Early on Monday morning, around 2.30 am, a motorcycle slowed down near the Jagdalpur home of Malini Subramaniam, who writes from Scroll.in from Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Subramaniam, who was awake, heard the clang of something hitting the metal gate of her house. In the morning light, she saw large stones lying in the porch. The rear glass of her car lay shattered.
Hours before the stones were thrown, around 6 pm on Sunday evening, a group of 20-odd men had gathered outside her house. They shouted slogans attacking her: Naxali Samarthak Bastar Chodo. Malini Subramaniam Mordabad. Naxal supporter, leave Bastar. Death to Malini Subramaniam.
The men urged women from Subramaniam's neighbourbood to join them, alleging that she was supplying arms to Maoists, and could plant bombs in their homes too. They asked the neighbours to throw stones at her home too.
Subramaniam immediately recognised two of the men: Manish Parakh and Sampat Jha. Both were part of another group of approximately 20 men who had visited her house on January 10. They had introduced themselves as members of Samajik Ekta Manch, which they described as a newly formed forum in Jagdalpur town to counter Naxalism in Bastar and support the police in its work. Later, Subramaniam found out that Parakh is the secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yuva Morcha and that Sampat Jha is a member of the Congress in Jagdalpur.
When they had arrived at her house around 8 pm on January 10, Subramaniam had invited them in, little knowing that they would launch into a tirade against her. “The group immediately, without even taking a seat, began enquiring about my whereabouts and more specifically dwelled on my contributing articles for Scroll.in,” she said.
Reporting rights violations
Over the last year, among other things, Subramaniam has reported on adivasi protests against police atrocities, allegations of mass-scale sexual violence by security forces, and the arrests and alleged torture of journalists by the police. A recent report raised doubts over the veracity of Maoist surrenders, with local people alleging that the police was putting pressure on them and forcibly parading them as surrendered Maoists.
Such reports on human rights violations are rare in a region where the long drawn low-intensity war between government forces and Maoist rebels has imperiled the freedoms of both ordinary residents and journalists. The government has used its advertising clout and draconian laws to silence the Hindi press. The English-language national press barely has any representatives in Bastar.
This made Subramaniam’s reports stand out. With two decades of experience in the development sector, she had travelled widely in the conflict affected areas as the head of the International Committee of Red Cross in Chhattisgarh. After ICRC folded up its operations in 2013, Subramaniam stayed back in Jagdalpur, and was able to travel and bring to light stories that were otherwise not being covered.
Her work made her a target. Before they left her house on January 10, the group of men made clear what they had come for. “They threatened they would be very angry if people were to engage in activities that tarnishes the image of Bastar and the police,” Subramaniam said.
A late-night visit
After they left, Subramaniam emailed me about the visit. Around 11 pm, while I was speaking to her on phone, a police jeep pulled up outside her house. As she stepped out to meet the police personnel from behind the metal gate of her house, I stayed on the phone, listening to the conversation that lasted nearly 40 minutes.
The police team led by the city superintendent Umesh Kashyap claimed they had come for a “verification”, but refused to reveal what had prompted it. They insisted that Subramaniam let them in, but she pointed out that it was very late and politely asked them to come the next morning. “Come in the morning, please, and we can talk over chai,” she told them.
A policewoman then came up with a barrage of questions: what did she do, where was she from, what did she travel to remote areas in Bastar. They wanted to know the name of her father, her husband, her landlord. The questions were routine ‒ nothing that could not wait till the morning.
When she told them she wrote for Scroll.in, the policewoman said “Iss naam ko yahan koi press nahi.” There is no press agency by this name here. Subramaniam explained that she sent her stories to Delhi ‒ a fact that was greeted with great astonishment by the police.
Before they left, Kashyap expressed his annoyance with Subramaniam’s refusal to let them inside, warning her that this would not purport well for the future.
Intimidation by police
The next day, Scroll.in called the district superintendent of police, RN Dash, and asked him what had prompted such a late-night police enquiry. He said he would “look into the matter”. Scroll.in also wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, and the Director of Public Relations, protesting against the late-night police visit.
“It is inexplicable why a journalist was subjected to such late night questioning when there was no justifiable urgency,” said the letter. “We still do not know the purpose of the police visit. It appears aimed at threatening Subramaniam and stopping her from reporting freely in Bastar. We request the intervention of your office to make sure that Subramaniam and other journalists are not subject to intimidation by the police in Bastar.”
The same day, Subramaniam went to the city police station to submit her identification documents as she had been asked to.
Ten days later, however, the police was back at Subramaniam’s house. This time, the personnel were from the police station of Dharampura, the area where she lives. Subramaniam was away, and her daughter received them. Subramaniam went to the police station and answered the same set of questions she had been asked before, and submitted the same set of documents. A policewoman told her that a senior police officer had asked them to carry out the enquiry.
Later, Subramaniam found out from her neighbours that the police had surveyed her house from their roof. They had tried contacting her domestic staff. Parakh, the BJP Yuva Morcha leader, had also made visits to the neighbourhood, with copies of her articles, spreading word that she was an agent of the Maoists.
Keen to secure Subramaniam’s safety, Scroll.in sent another letter to the Chief Minister. There was no formal acknowledgement of it. Informally, however, a senior official of the government said the matter had been resolved. He added, “Please ask her to be careful”, without spelling out what that meant.
Press freedom under threat
Subramaniam is not the only journalist to face police harassment in Bastar. Last year, two journalists, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, were arrested on charges of aiding Maoists. In October, hundreds of journalists organised a rally in the state capital Raipur to protest against their arrests and to demand more protection from the government. After journalists took out another rally in Jagdalpur in December, Chief Minister Raman Singh announced the setting up of a committee of editors that could vet complaints against journalists before the police stepped in.
The committee has still not been formed. Monday morning's events leave no doubt where Chhattisgarh government stands when it comes to the safety of journalists and press freedoms.
After the sloganeering mob left, Parakh, Yuva Morcha member who was part of the mob, sent her images and a press note over the messaging service WhatsApp. The images showed the group burning effigies. The note said those were of Naxalism and Naxal supporters.
Subramaniam called the district superintendent of police from her number. He did not take her calls. She called from another number ‒this time, he took the call but as she began describing the visit of the Samajik Ekta Manch, he disconnected.
On Monday, Subramanian spent more than four hours attempting to get a First Information Report filed against the attackers at the local police station, but the officers refused to file an FIR.
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