Press Freedom

'Our daughter has no memory of her father': Chhattisgarh reporter gets bail after 17 months

Santosh Yadav was arrested in September 29, 2015, on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy and 'associating with a terrorist organisation'.

On the evening of September 29, 2015, the police of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district took journalist Santosh Yadav into custody from a shop close to his home in Darbha. Police records show that the 27-year-old journalist, who reported for the Hindi newspaper Navbharat, was arrested the next day.

The police filed a chargesheet against Yadav on February 17 last year. He was charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code – for rioting with a deadly weapon, unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint, attempt to murder, public mischief, and criminal conspiracy – as well as under different sections of the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act.

The police has also charged him under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act – both are anti-terrorism legislations.

“These two laws are widely held as draconian as the ‘unlawful activity’ laid down in these Acts are vague and so broad as to be highly amenable to gross abuse and arbitrary and unreasonable action by the state police and administration,” said Sudha Bharadwaj, general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

On Monday, the Supreme Court finally granted him bail. All those concerned about press freedom in Chhattisgarh were keenly watching the court proceedings.

Yadav, the journalist

Yadav lived in Darbha block of Bastar district, which borders Odisha’s Malkangiri district. Maoists use the porous border to move easily between the two states. In May 2013, Maoists attacked a convoy of 20 vehicles ferrying senior Congress leaders through the Jheerum Valley in Darbha block. Twenty seven people were killed in the attack, and 35 grievously injured.

Since then, Darbha has become extremely sensitive, intensifying the conflict between Maoists and the police. In the process, ordinary villagers have come under greater scrutiny from both the police and Maoists.

As a resident of the area, Yadav witnessed the squeeze on villagers at close quarters. Each time there was a rally to protest against a villager’s arrest or death at the hands of security forces, Yadav could be spotted in the area, a camera slung around his neck.

Having grown up in Darbha, Yadav knew the terrain intimately. He became a vital link for other journalists to source news reports and photographs from the area. Many reporters from national dailies stayed in touch with him to verify news coming out of the region, and he accompanied them whenever they travelled to its remote parts. For instance, while reporting on the impact of the closure of schools in Bastar’s conflict areas, Yadav took this reporter to see the state of government schools in remote villages.

When villagers were taken into custody during police operations, Yadav would often bring their family members to Jagdalpur and introduce them to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a lawyers’ collective that offered free legal services to victims of police excesses.

Many believe this activism made Yadav a target of the police.

Women in Awapalli village walk past members of the security forces. Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters.
Women in Awapalli village walk past members of the security forces. Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters.

Framed by the police?

Yadav’s arrest has been shown to be based on a complaint by Mahant Singh, a commander of the Chhattisgarh police’s Special Task Force. On August 21, 2015, Maoists laid an ambush near Jheerum Valley in Bastar district in which an assistant platoon commander was killed and another police personnel was injured. Singh alleged that in “the light of a para bomb”, he saw Yadav standing behind a Maoist fighter at the site of the encounter. The time was 2.15 am.

However, subsequently, the complainant “expressed inability to identify the accused with certainty” according to an identification parade memo dated January 1, 2016.

The petitioner’s advocate Kishore Narayan also pointed out that apart from the complainant, none of the other police personnel present at the site of the ambush appear to have made note of Yadav’s alleged presence at the site in their statements.

The lawyer also questioned the authenticity of the First Information Report against Yadav as it makes no mention of the station diary entry number, which is a routine procedural requirement. Additionally, the chargesheet does not have the counter nalsi, a certificate issued by a magistrate upon receipt of a copy of the First Information Report.

In the initial days after he was arrested, Yadav did not face allegations of being an accomplice in Maoist violence.

On October 2, a few days after his arrest, the police said it had seized silver paint, two meters of red fabric, three meters of green fabric and a paintbrush from an abandoned forest office in Kakalpur village in Darbha. The police said that these recoveries were made on the basis of a self-declaration allegedly made by Yadav in which he said that he had received an amount of Rs 5,000 on September 24 from a Maoist to purchase the material.

“It appears that after arresting him the police began to look for evidence to pin him down with serious charges,” said Isha Khandelwal, a lawyer from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which first took up Yadav’s case. She concurred with the view that Yadav’s name could have been added in the First Information Report as an afterthought.

Santosh Yadav's press identity card.
Santosh Yadav's press identity card.

Yadav’s brother, Jeetendra, agitatedly asked why the police had waited for over a month to arrest Yadav if the Special Task Force commander had complained in August that he had seen him at the site of the Maoist ambush.

Bail plea rejected

The journalist’s bail pleas had been rejected twice at the National Investigation Agency court in Jagdalpur – first in January last year and then in June – and subsequently in the High Court at Bilaspur in August.

The High Court rejected bail for Yadav based on the Special Task Force commander’s statement and the items seized from Yadav at the time of his arrest. These included a receipt from a mobile phone shop, a mobile phone, a wallet with cash amounting to Rs 220, a Permanent Account Number card and a voter identity card. Yadav’s bail petition to the Supreme Court says there is “nothing incriminatory” about these items.

Yadav’s lawyers said that the High Court overlooked the fact that the complainant, who claimed to have seen the journalist at the site of the Maoist ambush, failed to identify him during the identification parade.

Challenging the High Court’s rejection of Yadav’s bail on grounds of “non-application of mind to 12 important facts”, his lawyers filed a Special Leave Petition in the apex court last September. Yadav, father to three young girls, had no previous criminal record and was arrested 40 days after the complaint was filed, says the petition. It notes that the absence of a station diary entry number in the First Information Report as well as the counter nalsi document are serious lapses. It adds that Yadav was arrested from his home in Darbha, thus indicating that there was no fear of him absconding. The petition additionally notes that only one person reported sighting Yadav at the time of the Maoist ambush, and that person subsequently failed to identify Yadav a month later in an identification test.

High-level committee helpless?

Santosh Yadav isn’t the only journalist to have been arrested in the district. On July 16, 2015, the police arrested Somaru Nag and charged him with rioting, dacoity, wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation and criminal conspiracy. Nag walked free exactly a year later after a court found “no direct or indirect evidence” against him.

Last February, the government of Chhattisgarh issued a circular in which it announced the setting up of a high-level coordination committee “to prevent harassment of journalists”. The committee includes senior members of the administration, police and two senior journalists. According to the circular, any First Information Report against any journalist (accredited or non-accredited) in Chhattisgarh should first be sent to the director of the Department of Public Relations, who would then seek the inputs of senior police officers in the concerned district, which would allow the committee to assess that there is no mala fide intent behind the case.

“Yadav’s case was one of the first cases before the committee,” admitted Rajesh Toppo, director of the state’s public relations department. However, when the committee sent his case to the district police, its officers responded, saying that he was not a journalist.

“Once we get proof he is a journalist, the matter will be considered seriously in the committee when we meet next in March or April,” clarified Toppo over the phone.

But Yadav’s status as a journalist is clear.

Ruchir Garg, editor of Navbharat, for whom Yadav contributed news reports, said: “Navbharat has never disowned Santosh’s contributions. In fact, [it has] given this in writing as well.”

Why then does the committee find it so difficult to consider Yadav’s case? Is the police writ in Chhattisgarh larger than the mandate of the coordination committee set up by the state government?

Security forces on patrol. Credit: Parth Sanyal/Reuters
Security forces on patrol. Credit: Parth Sanyal/Reuters

Beaten in jail

Yadav’s trial drags on in Jagdalpur. About 50 witnesses have to be examined but only 16 have appeared so far, said Arvind Chaudhary, his lawyer in Jagdalpur. Eighty per cent of the witnesses are police personnel, he added. Due to their constant postings, few end up attending court hearings. Seema Golcha, the government lawyer, confirmed that the majority of witnesses are police personnel. However, she added that witnesses are appearing slowly, but steadily.

Police witnesses from the village include those who were shown as “surrendered Maoists”, a large number of whom have subsequently joined the District Reserve Guard. Fearing Maoist attack, these witnesses have moved out of their villages, making it hard for Yadav’s family to present witnesses, said Jeetendra.

“I know my husband is innocent and he will be proved so even if the case takes long,” said Poonam Yadav, the journalist’s wife. She lamented his long absence from home and said there was no reason for him to languish in jail. She has not been able to visit her husband since November.

On November 2, Yadav participated in a hunger strike along with other prisoners of Jagdalpur Central Jail to protest against the poor quality of food they were given. He was subsequently beaten by the police, which left him unconscious for six hours, according to a report of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties whose representatives met the journalist in jail on November 16.

The report says:

“Without any provocation or warning, the police began beating with baton[s] on 2nd November around noon leaving 300-400 peacefully protesting prisoners with bruises on the[ir] faces, split upperlips and contusions in arms and legs.”

Yadav was specifically targeted as he was their spokesperson owing to his ability to communicate articulately.

“Santosh was beaten on the head, chest and legs with police batons by jailer Naik among others till he fell unconscious”, said the report.

Yadav and six others were taken to the district hospital for treatment but were sent to solitary confinement soon afterwards. On November 11, he was shifted to Kanker jail, 195 km from Darbha.

“Earlier I could go to Jagdalpur and visit him with the children, but ever since his shift to Kanker prison in November, it has been difficult for me to travel that far with them,” said Poonam Yadav. Their three daughters are aged six, four and one-and-half. The youngest was two months old when the journalist was arrested. She has no memory of her father, added Poonam Yadav.

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