A murmur of amusement rippled through the corridor in Jagdalpur court on October 1, as Joga*, a panchayat member of Bhadrimahu village, read out the headlines in the previous day's newspapers to a group of his neighbours.
"About 150 villagers from Bhadrimahu village of Darbha block descended 14 kilometres by foot to reach Darbha thana seeking security against the Maoists," one of the newspapers reported. The report went on to quote SRP Kalluri, the Inspector General of police, Bastar, as saying: "The population of Bastar is now wake. They are fed up with the Maoists, which is why the villagers reached Darbha thana." The Superintendent of Police, Ajay Yadav, was quoted to say : "The villagers want peace now... It was only after much persuasion and sufficient assurance of protection that the villagers left for their homes."
Listening to the reports, the villagers could not suppress their laughter, despite the grim circumstances that had brought them to the region's administrative centre. The policemen were lying, they said. They had trekked from their village on September 29 to secure the release of five village boys arrested by the police. A local journalist, Santosh Yadav, had noted their testimonies. Hours later, he too was arrested by the police. Now, the villagers had gathered in his support outside the courtroom where he was being presented by the police.
The case of the five missing boys
It all began on August 26, when five young men from Bhadrimahu village – Boti Sodi, Kuma Kawasi, Somdu Hunga, Deva Hura and Budra Muka – were picked up by the police from the weekly bazaar at Darbha, about 14 kilometres away.
When the boys did not return from the market, gathering news that they had been picked up by the police, the family members of the boys trekked to the Darbha police station to enquire about them, said Joga. All they got was a denial: the police said they did not have the boys.
Later, however, the villagers discovered the boys had been sent to prison on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy and attempt to murder. The police claimed they had helped the rebels in laying an ambush on security personnel on August 21. An assistant platoon commander of the Special Task Force of Chhattisgarh police was killed in the ambush and a constable was injured.
A week after the boys were picked up, the police official heading the Darbha thana sent word to the families that they could collect them, on the condition that one member from each of the families came down personally to the thana.
A meeting was held in the village. It was decided that a group of villagers would accompany the family members to Darbha on Tuesday, September 29, as requested by the police. With the weekly bazaar falling on Wednesday, the villagers felt they could combine the visit to the thana with their weekly purchases.
On Tuesday, the villagers reached Darbha around noon. A couple of them went to the thana while the rest gathered on the ground near the school.
At the police station, the villagers were asked to wait. They were told that the boys would be released once the "bigger officers" arrived. As they waited, they were served lunch. They politely declined the food but the policemen insisted they eat. The villagers meekly ate the dal, vegetables and rice offered on plates made of leaves.
After a long wait, the Superintendent of Police of Bastar arrived. There was a brief hunt for a translator for the speech that was about to commence. "We are now friends," Ajay Yadav, Bastar SP, reportedly said. He assured the villagers that henceforth the police would neither chase them nor fire at them, and the villagers need not run when they saw security personnel approaching them. In token of the new friendship, the police gave a sari each to the women and a checked lungi and umbrella to the men.
The Inspector General of police in Bastar, SRP Kalluri, also addressed the villagers. They were then invited to talk about their problems. None got up to speak. "We didn't know what to say," said a young boy from Bhadrimahu, recalling the events. A panchayat member added: "We came as it was promised that the arrested boys would be released!"
As the evening set in, the villagers left the police station, clutching their saris, lungis and umbrellas. The police told them the boys would be released after a couple of days.
Ajay Yadav, the superintendent of police of Bastar district, however, denied this version of events. He insisted that the villagers had not been summoned by the police – they came of their own volition, seeking police intervention against Maoist harassment. "We have been interacting with the villagers for long over matters that cannot be disclosed to media," he told Scroll.
The arrest of Santosh Yadav
Twenty-five-year old Santosh Yadav, a local journalist, was among those who covered the event at the Darbha thana. Hours later, the police showed up at his residence. "The police came looking for him around six in the evening," said his wife, Poonam Yadav. She informed them that he was not home. Yadav did not come back home that evening. His family gathered that the police had picked him up from outside a shop.
The police has arrested Yadav on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy, attempt to murder, association with terrorist organisation and supporting and aiding terrorist groups under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act.
The superintendent of police denied that Yadav's arrest had anything to do with the Bhadrimahu event. "He was under watch for a long time," said Ajay Yadav, Bastar SP. "His arrest is the consequence of the close links he had with the Naxalites."
Yadav contributed reports and pictures to several Hindi newspapers. As a stringer in Darbha, he was widely sought after for news from the region which had seen a Maoist ambush in May 2013 that left 28 people dead, including senior Congress leaders. Many more ambushes and attacks followed, despite the presence of security camps in the area.
Although Yadav's reports were much in demand, working in the area came at considerable risks. The Maoist conflict has left the region's journalists vulnerable as both the police and the Maoists suspect them of working as informers for the other side.
Last year, Yadav told this writer about the ordeal he faced in August, when he was called over from his home in the middle of the night by policemen. He was taken to the forest guest house opposite the police chowki in Darbha. He was asked to strip and made to sit for five or six hours inside the cell before he was released.
Hurt and embarrassed, Yadav informed the Jagdalpur office of Navbharat Times where he worked as a stringer. Confirming this, Manish Gupta, the newspaper's bureau chief in Jagdalpur, said: "Had this harassment persisted we would have looked into the matter, but Santosh did not revert with any further complaints."
Sympathetic to people
As a young man who had grown up in Darbha, Yadav found the rate at which the police made arrests and detentions in the area disturbing. Several of his adivasi schoolmates had been detained by the police. Earlier this year, he reached out to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a collective of mostly women lawyers who fight cases pro-bono, to represent the case of an adivasi boy, Arjun Ram of Chandameta village. Ram had been picked up by the police while he was returning from selling his cattle in the local market on May 16.
The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group immediately swung into action to challenge Ram's detention. Yadav went to the extent of getting the principal of the school to testify before the juvenile court to prove Ram's innocence. "He (Yadav) was genuinely affected by things happening around him and wanted to help as much as he could," said Shalini Gera from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.
Yadav regularly approached Gera and her colleagues for free legal aid for villagers. He intervened in the case of Somaruram Nag, another journalist who was threatened and harassed by the police in July. More recently, Yadav introduced the villagers from Bhadrimahu to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group.
Gupta of Navbharat Times believes Yadav was picked up by the police because he crossed his professional line as a journalist by standing with the people who protested against police atrocities. In a place like Darbha, anyone who helps villagers, who are themselves under watch for being Maoist supporters, runs the risk of coming under police surveillance and being labelled a Maoist supporter, he said.
"The police is trying to send a message through Santosh’s case to journalists that they should remain within their limits," said Gupta. "The police is conveniently forgetting the many times when it relies on these very local stringers to negotiate with the Maoists to retrieve the dead or injured bodies of security personnel lying in the forests," he added, recalling the Pilmed encounter in Sukma district in April this year and the Puverti encounter at the Andhra border in April 2013 when local journalists had stepped in to help the police secure their colleagues’ bodies.
On October 1, Yadav was produced before the court in Jagdalpur. Not only were villagers of Bhadrimahu and Darbha present during the court hearing, so were his family members, including his father, who is employed with the Women and Child Development Department. His wife sat with their two-month-old baby, having left the older children aged 5 and 3 at home. The police argued for an extension of Yadav's custody, claiming it needed to question him further. The court granted the extension.
A public meeting of all working journalists has been called in Raipur on Friday to protest against the police harassment of journalists and stringers in Bastar.
*Name changed to protect identity