Kamal Shukla is no stranger to having cases filed against him. As a journalist who has extensively written on Adivasi rights in Chhattisgarh, a state known to harass journalists who do not toe the government line, the case filed against Shukla last week joined a few others that his lawyer is already fighting.

But this one is different. While the previous charges against him relate to defamation, insult to provoke breach of peace, public mischief and creating religious enmity, this time he has been charged with sedition.

On April 19, Shukla hit the share button on a cartoon he saw on Facebook that lampooned the Union government and the Supreme Court for the apex court’s decision to reject petitions calling for an independent investigation into the mysterious death of special Central Bureau of Investigation judge Brijgopal Loya in 2014. At the time of his death, Loya was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter trial in which Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah was then an accused.

Claiming to be offended by the post, a resident of Rajasthan filed an online complaint. This eventually reached the police station in Kanker in North Bastar, where Shukla lives with his wife and children. On April 28, a first person report was lodged charging the journalist with sedition.

Speaking from Kanker, 50-year-old Shukla sounded amused at this new charge. But his voice also carried a trace of tension. “I believe that people who love their country and its democracy openly express their opinion when they see it being weakened,” he said. “The post was close to sharing my concern for the dwindling autonomy of the judiciary in the wake of the Loya case. How can this be considered anti-national? I would say those people should be considered anti-national who are not concerned about the growing interference of the government in the judiciary’s autonomy.”

Maverick but not irresponsible

If one had to judge Shukla using the current social media classifications of nationalist and anti-national journalists, Shukla would fall into the anti-national category – and proudly so. Shukla is committed to speaking truth to power. He has gone to considerable lengths to shine the light on stories those in power would prefer lie forgotten.

In the face of threats and attacks, many others in the region have grown quiet, have withdrawn from journalism, or, like me, have focussed only on writing and tried to avoid being drawn into the larger discussions around us. But Shukla has seized whatever medium he has at hand, effectively using Facebook and Whatsapp to share his reports and his anguish at the situation.

Though he is a maverick, Shukla is not irresponsible. He goes to enormous lengths to ensure that his facts are correct, which is why people with vested interests try to keep him away from stories. That became evident to me in 2016, when investigating a story about a young Adivasi woman who had been allegedly gangraped and shot in cold blood by security personnel. Pro-police vigilantes tried to prevent Shukla from reaching Gompad village in Sukma to investigate the death. They chased him, threatened him and pushed him into a boat on the Sabri River. Though he was shaken, Shukla nonetheless managed to continue his journey. I joined him at a point 20 km away and we trekked together to Gompad village. It led to this report in Scroll.in. On our return journey, though this reporter got a bike ride to the main road, Shukla had to walk the long distance back.

Since Shukla knows what it’s like to be harassed with the implicit support of the police and administration, he led a campaign late in 2015 under the banner of Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti to seek the promulgation of a law that would protect journalists in Chhattisgarh. Many journalists across the state joined this campaign.

In 2016, when I won the International Press Freedom Award given out by the Committee to Protect Journalists, I was allowed to have someone accompany me to the ceremony in New York. In addition to taking along my daughter, I decided that Shukla should also share the proud moment with me. After all, he best embodies the values of courageous journalism.

Breaking free

Shukla has long been attuned to the social faultlines that mark Indian society. Born into a family that had migrated from Uttar Pradesh to Chhattisgarh around 16 generations ago, Shukla grew up with his three siblings in a small village that is now in Bilaspur district. His father was a primary school teacher. “As members of the Brahmin community, our family enjoyed a certain status in the village, despite our not-so-sound economic status,” Shukla said. He recollected the joy of walking 8 km every day to reach his middle school, along with his friends who were from different castes and communities. “I soon noticed the nasty division in society between high and low caste, rich and poor,” he said. His family monitored who he had as friends. Unable to bear the restrictions imposed upon him, for he had many Muslim and Dalit friends, he decided to leave home after high school.

He moved to Durg in 1986 where he met Raj Narayan Mishra, the respected editor with Deshbandu, a Hindi language daily published from Raipur that is reputed for its unbiased reporting. Mishra took him under his wing. “Here I learnt the finer qualities of putting news together, page layout and editing,” said Shukla. When Mishra moved to the Amar Kiran newspaper in Durg as its editor in 1989, he took Shukla along.

Shukla used to write a regular column for Amar Kiran called Police Parikrama. Here, he exposed the nexus between the police and local goons running gambling operations. That was when he got the first taste of the impact of his reporting – his home was ransacked, he was beaten up by goons, and the police did not take any action. Shukla was assaulted again after another report in which he detailed the city’s plans to pull down 266 homes in a slum so that it could develop the area, which would have rendered thousands of people homeless. After that attack, journalists from Kanker gathered in his support, demanding action against the perpetrators.

“Those were days when journalists, true to their profession, stood in support of a colleague threatened for exposing the government,” he said. “Today, it is different. The fear amongst journalists is tangible. If it is not fear as a journalist, then it is fear of losing advertisements or government contracts that many journalists accept to augment their meagre incomes.”

Kamal Shukla in Gompad village in Chhattisgarh.

Shukla’s stint as a reporter and senior editor with the prominent daily Dandakaranya Samachar in Jagdalpur, Bastar, from 1991 to 1994, gave him the opportunity to observe South Bastar and its residents closely.

In 1992, he reported on an incident in Jagdalpur in which BD Sharma, a former bureaucrat and a vociferous supporter of Adivasi rights, was assaulted and garlanded with shoes in response to this support for Adivasis protesting plans for a steel plant that would displace them. “As reporter-cum-senior editor with the newspaper, I covered the news extensively,” recalled Shukla. “Most others shied away from reporting it.” He added: “The attack on BD Sharma was the work of Jagdalpur town’s non-Adivasi community who had migrated to Bastar to do business in forest produce, land and money lending.”

Shukla’s editorial in the Dandakaranya Samachar the next day, exposing the tacit support of the district police and administration in the assault on Sharma, invited an attack at the newspaper’s Jagdalpur office. “Dandakaranya Samachar was finding it difficult to safeguard me or its own freedom to publish,” said Shukla. Though he continued with the newspaper for two more years, he said it sent him to other districts where there was little scope for real news. He quit in 1994.

Shukla then covered news in Bastar as an independent journalist for several national Hindi weekly newspapers and dailies, especially on the changing cultural, social and economic milieu of the Adivasis.

But his commitment to his work meant that he repeatedly lost the support of his employers. For instance, his stint with the Hindi-language daily Rajasthan Patrika in Kanker lasted only two years. It ended in 2012 after a story on illegal tree felling that implicated the state’s forest minster and a local MLA led to goons barging into the Patrika office and beating him up. He returned after a few months in hospital to find that the newspaper wanted nothing to do with him.

This forced him to set up his own newspaper, Bhumkal Samachar, in 2012. It was later converted to a news website because of the lack of funds. “’With little or no resources, a daily print publication was impossible,” he said.

Enroute to Gompad village in Chhattisgarh.

In support of journalists

Shukla is not just committed to his work, he has always come to the assistance of other journalists.

In late 2015, he was instrumental in pushing for a law to protect journalists in Chhattisgarh. That year, Shukla was among a team of journalists that met Chief Minister Raman Singh. This meeting led to the state government’s decision to issue a circular in February 2016 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 a journalist 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. This would allow the committee to assess that there is no mala fide intent behind the case.

The current sedition case against Shukla is being examined under the provisions of this circular.

Shukla with other journalists meeting Chief Minister Raman Singh in 2015.

Rajesh Sukumar Toppo, the public relations directorate commissioner, said that he has taken cognisance of the case against Shukla, the details of which he had gathered from newspaper reports. He said he has sought a report from the superintendent of police in Kanker. The matter will then be brought before the high-level committee, he said. The report, which was sought three days back, is still awaited, Toppo said.

Kanker superintendent of police KL Dhruv told this correspondent that the police was investigating the case and that no arrest warrant would be issued till the investigation was complete. Asked if the matter demanded sedition charges, Dhruv responded with a curt “Yes”.

Shukla’s lawyer Kishore Narayan has filed a petition in the high court to quash the first information report against him. “The matter falls nowhere near the definition of sedition and we are hopeful for relief,” said Narayan. “The cartoon had gone viral through various other social media posts and if at all, the case needs to have been booked against the cartoonist. The Chhattisgarh police is only looking for opportunities to supress freedom of expression and harass journalists who have been exposing their unconstitutional activities such as fake encounters.”

Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, Syed Abdul Bair Mussavir, the administrator of the Facebook page where the cartoon was originally published, was released on bail on May 2. He had been arrested by the Delhi police under three section of the Information Technology Act, including one that relates to the publication or transmission of material containing sexually explict acts in electronic form.