“A press conference in Bastar is usually a quiet affair, journalists just record what is said or take the handout and regurgitate it on the paper,” Prabhat Singh told the Hindustan Times in December 2015. "No one dares ask a question."
Singh would know. On April 22, the 32-year-old from Dantewada had posed some questions to the most powerful police officer in Chhattisgarh's southern region of Bastar, Inspector General Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri. The questions related to an encounter in the village of Modenar, part of the area in the grip of the long-running armed conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces.
Journalists who attended the press conference recall that Singh's questions upset Kalluri, who had issued veiled threats to him. He is reported to have said, "Tumhari kundli mere paas hai." I have your full record.
Singh nonetheless went ahead and reported on the encounter, questioning the police version of events. His report appeared on the front page story of the Jagdalpur edition of Patrika, the Hindi daily for which he worked.
Earlier in 2015, two journalists, Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav, had been arrested by Bastar police on charges of supporting Maoist rebels. They had denied the charges and alleged that they were being framed by the police for reporting on police excesses.
In their support, local journalists like Singh had taken out protest rallies in December and asked for a law to protect journalists from arbitrary police action.
On March 1, Singh defended the law on a group called "Bastar News" on the messaging service WhatsApp.
He said, “Patrakar suraksha kanoon se kewal unhe parhez hai jo already mama ki **** [expletive deleted] mein baithe hai. Deshdrohi gaddar hai, hind jai bharat.” Only those who are sitting in **** [expletive deleted] of mama are opposed to the journalist protection law. Mama is a colloquial reference to the police in general. In Bastar, journalists often use it to refer to Kalluri, the senior most police official of the region.
The Indian Express has reported that this WhatsApp message led to Singh’s arrest under section 67 and 67-A of the Information Technology Act, which pertains to circulating obscene material. The paper has quoted an unnamed police official as saying so.
Bastar police officials did not respond to Scroll.in's calls. Singh's lawyers are still to get a copy of the First Information Report filed against him. The complainant in the case is Santosh Tiwari, the admin of the WhatsApp group, and a journalist and trader by profession. His phone was switched off.
Incidentally, Singh had filed a complaint against Tiwari for defaming him on the same WhatsApp group by calling him "anti-national".
Two others were named in the complaint: Mahesh Rao and Subbarao, a member of the Samajik Ekta Manch, a civil vigilante group known to be close to Kalluri. The Manch has been at the forefront of targetting those who question the police.
Singh was prescient in his interview to the Hindustan Times. Bastar was no place to ask questions. After his arrest, even more so.