When a Times Now crew was attacked on Monday by Samajwadi Party leader Nahid Hasan and his men in Shamli district in Uttar Pradesh, Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley rose to the occasion with alacrity and tweeted a demand for an independent investigation into the incident.
The TV crew was in Shamli to report on the death of an 8-year-old boy allegedly killed in celebratory firing by Samajwadi Party workers on February 8. The minister's tweet came on the same day as the attack, showing impressive responsiveness to an assault on the press.
Unfortunately, Shamli is in Uttar Pradesh, and Jaitley’s Bharatiya Janata Party is not in power there. It was easier for him to respond swiftly. Besides, the Times Now TV channel is infinitely better placed than a stringer or a freelance journalist contributing to the Hindi press to draw attention to an attack on its staff.
But if there is a part of the country where there is a direct confrontation taking place between the state and journalists, it is Chhattisgarh, which is ruled by a third-term BJP government. Despite a petition delivered and emailed to Jaitley’s office in December, he has not taken note of, or tweeted about, the attack on journalists in Bastar, the state's southern region that has been gripped by a long-drawn conflict between the state and Maoist rebels. (The same petition was also sent to Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram.)
Two journalists from Bastar are in jail, one from July 2015, another from September. In October, journalists in the region held a march to protest against growing oppression by the police, unprecedented in any state in recent years.
The latest development is a frontal attack on Monday morning on a Scroll.in contributor who has been reporting regularly on the Bastar region over the past year. This incident has been noticed because the website has reported immediately on it, as well as energetically spread word about the attack, so the mainstream press has amplified it.
Atmosphere of fear
What makes Chhattisgarh a test case for the ability of the press to function is the Naxalite insurgency that journalists are called upon to contend with when they do any reporting in the state. Whichever way they choose to do it, they run the risk of provoking either the Naxalites or the police and the home department that implements counter-insurgency programmes.
When close to 300 journalists came together in the state capital of Raipur on October 10, 2015, for the protest and broke security barriers to reach Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s residence, one of them spelled out the issue succinctly. “We want the state to create conditions where reporters can work and travel freely, with independence, and without fear or harassment," this reporter said. "The practice of fake arrests should stop. The state should consider repealing the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, and certainly stop using it against reporters.”
Two journalists in jail
How those who report from this state are caught in a pincer is best illustrated by the case of Somaru Nag, a rare adivasi journalist in the region. The stringer and news agent with the Rajasthan Patrika was arrested on July 16. He has been charged with keeping a look on the movements of the police while a group burnt a crusher plant employed in road construction in Chote Kadma on June 26.
As for Santosh Yadav, the journalist arrested in September, the truth about him has two versions as this piece illustrates. At this point, both remain in jail. Twelve reporters from Bastar have collected Rs 5,000 to help Nag and Yadav pay their expenses but the petition with wider support from journalists, teachers and citizenry, presented to the chief minister and three union ministers has not yielded any results.
While Nag has been charged under the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act, Yadav has been charged under the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. Journalists have demanded that the Chhattisgarh government should immediately produce evidence against their two colleagues, or release them.
The chief minister declined to meet the delegation on this occasion.
But two months later, on December 22, they did meet him after a Jail Bharo Andolan (Fill the Jail campaign) was announced in Jagdalpur and a new body called the Patrakaar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti (United Committee to Struggle for a Journalists’ Security Law) was formed. When the chief minister met a delegation in Raipur, he promised to find a way to ensure the speedy release of the jailed journalists.
But at a subsequent bail hearing in January, the state opposed bail for Santosh Yadav once again.
The real confrontation in this state is specifically between the police and the reporters who work there. When they gathered to protest in October, reporters interviewed by the media watchdog site, The Hoot, specifically named senior police official SRP Kalluri as the man attempting to curb the activities of journalists.
Malini Subramaniam, the Scroll.in contributor whose home was attacked early on Monday morning, had done a series of reports on the state of development and other issues in the Bastar region. But the heat was turned on her after a report in December questioning police claims on alleged surrenders by Maoists. The police turned up at her home late on the night of January 10 after she revisited the area for a follow-up. The demonstrators who shouted slogans against her on Sunday evening were demanding that she stop tarnishing the image of the police. Hours after their demonstration, stones were pelted at her home and the rear window of her car was smashed.
What editors should do
Journalists are certainly guilty of not doing enough to bring the situation to an end. The Editors Guild was asked in November to take up the case of the jailed journalists. It declined to do so. The same Guild, however, took less than three days to issue a condemnation when The Wire’s founder editor Siddharth Varadarajan faced heckling and threats at Allahabad University in January from activists of the BJP's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
The Delhi Union of Journalists has issued a statement, but statements are not enough to get a stringer languishing in a jail released.
Will they do something now to protect Malini Subramaniam? This is as direct and vicious as it gets – send police to ask her questions late at night in January, a dubious citizen organisation descends on her home in February, and throws stones at the dead of the night. Police refuse to register an FIR. Where is the tweet from I&B Minister Jaitley demanding an enquiry into the incident? Where is the hyperventilating on TV channels when the victims are in faraway Bastar? Where is the urgency that could build pressure?
And without this mobilisation, do journalists pitted against a police force in a state in anti-insurgency mode really have a hope that they will be able to function?