On a winter night in 2014, Mukesh took out his camera to film two dead police jawans, the number that usually qualifies as news in Bastar, on the highway.
The jawans, on a motorcycle, had apparently bumped into an anti-landmine vehicle that exploded. Soon, cops were all over the place. They asked the young television journalist what business he had there. He recalls the conversation:“I said I had come to cover the incident,” says Mukesh. “‘When it is necessary, we will call you’, they said. ‘What you find unimportant or unnecessary, I should not cover?’ I asked.”
Since 2013, the year that began the third term of the Raman Singh-led BJP government in Chhattisgarh, Bastar journalists say they have been given an answer to that question in various ways. By being detained in police stations, with loss of jobs and demotion, and even having FIRs lodged against them but with no action taken, as the first step in intimidation.
Watch: Journalist testimonials about daily pressures at work
In March 2016, Prabhat Singh of Patrika was arrested and sent to Jagdalpur Central Jail under the IT Act for allegedly posting an “obscene message” about a senior police officer on WhatsApp groups. He was released last week. The real reason for his harassment, say fellow journalists, is that he was relentless in exposing the loopholes in police work. Stringer Santosh Yadav and newspaper agent Somaru Nag, are also in the same prison since 2015. When we meet the three in jail a few days before Singh’s release, they said they had been assaulted in police custody and “kept in a cell with hardcore criminals”.
Rajesh Sahu, a Kondagaon-based stringer, who was also held in the same jail “for exposing a panchayat scam”, says he had met “400 farji Naxali and three actual Maoists inside the jail. All, like me, were people who would speak up…but sometimes even that is not necessary; random things are now happening in Chhattisgarh.”
Nag says, “Someone had pointed to me as being part of a group that was burning a crusher plant employed in road construction, and that was enough for the police to pick me up.” He has been charged under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Arms Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act (CPSA). Yadav, on the police radar since 2013 for being among the first to reach Darbhagahatti to report the Maoist attack that killed Congress leader and Salwa Judum initiator Mahendra Karma, has been charged under the IPC and the Arms Act. Anwar Sheikh, another journalist, and his wife, Anjali Chouhan, are in Bilaspur Jail since 2012, apparently for his wife’s activism.
Three kinds of journalism, they say, are now under attack in Bastar. Journalism that raises the question of human rights of tribals, and the threat to the tribal lands and jungles from state-backed corporates. Second, any critical reporting of security forces, which act as “clearing agents” for state-driven industrialisation. And, of course, the third: to be neutral in the Maoist-state government conflict.
Dinesh Kashyap, BJP MP, Bastar, says “those journalists who write in favour of Maoists are the only ones facing problems. our government is not oppressing them.”
Journalists are supposed to write from two points of view. In Bastar, you are supposed to write from one, says Mukesh. “If you can write from the point of view of the government and publish police handouts of arrests, encounters and surrenders as news, it’s great. If you can’t, don’t.”
“Don’t write. What else?” he says. Hadn’t he just stated the obvious? He leaves us to steer his bike through the broken lanes that fan out from his doorstep to get on to the neat asphalt highway to look for the day’s news.
New economy, new journalism
Since 2013-14, national highways have drilled through Bastar and released petty entrepreneurial energies in the towns they have passed through. Rows of photostat shops, and those vending truck tyres and mobile phones, flank them now in a scene that used to be dominated by the solitary gas station. In these towns the civil contractor is most likely to be the man with a two-storey shop up a flight of stairs. If he owns a newspaper, it is simply his cash cow. The CRPF camp every few kilometres on the highway is also for his security and the security of his road-laying equipment.
Kamal Shukla, a senior Chhattisgarh journalist, says the stories a journalist at first does does at these contractor-run low-end operations, is “used by the owner to show that he has the arsenal to expose the government. The government then gives the paper ads to stop its critical stories. But when the owner hears that another newspaper, run by another contractor like himself, is also getting government ads, he asks his reporters to be critical of the government again”. Yadav, Mukesh and Pushpa Rokde, who do their journalism sustained by this precarious economy, thus find themselves in dangerous situations, if they bark up the wrong tree – at the wrong time.
But at what point should a journalist curb his or her journalistic instincts and not ask the obvious questions?
“This April, I heard there had been a Maoist attack on a CRPF camp. I thought if it’s a full-fledged attack how come only one person is dead and no explosives recovered?” recounts Rokde, who writes and gets ads for her paper, Dainik Prakhar Samachar, in south Bastar. “So I went to the village near the camp. Villagers said the sound of gunfire happened from inside the camp. Last year, too, in the Reddy gram panchayat, I got news that a jawan of the CRPF 85 battalion had drowned in the compound tank. From villagers I got to know he had actually died in the village pond. It’s a mystery what’s happening in these camps. Was it a murder?”
Rokde says she has had cops at the highest level – she won’t say who – tell her this year that she should “cooperate” with them. Nitin Rokde, her husband, a former CRPF man who is now a journalist with the same paper his wife works in, says he left the profession because he had “seen an officer kill a junior”, a startling revelation, after which he clams up.
Who has got injured? Who shot whom? These are surely not big questions to ask. These are the only questions to ask, but it is leading us to trouble, says Rokde. In Bastar, the story is in the missing details. Fear dictates how a journalist will tell that story. Or not tell it at all.
Kamlesh Painkra, a journalist, who had written about the Salwa Judum, recently left the profession to join an NGO. “At present, I’m not a journalist,” he says, “so I cannot speak to you.” It sounded like an apology but one couldn’t be sure. The two-minute meeting in front of his new office had begun to draw glances. By the time our car revved up, he had disappeared from sight.
‘Even Raman Singh can’t sack me’
Salwa Judum, the counter-insurgency movement started in Chhattisgarh in 2005 to fight Maoism, had been a test for journalists in Bastar to figure out reporting techniques that would keep them impartial. And safe. In a press conference at Raipur, the media had been warned through political fora that “the public was angry, journalists should be careful”. Shukla, a journalist of over 30 years who has been slapped by an SPO on reporting duty, had his home raided for ‘Naxal literature’, and had his family break up due to frequent job losses because of police pressures, was, therefore, well prepared for the following conversation that took place in a room with a top cop in 2014.
IG Kalluri called me to his office. ‘Even Raman Singh can’t sack me, I’m here for three years and I’ve to start Raoghat and other incomplete projects’, he told me,” says Shukla. Over phone he has also been threatened by the IG to “either leave Bastar or leave journalism”.
“No police officer is above the law,” says a senior police officer on condition of anonymity. “He (Kalluri) is IG today, he may be removed tomorrow…He was transferred as SSP from Bastar by the Raman Singh government in 2011.”
Kalluri is on record saying he has time only for “patriotic journalists”. Subba Rao, head of the vigilante group Samajik Ekta Manch (some say it had been disbanded but continues under other names), which played a major role in hounding out Scroll journalist Malini Subramanium and lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal from Jagdalpur, is a pro-government journalist. “Naxal crime” has been one of Rao’s beats. “There is no restriction in Bastar for journalists,” he says over the phone. On being told that we had experienced that first-hand, he says, “few days back I had gone to Orissa and was stopped there. These things happen. ”
A police state?
In 2016, Shukla was also threatened by Bastar collector Amit Kataria, who said he had “not even the status of a fly” to be taking the positions he had been taking. According to him, Kalluri and Kataria, are the “officers best suited for the plan the government has for Bastar”. Shukla has now turned into more of a symbol of Bastar’s resistance, and the agony uncle of beleaguered journalists. He, has, however, kept up with his journalism by writing for social media. As a security measure, he often changes his name when checking into hotels in Bastar. Every night, hotel staff all across the region, send reports on guests to the police. The staff of Hotel Akanksha, where we stayed while in Jagdalpur, confirmed this; our car was stopped and tailed three times by uniformed police on national highways (even as other cars were allowed to pass), and questioned by a posse of uniformed and plain-clothes cops on the way to Dantewada.
Is Chhattisgarh a police state? Not everyone is allowed to say that of course.
Bappi Ray, a Dantweda journalist, explains the hierarchy: “The district journalist is safer than the journalist in the village. So Bappi Ray is safer reporting in Dantewada than Santosh Yadav in Darbha village. And you in Delhi are safer than us.”
Not surprisingly, most journalists in Chhattisgarh have taken a stand against Maoist and state violence, and also criticised both when they have interrupted their work. Shukla, Bappi Roy and Abdul Siddiqui have gone on a padyatra to protest Maoist attack on journalists. In 2010, when some jawans in Bijapur were kidnapped, Roy and Siddiqui were part of the team that searched for them in the jungles and persuaded Maoists to release them. “But in the name of controlling Maoists, you begin controlling journalists, is that what Mission 2016 is really about?”, asks Devsharan Tiwari, bureau chief of the reputed daily Deshbandhu.
The other question he poses is: “Maovaad ke liye brashtachaar ya brashtachhar ko bachane ke liye Maovaad (Is Maoism a response to corruption or is it being preserved to continue corruption?) There is graft all around. State officials cook their books and show that a road, or a bridge, has been built in Abujhmadh. And because this is Maoist area, no one questions why it has been built with so much money or goes to check if it has actually been built.” In 2014, SPs of Janjgir and Korba is said to have asked for funds to control Maoism. These districts, local journalists say have not known Maoist activity. “But give it time, it can be discovered,” says Shukla.
Anil Mishra, news editor at Chhattisgarh’s well-known Hindi daily, Nai Dunia, has had a career battling angry cops and ambiguous bureaucrats. (Mishra and Tiwari were recently awarded by PUCL for their journalism). Mishra has done spot stories, page one stories, features on Bastar. As we wrap up our assignment, he gets busy with packaging the night’s news. And he says the most generous thing one journalist can say to another: “The written word belongs to no one. Bastar needs to be written about over and over again.”