With the Opposition in Chhattisgarh slamming the BJP government for “turning Bastar into a police state”, a Dantewada-based journalist was arrested in Jagdalpur on Monday for allegedly posting an “obscene message” about a senior police officer on WhatsApp groups.
The journalist, Prabhat Singh, was produced in a local court on Tuesday, where he alleged that he had been “assaulted by policemen in custody”. He was later remanded in judicial custody until March 31, according to his lawyer.
Singh was also charged with three other cases from 2015, two of which were based on charges of alleged cheating linked to an Aadhaar facilitation centre that he runs in Dantewada while another was linked to a story that he had pursued.
While Singh’s lawyer said he would move for bail in the sessions court in the latest case, after the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) rejected the first plea, the Congress party described the arrest as “an attempt to silence journalists”.
Police said Singh was arrested following a complaint about a WhatsApp message that read: “Patrakaar suraksha kanoon se keval unhen parhez hai jo already mama ki ***** mein baithe hai (Only those who are already sitting in mama’s ***** have a problem with the journalists’ protection law). “Mama” is a term used commonly by journalists in the region to refer to a top police officer in the Bastar range.
The latest police move follows similar arrests of local journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, both in prison for allegedly helping Naxals. Besides, a contributor for the website Scroll.in was allegedly forced to leave Bastar under police pressure.
Vishnu Singh, Singh’s brother, said that the journalist was picked up from outside the Aadhar centre around 5 pm on Monday. “We were told later that he was kept in the Parpa police station through the night, and had been arrested on charges relating to the IT Act. When we met him today (Tuesday), he told us he had been assaulted at the station,” he alleged.
A senior police officer said the latest case against Singh was registered under section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) and 67(A) of the IT Act as well as section 292 (publication of obscene or scurrilous matter) of the Indian Penal Code.
“The FIR was registered on March 5 based on a complaint by Santosh Tiwari, who accused Prabhat Singh of using obscene language with reference to senior police officers in Bastar on a WhatsApp group called ‘Bastar News’ on March 1 at around 3 pm. Police has followed procedure and all allegations of assault are incorrect,” the officer said.
Earlier this month, Singh had filed a complaint against Tiwari and members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, a controversial social organisation in Bastar that conducts events along with Chhattisgarh police, and accused them of defaming him in WhatsApp groups using abusive language.
In his complaint to Dantewada police, Singh had said that Tiwari, a former ETV correspondent based in Bijapur, had “personal enmity” against him. Incidentally, Singh’s arrest comes two days after ETV, the channel he was employed with for the past two months, sent him a termination notice. ETV officials refused to speak on record but said Singh’s removal was due to “wholly unrelated reasons”.
Asked about the other cases slapped on Singh, his advocate Khitij Dubey said, “One relates to a case where Singh had gone to report on cheating in a school, where the authorities framed him in a false case of taking photographs of girls in the toilet. Two other cases are related to section 420 (cheating) where he is accused of taking money to make Aadhar cards. Singh has told me that these cases are false. Importantly, these cases are of 2015 and there have been no arrests so far. Just because he was arrested in this case, they have been added by police.”
Reacting to the arrest, State Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel said, “I raised the matter in the Vidhan Sabha on Tuesday and have asked the Home Minister to give a response. They are attempting to silence journalists.”