India at 70: How Santosh Yadav paid the price for independent reporting in Maoist-hit Bastar

Santosh Yadav was accused of being present during a Maoist ambush and charged under anti-terrorism legislations. He spent 18 months in jail in Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur and Kanker.

IndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 15, 2017 07:13 IST
Prashant Jha and Ritesh Mishra
Prashant Jha and Ritesh Mishra
Hindustan Times, Darbha, Bastar (Chhattisgarh)
Santosh Yadav wrote for respected Hindi dailies like Dainik Navbharat, Patrika and Dainik Chhattisgarh. (HT Photo)

There is nothing more heartbreaking than the moment when your child refuses to recognises you. And that memory continues to haunt Santosh Yadav even now.

“My daughter kept refusing to come near me, kept saying ‘he is not my papa’. I was helpless.”

In February, Yadav was released from prison on bail. The Supreme Court had given the order. Accused of being present during a Maoist ambush and charged under anti-terrorism legislations, Yadav had spent 18 months in difficult circumstances in jail in south Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur and Kanker.

It was when he stepped out that he encountered his daughter, who was only a month old at the time of his arrest.

Yadav’s case, sub-judice at the moment, remains a tale of how in parts of India, the freedom to be a journalist, report events, and tell the truth is not available. It is a sign that 70 years after independence, there are still dark spaces of unfreedom.

Antagonising power

Bastar has been in the middle of a conflict between the state and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) for decades. And those who have got squeezed the most in the crossfire are ordinary citizens, mostly adivasis, of the region.

Yadav was a journalist who wrote for respected Hindi dailies - Dainik Navbharat, Patrika and Dainik Chhattisgarh - from the belt. And this is when he came on the radar of Bastar Police, headed until recently by controversial police official, inspector general SRP Kalluri, who had a reputation for brooking no dissent and using tough measures against all those who disagreed with him.

“I used to document stories from inside villages. When police beat villages or arbitrarily arrested them, I used to write it. After on such instance, Kalluri came and said pick him up- he is trying to divide the people, disrupt police-public coordination.”

Yadav may now be on bail- but this is strictly conditional. He has to go to the local thana everyday. (HT Photo)

Yadav was picked up in September 2015. A Chhattisgarh Police Special Task Force Commander alleged that he had seen Yadav stand behind a Maoist fighter during an ambush in August that year - Yadav has maintained that he was not even in Darbha the day of the ambush.

The same commander later expressed his inability to ‘identify the accused with certainty’ - but till then, the damage had been done, Yadav was locked in, the charged framed, the wheels of justice - or injustice - in India’s complex and prolonged legal machinery had moved.

In the Jagdalpur prison, Yadav saw the conditions and began a movement to improve food and medical treatment for inmates - this brought him in confrontation with local cops again, and he had to face lathis and got injured.

Free but chained

Yadav may now be on bail- but this is strictly conditional. He has to go to the local thana everyday, and every time he leaves Darbha, even for the neighbouring town of Jagdalpur, he has to inform the thana.

He is also no longer working. “I cannot go anywhere. It is difficult to write. I also don’t want to leave my daughter.” But would he quit journalism completely? Yadav’s mother, listening quietly on the side, now steps in and says, “No. How can he? So many people have supported him and us. He cannot just leave it now, but must continue working.”

70 years after Independence, what does Yadav feel about free India?

“How can you say Bastar is free? Laws are not followed. Police can pick people arbitrarily.” But doesn’t the fact that despite his troubles, he was able to get bail and civil society support indicate the vibrancy of Indian democracy? “I agree with that, but it was people from outside who gave me most support. In Bastar itself, people did not rise. They are trapped between police which calls them Naxals and Naxals who call them informers. We have to break that cycle.”

Till that is broken, Bastar will not be completely free. This August 15th, Yadav says he will unfurl the flag - as he laughs with his daughter, as they playfully bond. In the chains, he finds freedom when he can.

First Published: Aug 15, 2017 07:10 IST