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Naveen Soorinje- ‘State is biased against Muslims, Dalits, farmers’

Most people are relieved when they walk out of prison. Naveen , a TV journalist bailed last week after four-and-half months in jail, says his incarceration was a blessing. Soorinje, 28, made headlines in July after he videoed vigilantes of an illiberal Hindu sectarian outfit attacking young men and women at a private party in the coastal Mangalore city in Karnataka. The police, however, named him a co-accused in the case and arrested him in November. The son of a small villager farmer, Soorinje has reported extensively on communal and caste violence, police atrocities and organised crime in his ten-year career. Importantly, he has campaigned against corruption in journalism in his city in the last three years. He spoke to Tehelka’sImran Khan after his release on March 23.
Naveen Soorinje. Photo: Ashok KR

How do you feel after spending nearly five months in prison?
My jailing was a gift from the police. It gave me a chance to study another face of theirs. A journalist doesn’t easily get that opportunity. I saw how deeply the communal forces have penetrated the government and the city administration.

What did you experience in the jail?
The biggest learning was that nearly 40 percent of the inmates are Muslims. Most were arrested after communal violence. Some are rotting there for years. I did not meet a single Hindu or Christian arrested for communal violence. The only non-Muslims communalists arrested are the vigilantes for their morality policing, and only those who were exposed in my video although their attacks are an everyday event in .

What was your routine in the prison?
We would queue up at 6 am to be counted to make sure no one died overnight. But the famous prisoners didn’t need to. A quick shower and a short walk was allowed at 7.30 am and breakfast at 9.30 am. Often, other prisoners came to me thinking I could help them as a journalist. I wrote out their petitions and complaints. Many inmates had overstayed for months because they couldn’t raise even Rs. 500 to post bail. I helped them borrow money from other inmates.

Why did it take you so long to get ?
The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the local administration colluded in my case and lied to the court about me. The police claimed I had absconded even though I was at work in the city. This delayed the decision on my bail.

Does your prison experience offer any lessons for journalists?
Journalists should also hear out the accused instead of just being police informers. Our moral obligation and primary duty is to be the informers of the people. It was my video footage alone that led to the vigilantes’ arrest. Journalists should also realise that the police serve their masters in power. Police officers that were secular under a Congress government turned communal when the BJP came to power in 2008. The prison showed me the state’s bias against the minorities, Dalits, farmers and adivasis.

Some 500 people in the Mangalore jail are held on mere suspicion and all are Muslims. A 15-year-old boy was picked off the street because a police officer found him suspicious. He has been in judicial custody for months. Rehman, an 80-year-old qawwali singer who can’t even walk, was arrested because he owned two SIM cards. A man is in prison for three months because he allegedly stole a bucket, worth Rs. 75, from a Brahmin. Can’t such cases be resolved at the police stations? Most of the time journalists unthinkingly accept press releases from the police and “sentence” the accused.

Are you happy with the support you received from the news media?
I didn’t expect much except from a few friends but I am overwhelmed with the support I got and I am thankful to all. I must, however, say that most journalists in Mangalore didn’t support me for various reasons, including ideological.

What next?
Continue working as a journalist. I plan to write a book based on my experiences in jail. I have many stories to tell.

 

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