At the heart of a mass protest planned in Bastar on December 21, demanding a law to “protect journalists”, lie two arrests. Of 29-year-old Santosh Yadav, who wrote for several local papers, on September 29 and of a local news agent, Somaru Nag, on July 16.
At the hut in which Santosh lives in Darbha, his daughter Isniya runs in and out constantly as his wife and parents talk of the “trumped-up” charges against him. While Santosh’s wife Poonam says police have told them he was “involved with Naxals”, his father Budhram notes with pride that his son has evoked “such goodwill” among fellow journalists. Isniya, only 3, seems to be barely listening, till she asks, “Kab aayenge (When will he return)?”.
Police accuse Santosh of “complicity” in an encounter between police and Naxals in August, in which one STF jawan was killed. Two and a half months after his arrest, there is no chargesheet in the case.
Budhram says they had been living in fear of this since the Maoist attack in Darbha in May 2013 that left 28 people, including senior Congress leaders such as V C Shukla and Nand Kumar Patel, dead.
“Because we live just a few kilometres from the spot, Santosh was one of the first journalists there. Anywhere else but Bastar, he would have been congratulated. But police began to harass him, asking how he had arrived that quickly. They would keep him at the thana overnight, sometimes he told us they stripped him naked. They wanted him to become a police informer,” Budhram says.
Nag’s family says he ran a small store in Tirathgarh block of Darbha, acted as a distributor, and sometimes wrote articles. “He wasn’t involved in anything,” says father Koya.
Over 160 journalists, editors and activists, who have planned the Bastar protest, have also signed a petition marked to Union I&B Minister Arun Jaitley, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Chief Minister Raman Singh citing “a deep sense of insecurity” about their work and lives.
On the morning of September 29, Santosh had left to cover the story of villagers from Badrimau, deep inside the forests, who were going to the Darbha police station to find out about five of their men who had been arrested.
Deva, one of the few in Badrimau village to speak Hindi, says Santosh had helped them get in touch with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.
According to Deva, senior officers were present at the station and offered them clothes and food but said nothing on the release of the five. “Santosh said he would speak to the police.” Within hours, he was arrested.
Isha Khandelwal, who is representing both Santosh and Nag, points out the discrepancies in the police version. “When police were asked why Santosh had been held, they initially said he was in touch with Shankar, a Maoist, and supplied information to him. A month and a half later, the prosecution moved an application saying the complainant had seen Santosh during an encounter. Even in the case of Nag, they have arrested him for allegedly keeping a lookout for Naxals as they burnt down crushers. There is no evidence.”
Harjit Singh, regional bureau chief of Daink Chhattisgarh, confirms Santosh worked for them and says he would testify the same in court “if necessary”. “In rural areas like Darbha, the journalist does everything. So Santosh looked after circulation, local advertisements, and gave us information and photographs for stories as well,” Singh says. “Ten-15 days before his arrest, Santosh said police were troubling him.”
Santosh also wrote for Navbharat and Patrika, while Nag’s family has a press identification card saying he worked for Patrika.
Despite repeated attempts, Superintendent of Police, Jagdalpur, R N Dash, did not respond to questions on the arrests.
Inspector General of Police S R Kalluri, who is named in the petition by the journalists and activists, also refuses to comment on the issue and denies any knowledge of the planned demonstration.
One of the demands in the petition is “an investigation into the methods adopted by senior police official SRP Kalluri, who has created an atmosphere of terror in the Bastar region, especially against the media”.
ADG, Anti Naxal Operations, R K Vij refuses to comment on the new law being demanded by journalists without reading its contents, but demands “a degree of self-regulation by the media”. “The media has great freedom, and police are the guardian of that freedom. Even the Supreme Court has refused to limit the media,” he says.
Kamal Shukla, president of the Patrakaar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, says that at the demonstration on December 21, they would demand a law with strict provisions for penalty against those imposing false cases on journalists, security for journalists, as well as much-needed identity cards for them. “We will also ask for unconditional release of Santosh and Nag,” Shukla says.
With the issue dominating social media and other public platforms in Bastar, support has also begun to filter in from politicians. Bastar BJP MP Dinesh Kashyap says several people had approached him. “It is true that journalists get stuck between the police and Maoists, and I support the issues being raised by them.”
Back in Darbha, cradling their younger daughter, Santosh’s wife Poonam wonders how long the four-month-old would have to wait for a name. “She was just over a month old when Santosh was arrested. Iska to abhi namkaran bhi nahin hua (She hasn’t even had a naming ceremony).”
* Charges against Santosh Yadav
Based on an August 21 encounter when Maoists allegedly damaged a National Highway and ambushed forces that had arrived to clear the road. In the incident, one STF assistant platoon commander was killed, and an STF personnel injured.
Cases filed under sections of rioting, rioting armed with deadly weapon, unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint, party to criminal conspiracy, mischief by injury to public road, river, channel, attempt to murder, murder, Arms Act, Explosives Act, UAPA, Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.
He is in police remand. No chargesheet so far.
* Charges against Somaru Nag
On June 25, three crusher plants were attacked by Naxals, machines were burnt down and items stolen. Nag is alleged to have kept a watch for the Naxals.
Cases filed under sections of dacoity, mischief by fire or explosive substance, criminal conspiracy, criminal intimidation, Arms Act.
Four court hearings so far.