event. "He was under watch for a long time," said Ajay Yadav, Bastar SP. "His arrest is the consequence of the close links he had with the Naxalites."

Yadav contributed reports and pictures to several Hindi newspapers. As a stringer in Darbha, he was widely sought after for news from the region which had seen a Maoist ambush in May 2013 that left 28 people dead, including senior Congress leaders. Many more ambushes and attacks followed, despite the presence of security camps in the area.

Although Yadav's reports were much in demand, working in the area came at considerable risks. The Maoist conflict has left the region's journalists vulnerable as both the police and the Maoists suspect them of working as informers for the other side.

Last year, Yadav told this writer about the ordeal he faced in August, when he was called over from his home in the middle of the night by policemen. He was taken to the forest guest house opposite the police chowki in Darbha. He was asked to strip and made to sit for five or six hours inside the cell before he was released.

Hurt and embarrassed, Yadav informed the Jagdalpur office of Navbharat Times where he worked as a stringer. Confirming this, Manish Gupta, the newspaper's bureau chief in Jagdalpur, said: "Had this harassment persisted we would have looked into the matter, but Santosh did not revert with any further complaints."

Sympathetic to people: As a young man who had grown up in Darbha, Yadav found the rate at which the police made arrests and detentions in the area disturbing. Several of his adivasi schoolmates had been detained by the police. Earlier this year, he reached out to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a collective of mostly women lawyers who fight cases pro-bono, to represent the case of an adivasi boy, Arjun Ram of Chandameta village. Ram had been picked up by the police while he was returning from selling his cattle in the local market on May 16.

The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group immediately swung into action to challenge Ram's detention. Yadav went to the extent of getting the principal of the school to testify before the juvenile court to prove Ram's innocence. "He (Yadav) was genuinely affected by things happening around him and wanted to help as much as he could," said Shalini Gera from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.

Yadav regularly approached Gera and her colleagues for free legal aid for villagers. He intervened in the case of Somaruram Nag, another journalist who was threatened and harassed by the police in July. More recently, Yadav introduced the villagers from Bhadrimahu to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. Gupta of Navbharat Times believes Yadav was picked up by the police because he crossed his professional line as a journalist by standing with the people who protested against police atrocities. In a place like Darbha, anyone who helps villagers, who are themselves under watch for being Maoist supporters, runs the risk of coming under police surveillance and being labelled a Maoist supporter, he said.

"The police is trying to send a message through Santosh’s case to journalists that they should remain within their limits," said Gupta. "The police is conveniently forgetting the many times when it relies on these very local stringers to negotiate with the Maoists to retrieve the dead or injured bodies of security personnel lying in the forests," he added, recalling the Pilmed encounter in Sukma district in April this year and the Puverti encounter at the Andhra border in April 2013 when local journalists had stepped in to help the police secure their colleagues’ bodies.

On October 1, Yadav was produced before the court in Jagdalpur. Not only were villagers of Bhadrimahu and Darbha present during the court hearing, so were his family members, including his father, who is employed with the Women and Child Development Department. His wife sat with their two-month-old baby, having left the older children aged 5 and 3 at home. The police argued for an extension of Yadav's custody, claiming it needed to question him further. The court granted the extension. A public meeting of all working journalists has been called in Raipur on Friday to protest against the police harassment of journalists and stringers in Bastar.

*Name changed to protect identity

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