Another month and more police action against a journalist in Bastar. The arrest of Prabhat Singh by the Bastar police on charges of using offensive language in a whatsapp post has stoked controversy for several reasons.
The first is the arrest itself, with a post on WhatsApp which read “patrakaar suraksha kanoon ko keval unhe parhez hai jo already mama ke **** main baithe hai“, seemingly spurring the Bastar police administration to action, picking up Singh and keeping him at a police station overnight, and then slapping him with charges under section 292 and 67 of the IT Act. Singh had made a police complaint against the complainant in the case — Santosh Tiwari and members of the Samajik Ekta Manch — of using abusive language and defaming him on WhatsApp forums. No action has been taken on that complaint but Singh finds himself in jail for the comment, with three other pending cases against him from 2015, on which no action had been taken all these months, also slapped against him.
In his post, the crucial word is “mama”. A common reference to a senior police official of the Bastar range, the term further points to Singh as was one of the rare local journalists who has often been critical of the district administration. And that his arrest is increasingly being seen as part of a narrative where any voice even remotely anti-establishment is being suppressed.
In October last year, journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag were imprisoned on charges of Naxalism, with Yadav arrested hours after a reported verbal altercation with SRP Kalluri , Inspector General of Police(Bastar). Malini Subramaniam, who wrote extensively on fake encounters and fake surrenders in Bastar for Scroll.in was forced to leave Bastar after stones were pelted at her residence, also alleging that the police had forced her landlord to send her an eviction notice. A similar pattern of events occurred in the eviction of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, their landlord’s vehicle allegedly seized by the police until an eviction notice was served.
Many in Bastar say that Singh did not bow to police authority and once had a verbal altercation with Kalluri at a press conference in Dantewada. In his writings for Patrika, Singh had written critical articles about the police, and was often a focal point for those in the national media and other organisations who wanted to look at the occurrences in Dantewada where he was from, closely.
In a larger context, the danger is that Singh’s arrest, like those of the others, could be an attempt to shut down the tenuous lines of communication to those from outside Bastar. As IG Bastar once put it himself, to them the national media “is unimportant”, with the “Bastar media working with the police.” Singh, was one of the few exceptions to that rule.
Singh’s arrest also raises questions of how local journalists are treated by organisations they work for, an issue that has been raised by the Patrakaar Suraksha Kanoon Sangharsh Samiti on several occasions. Singh’s arrest came two days after he was sent a termination letter by ETV, a channel he worked with for two months. Senior ETV officials, refused to speak on record but their stand is that “they have nothing to do with the arrest since he was removed two days before it happened.”
The police also argue in their defense that since Singh no longer works with ETV, he was no longer a journalist.
As one controversy has followed the other, the incident of a corrosive liquid applied to Soni Sori’s face being another example, the Congress and social organisations have called Bastar a “police state”, rife with “administrative terror”. Questions are being raised on encounters as well as surrenders by the state. Unanimous demand across protests has been the need for a change in the police leadership in the area, most ills put at their door by the opposition. Yet, so far the state government has been unmoved. Their response to this new crisis will determine the ferocity of the protests that will now inevitably follow, with Singh even telling court that he was assaulted in police custody. There are rumblings within the administration itself, with many senior police officers suggesting that “unnecessary actions” take away from the “good that is being done” and feel that a change now is “necessary at the earliest”. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
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