A year on, the continued incarceration of Bastar journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav defies all basic norms of justice. Even the routine processes of justice have been given the go by and their families, the local journalists and activists campaigning for their release, and the lawyers fighting their cases have been embroiled in the classic ‘tareek pe tareek’ legal trap at the same time as they have been subjected to harassment, attacks, arrests and hounding out of Bastar.
In June 2016, two local journalists, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal, arrestedon charges of trespass and extortion for investigating reports of irregularities in a school exam, managed to secure bail three months after their arrest. But both Yadav and Nag languish in jail. Lawyers representing them are confident Nag will be released soon but there is little hope Yadav will even get bail soon.
In Nag’s case, the final arguments are posted for July 15, a day before the first anniversary of his arrest.
The arrests sparked an unprecedented show of support across the country as more than 300 journalists, lawyers and social activists signed a petition to seek their release. An Editors Guild team even came out with a report on the situation and another report by Amnesty International emphasized the blackout of information from Bastar. But none of these voices cut any ice with the police and administration and the reprisal was swift for those working on the ground.
In February this year, Scroll writer Malini Subramaniam, lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JAGLAG) Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal were hounded out of Bastar, political activist Soni Sori was attacked and the police arrested Singh and Jaiswal, who were actively involved in the campaign for the release of Nag and Yadav, and in demanding a law to protect journalists.
Now, on an initiative from the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), lawyers and journalists have drafted a law seeking protection for journalists and human rights defenders. The draft law proposes a commission which will ensure that cases of assault or arrest of journalists and human rights defenders will be investigated speedily and adjudicated upon.
Somaru Nag: interminable hearings
On July 16, 2015, police picked up Somaru Nag, a tribal journalist and newsagent from Dhabra village in South Bastar, charging him under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act, with aiding Maoists by acting as a lookout as they allegedly burnt a crusher plant deployed for road construction work.
After the inevitable delay in filing a chargesheet, the police produced witnesses and by January, all of them, barring one, gave statements that he was not present. The police have not produced the sole remaining witness to record his evidence since January 2016.
So, in effect, Nag languished in jail for six months just because the police did not produce the sole remaining witness. At each hearing, a different reason was given to postpone the proceedings. Now, the case comes up on July 15 for final arguments as the sole remaining witness did not turn up, says his lawyer Arvind Chaudhary. Chaudhary is confident of securing his release as there is really no evidence against him.
Santosh Yadav: No end in sight
Santosh Yadav was arrested on September 29, when he had gone to a remote village, Bhadrimau, to report on the plight of five villagers arrested in connection with an encounter between Maoists and the police. Yadav was slapped with more serious charges under the Unlawful Activities Protection Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Powers Act.
Yadav’s arrest emanated from an incident on August 21 where a Maoist group allegedly ambushed a police party on a road dug up in the middle of the night, resulting in the death of one assistant platoon commander. Advocate Shalini Gera of JAGLAG explained that it was only when the chargesheet was filed against Yadav, six months after his arrest, that it became clear that the police were making him out to be the main accused in the case.
Curiously, till his arrest on September 29, Yadav was reporting on different issues and even attending police briefings and police functions. It was when he went to investigate reports of the harassment of villagers in another incident that he was picked up.
Also curiously, the FIR lodged against him identified him by name and says he was visible by the light of an explosive flare but it is so improbable that he should be so clearly identified by name along with 19 other accused in the darkness of an ambush, Shalini Gera points out.
The police had initially arrested 12 persons and the families had been seeking help for their release. Yadav had reported on their plight and even put them in touch with lawyers, raising the ire of the police. Gera feels that the police were intent on making an example of his case, even deploying an additional superintendent of police, Vijay Pandey, to arrest him.
Prabhat Singh: Jail and likne ka junoon
But why should it matter how much time a journalist spends in prison if he is eventually granted bail and acquitted? After all, journalists are not any special or protected species and jails are crowded with so many citizens – adivasis, tribals, business folk, petty criminals or political activists. The police don’t have the personnel or vehicles to ferry all of them to court for hearings so a month or a year here and there shouldn’t matter so much surely?
In Prabhat Singh’s case, that’s the reason given by District and Sessions judge Nirmal Minjto for refusing bail and he finally had to move the Chhattisgarh High Court to secure bail. Even when he did get bail on June 23, he had to wait an additional two days for the challan and the release documents to be prepared.
The months in jail have taken a toll on Prabhat Singh’s health. Currently under medical observation at his home, he told this writer he was taking treatment for depression. “All day, I feel a knot in my throat which I can’t swallow and a headache. I have a persistent cough, which I must have picked up from jail. Abhitak, angrez k system chal raha hai (even now, the colonial systems prevail),” he says.
The jails, he adds, are overcrowded and conditions are unhygienic. Obtaining water for personal use is still a problem. Earlier, they used to throw a mug of water on each prisoner in lieu of a bath, now, at least one gets the mug in one’s hand, he says.
Initially, when he was produced in court, he managed to speak to the judge about his plight and the media highlighted his arrest. Colleagues told him that the police would merely keep him for a few days and release him later and that he just had to ‘cooperate for 15 days’, but he soon realized that was not to be.
The stint in jail hasn’t dulled Prabhat Singh’s journalistic instincts, in fact, it’s sharpened them. “I am waiting to get my health back and I shall write a few reports on the situation in the jail. There are so many people still in jail awaiting their trial. They languish for the strangest of reasons. Sometimes, the names of the accused are entered incorrectly or their father’s names not mentioned and when they are called out to go to court, they don’t go because they can’t identify themselves”, he said.
Other stories emerge. Police keep warrants ready for vast numbers of villagers, he found, and if judges adhere to procedure, then those arrested get some relief otherwise, they remain in jail, forgotten. Prabhat Singh met an engineer arrested on charges of possessing a detonator but he was actually employed by a mining company and had bills to prove the purchase of equipment for mining and of being picked up in Dantewada but the police claimed he was in Jagdalpur; a prisoner who complains of a skin infection or incessant itching is roundly abused for falling ill; a prisoner who was near death and then managed to get some medical attention; doctors writing out prescriptions for medicines that are not available…
And what of his own matter? Prabhat Singh, charged with obscenity under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act for a Whatsapp message that allegedly spoke in derogatory terms about IG Bastar, S. G. Kalluri says he was on the point of leaving the Whatsapp group.
“I kept being called a ‘deshdrohi’ (a traitor) and I was quite disgusted with some of my colleagues. Ek typing mistake tha. I had written ‘patrakar suraksha kanoon se unhe parhej hai jo already mama ki godh mein baithe hain’ but Google Hindi font inputted ‘godh’ as gandh. Agar aap ke dimaag mein kachra, to yahi padenge.” ( It was a typing mistake. I had written that those who were opposed to the demand for a law to protect journalists are sitting in the lap of the police but the Google Hindi font changed lap to backside. If people’s minds are filled with garbage, they will misread a mistake),” he said.
The complainant in his case and former ETV colleague, Santosh Tiwari, was removed from ETV and was probably seeking revenge, he felt. The school administrator, who alleged he was drunk, filed the other complaint on the extortion. But these are really agents of the police and the vigilante anti-Maoist Samajik Ekta Manch, Pabhat says, adding that the main culprit for the harassment he faced was the police strategy to curb all independent thinking.
“Kalluri has read all of Marx, Lenin, history of Germany, France, Russia. Woh Hitler ka un cheezon tholiya hai jahan (he has taken those elements of Hitler’s thought where) the media is a medium which can be made use of to falsify the truth,” Prabhat says, adding that the ground was being prepared for the silencing of dissent in Bastar since May 25, 2015, which signalled the beginning of Salwa Judum II.
“I also read Hitler in the jail library. There was a Hindi translation of his autobiography and I managed to read 80 pages. I think the strategy is clear. They use threats and fear, so free mein kaam ho gaya. Aur jinko paise chalta hai, bundle de doh (so their work of intimidation is done for free and for those who can be bought, there is always a gift). I was offered money but I refused to be bought. They call local politicians and say that the Naxals have given statements against you. So cooperate with us, “ he says.
For Prabhat Singh, the reasons for all of this is clearly about the corporate takeover of vast tracts of land hitherto owned or used by adivasis. “ With the administration so tightly controlled by the police, Bastar has been destroyed and its people moved out from their right over jal, jangal, zameen (water, forests, land). At least half the land here has been sold to big corporates,” he says.
Prabhat Singh’s family was from Bihar and his father came to Bastar to do construction work. But with little or no job opportunities, the family moved back to Bihar. “I got a little education and began writing in social media. There’s no work here lekin maine patrakarita karne laga – likne ka junoon tha (but I became a journalist, because I had a passion for writing).”
Three months and five days in jail (to be precise), it’s still a passion he hopes to hold on to.