Press Freedom

Attack on contributor: Chhattisgarh police refuse to file FIR, journalists rally in support

The harassment of Malini Subramaniam is part of a larger crackdown against independent voices in Bastar.

The morning after an attack on the Jagdalpur home of contributor Malini Subramaniam, the Chhattisgarh police on Monday refused to file a First Information Report in the incident.

On Sunday evening, a mob of 20-odd men had appeared outside Subramaniam's home, shouting slogans that accused her of being a Maoist supporter. Hours later, in the early hours of Monday morning, stones were hurled at her home, shattering the rear glass of her car.

On Monday, Subramaniam spent several hours at the local police station and the office of the district superintendent of police. But the police refused to do more than accept her written complaint. The city superintendent of police Deepmala Kashyap told Subramaniam and her laywer Isha Khandelwal that she could not file an FIR without the approval of the district superintendent of police, who was not in his office.

The police has itself been harassing Subramaniam by visiting her home late at night, and subjecting her to multiple rounds of questioning.

In recent months, Subramaniam has consistently reported on alleged human rights violations by security forces in Bastar. Her stories for have often been the first detailed accounts of the incidents. They have been subsequently followed up by other national media outlets, which do not have reporters in the region.

Stellar reportage

In October, along with the media watchdog The Hoot, Subramaniam was among the first to report on the alleged torture of two journalists, Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav, arrested by the police. The case was subsequently picked up by the Indian Express, after the Congress, the principal opposition party in the BJP-ruled state, spoke out against the arrests.

In November, Subramaniam filed a detailed report on the allegations of large-scale sexual violence by security forces in the district of Bijapur. The Hindustan Times followed up with a report in December.

In December, Subramaniam travelled to the interior villages in Sukma district where the police claimed to have wrested a major victory in the form of the surrenders of 26 Maoists. Local residents told her that the surrenders were forced and fake – the men were not actually Maoists. Later that month, the Hindustan Times investigated another round of 70 surrenders, and found "only 10 of the 70 men and women who surrendered have criminal cases pending against them".

What worked to Subramaniam's advantage was that she lives in Jagdalpur, the largest city in the Bastar region. Reporters living in the Chhattisgarh capital of Raipur need to travel 400 kms to get to the conflict areas. Subramaniam simply made a day trip to the villages and got back the same night.

But her location has also proved to be her disadvantage: it is impossible in Bastar and report critically about the actions of the police, as countless other journalists have found out over the years.

In fact, Subramaniam's intimidation comes at a time when journalists are, perhaps for the first time, mobilising against police harassment and the atmosphere of fear in Bastar. Two rallies in October and December last year put pressure on the government. The chief minister announced the establishment of a committee of editors to act as a buffer between journalists and the police. The committee is yet to be formed.

Larger crackdown

Over the last year and a half, Bastar has seen renewed legal and social activism. A group of women lawyers called the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group moved to the city and began to take up the cases of adivasis prisoners. It did not take long before they faced opposition: the local Bar Association passed a resolution prohibiting any lawyer from “outside” from practicing in the Jagdalpur courts.

Activist Soni Sori, who contested and lost elections on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, and was actively mobilising adivasi protests, has recently received an anonymous death threat.

In that sense, the harassment of Subramaniam is part of a larger crackdown against activists, lawyers and journalists in the region who are standing up against the police.

Fortunately, in Subramaniam's case, professional networks of journalists have been prompt in offering support to her. The Network of Women in Media issued a statement condemning the attack. "The continuous attempts to intimidate and threaten her into silence must immediately stop and those responsible must be brought to book," it said. The Indian Women's Press Corps also protested against the "intimidation and harassment of journalist".

The news of the attack on a journalist's house provoked such an outcry on social media that the terms "Chhattisgarh" and "Malini Subramaniam" briefly trended on Twitter on Monday.

The attack on Subramaniam begs a larger question: if a journalist writing for the national media is so vulnerable to police intimidation in Bastar, what about ordinary people, who are nameless and faceless?

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