Pen or gun: Journos in Chhattisgarh stuck between cops and Maoists

  • Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Hindustan Times, Bastar, Chhattisgarh
  • Updated: Dec 16, 2015 18:25 IST
Somaru Nag, a journalist who ran a news agency for Rajasthan Patrika, is accused of keeping a watch on the movements of police for the maoists. (Arun Sharma/ HT Photo)

The one who brings unwelcome news holds a losing office, Shakespeare had written it in his 16th century play Henry IV. Journalists who bear bad news face a similar situation in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region that lies at the heart of a festering conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces. Each side tries to shoot the messenger when the news is not to their liking.

This time around, the messengers are journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag who have been jailed for allegedly providing information to the Maoists.

Yadav, who reported for newspapers Dainik Chhattisgarh and Dainik Navbharat, was picked up by the police on September 29 and slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA). Nag, who ran a news agency for Jaipur-headquartered Hindi daily Rajasthan Patrika and wrote for them as well, was arrested on July 16 from his shop in Tirathgarh, about 310 km south of state capital Raipur. He is accused of keeping a watch on the movements of the police while Maoists burnt down a crusher plant used for construction of roads in the area.

Lingaram Kodopi, fixer/freelance journalist, Dantewada

In September 2009, Lingaram Kodopi, a tribal from Dantewada, was detained by the police allegedly forcing him to become a Special Police Officer. He was arrested again for allegedly facilitating Essar’s payment for protection money to the Maoists. He was trained as a video journalist after his release. He distributes news, information and videos with local journalists. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo)

The detention of Yadav and Nag, which their supporters see as unlawful and an act of intimidation, is snowballing into a faceoff between journalists and authorities as violation of human rights and freedom to express once again come under spotlight in this insurgency-ridden tribal state.

Journalists from across Chhattisgarh are planning a Jail Bharo Andolan on December 21. “If the state considers both the journalists as Naxals, they should also come and arrest us all, for supporting Naxals,” said Kamal Shukla, who heads the newly formed Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti that is demanding a law to protect journalists. Maoists are often called Naxals as their ideology and politics has its roots in a leftwing poor peasant uprising in Naxalbari, West Bengal – in the late 1960s.

Mangal Kunjam, CGNet Swara, Bailadila

The 24-year-old adivasi journalist reports news events from the Bailadila area of Dantewada. Being a tribal, Kunjam has been accused of having ties with Naxal. While Naxals have accused him of being a police supporter for writing about development issues. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo )

On October 10, shortly after Yadav was arrested, the Samiti held a protest outside chief minister Raman Singh’s residence, asking the administration to provide proof of allegations against the two journalists within a month or set them free. Neither has happened.

“The usual system or law, that we are used to, stops short of conflict areas,” said Anil Mishra, a Raipur-based journalist with Hindi daily Nai Dunia.

Mishra, who spent 10 years in Bastar before he had to move to Raipur for his safety, recalls an incident when he and his colleague from Delhi met the state’s police chief in connection with a story on Binayak Sen. “I was shocked by his first reaction when I introduced myself. He said ‘Weren’t you..Naxals..’ and then he stopped,” Mishra said. “So clearly he had an impression that I was a Naxalite.”

Mukesh Chandrakar, Sahara Samay, Bijapur

Mukesh Chandrakar, 25, and his brother Ukesh have been a victim of harassment from both sides. Three months ago when they went to cover the death of three jawans, they were abused and told to leave, while in another incident the brothers were interrogated by Naxals at gun point for venturing into their area. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo )

The administration outside Bastar, according to Mishra, entirely depends on the feedback they get from the local police and hence form an opinion about the journalists. They are either with them or with the enemy.

When 24-year-old Somaru Nag, whose father is a farmer and who has been behind bars for more than four months along with two more accused of involvement in the attack on the crusher plant, was brought to the Jagdalpur district court on December 3, he appeared clueless about his crime.

“I was at my shop when the policemen came up and asked me to take a walk with them. I fail to understand why they arrested me. I don’t even know the other two accused,” said Nag before he was whisked away by policemen flanking him.

Anil Mishra, Nai Dunia, Raipur

Mishra, a news editor with the Hindi daily Nai Dunia, has spent 10 years reporting from Bastar. He was one of the ‘go to journalists’ for reporters parachuting from outside the state before he was forced to move to Raipur after death threats. Due to his hard hitting reports exposing police claims, Mishra was accused of being a Naxal supporter. (Arun Sharma/HT Photos)

In contrast, 28-year-old Santosh Yadav has been a victim of police harassment for some time. It started in 2014, when he was the first to reach the spot when a Maoist attack took place in Jiram Ghati in Bastar. The police presumed Yadav had prior information from the rebels, which meant he worked for them. The allegations against him, however, are that he used to supply materials and shared information with Maoists. He was arrested and his name was added to a case where 18 other villagers from Darbha were arrested a month earlier for their alleged involvement in a police-rebel encounter in August where a policeman was killed.

On an earlier occasion, Yadav -- a matriculate by education and now a father of three children -- “had been detained at a local thana, tortured and even offered money to become a police informer which he refused,” said Isha Khandelwal, a lawyer with a Jagdalpur-based all-women legal aid group called Jag-LAG. Yadav’s father and brothers are in government service. While local lawyers expect Nag to be released early, Yadav who faces the more draconian UAPA and CSPSA is probably in for a long haul.

Read: Spare a child from each family for rebellion, Maoists tell villagers

Intimidation by government forces is not new to journalists here. They understand that getting threats and harassed comes with the job. The worst they faced was when Salwa Judum – a campaign under which the state armed tribal youths to fight the Maoists – was at its peak. It was a time when journalists reported on widespread human rights abuses and the impunity with which the forces operated. It was also a period when several journalists were harassed, some even receiving death threats.

Journalists from different districts assembled near Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh’s official residence in Raipur to protest against the arrests of journalists and the high-handedness of IG in Bastar. (HT Photo)

Salwa Judum, which means peace march in local dialect Gondi, was later declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Kamlesh Painkra, one of the rare Adivasi journalists that Bastar produced, was witness to this. In 2006, his story on Judum cadres burning villagers’ home didn’t go down well with the police. He was threatened and asked to write an apology. He refused. Later his brother was arrested on charges of sheltering a Maoist and his sources told him he could be killed. Painkra had to flee with his family to take refuge in Dantewada. He now works for an NGO in Bijapur.

Local journalists have been repeatedly beaten up by members of Salwa Judum. In 2010, 24-year-old Mangal Kunjam, another adivasi journalist in Bailadila, Dantewada, who reports for the voice-based portal CGNet Swara, was threatened with a staged encounter by the local police after he reported the death threat on the three journalists. Three prominent senior journalists, including Anil Mishra, were threatened with “a dog’s death” if they continued to carry Maoist statements by a pro-state vigilante organisation called Danteshwari Adivasi Swabhiman Manch.

Truth has two versions in Bastar, one that fits the official narrative and the other that suits the Maoists. It is difficult to ascertain who is manufacturing what news.

Prabhat Singh, Patrika, Dantewada

Based in Dantewada, Singh, runs an agency of Rajasthan Patrika and has been writing for the Hindi newspaper for the past three years. He has two case registered against him by the police, which he claims is a result of his news reports. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo )

Just last week, there was news of surrender of 26 Maoists. Reportedly SRP Kalluri, inspector general of police for Bastar range, spoke of forces killing 15 rebels in a separate encounter last month. Two bodies were recovered. “The only way to check these claims is to go inside the jungle, to the villages where the incidents have happened. In my experience, most of the time that I went to check such claims the police’s version turned out to be a lie,” said Mishra.

In the war that goes on here and has claimed close to 1,000 lives in the past five years, neither side can afford to upset the media. But they won’t let it report fairly.

Read: Chasing stories to death

“A press conference in Bastar is usually a quiet affair, journalists just record what is said or take the handout and regurgitate it on the paper. No one dares ask a question,” said Prabhat Singh, a journalist for Rajasthan Patrika based in Dantewada – a Maoist stronghold bordering Telangana. Singh was singled out by Bastar IG SRP Kalluri when he asked about a missing person in one such conference. Kalluri’s removal featured among demands journalists submitted to CM Raman Singh during their protest in October. He has been accused of creating an environment where journalists can’t work freely.

Ganesh Mishra, Nai Dunia, Bijapur

The 32-year-old reporter from Bijapur, Ganesh feels the state has used them whenever they want them as mediators or to get kidnapped jawans rescued. In April 2011, when a greyhound soldier was killed in an encounter with Naxals, Mishra was sent by the police to pick up his body from the jungle. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo )

Kalluri declined to comment on the charges. His senior, additional director general of police RK Vij who heads anti-Maoist operations in the state, said “personal behavior” of any officer is beyond his control. Vij also denied there was any infringement of journalists’ rights, although he won’t comment on Yadav and Nag as the matter is subjudice. “Generally speaking, I have seen no such allegations or complaints that they (journalists) have not been able to write what they wished to,” he told HT.

However, it is not just the fear of the police or arrest. In 2013, killings of two senior journalists Sai Reddy and Nemi Chand Jain by the Maoists terrorised local scribes. They refused to cover any Maoist statements, prompting the rebels to issue an apology and admit that the killings were a mistake. More recently, two young journalists, brothers Mukesh and Ukesh Chandrakar who work for Sahara Samay and India News respectively, were interrogated at gun point by the Naxals when they went to the villages for a story.

“A reporter here is scared of both sides. Police is capable of manufacturing any case against you; Santosh [Yadav] is an example. And if you go into (the Maoists’) area without permission there is a chance you might get killed,” said Ganesh Mishra, another Nai Dunia journalist based in Bijapur that also is a part of the conflict zone.

“At the end of the day when we sit down to write, we first think of the consequences. The situation is such that the pen is in our hands but someone else is writing for us.”

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