She is a Gond tribal from Chhattisgarh and he a former Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) constable from Maharashtra. Together, Pushpa Rokde (née Usendi) and Nitin Rokde make for a unique couple in the state’s Maoist hotbed of Bastar.
Both are reporters with the Dainik Prakhar Samachar and are the editor’s pride, colleagues’ envy and a constant source of worry for the security forces.
As Bastar’s only tribal woman journalist who knows the forested terrain and speaks the local Halbi, Chattisgarhi and Gondi dialects, Pushpa, 35, enjoys unparalleled access and trust in a region where officials fear to tread. She scoops stories that often force mainstream media to take note and embarrass the establishment.
In 2015, she was one of the first to report on the alleged rapes and atrocities by security forces in Bijapur. Two weeks ago, it made national headlines again after the National Human Rights Commission found prima facie evidence of the crime and asked the Chhattisgarh government why interim relief of Rs 37 lakh should not be paid to the victims.
Journalists, especially women, have been under fire in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. In 2016, Malini Subramaniam of Scroll was allegedly attacked by unidentified people and she had to leave Bastar later. Same year, Alok Prakash Putul of BBC was forced to leave Bastar, where he had gone to report on a story.
The police had also arrested Sai Reddy in 2008 and Santosh Yadav and Samaru Nag in 2015 under the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act. In addition, there have been reports of journalists facing threat from groups backed by the police.
But the reporter couple of Pushpa and Nitin have been defiant. While the tribals warm up to Pushpa because she knows their language, Nitin, 38, who quit the CRPF after inquiry over an encounter, “knows the system”. She is based in Bijapur and he works out of neighbouring Dantewada. Both these districts in Bastar division are among the worst affected by left-wing extremism in the state.
Together, the couple has unrivalled insight and access, and their reports inevitably bring pressure. “Police tell me to cooperate, but they do not press it beyond a point because they know I won’t budge,” says Pushpa.
Nitin followed Pushpa into journalism after quitting the CRPF. “He expressed dissent over an encounter and seniors started harassing him. He resigned,” says Pushpa, without elaborating.
Nitin is equally cryptic. “I was very disturbed after that incident and was called to Delhi by senior officials in 2006. Later, I was kicked out. I decided to come back here and work for the poor people.”
Last year, he had told HT he left the force because he had “seen an officer kill a junior” and clammed up.
Pushpa, who dropped out of school in Class X to help her family, had started as a proofreader in 2003 in the daily where she is now a key reporter. In between, she resumed studies and became a graduate.
Deepak Lakhotia, the editor and owner of Dainik Prakhar Samchaar, says the couple is an asset for his 30-year-old newspaper. “Pushpa’s stories are brilliant and we don’t have to work on them.”
One of Pushpa’s many “sources”, a tribal woman who lives “deep inside” Bastar, offers a reason for why she has their trust. “She understands us. She is one of us. She is the one with whom we share our pain and anger.”
When Pushpa takes their voice to her newspaper, the issue often gets picked up by others. “More than three dozen stories of mine have been followed by mainstream media in the country,” says Pushpa. She brushes aside the fact that those reports never credit her for the “breaking” and “exclusive” stories.