It took four years and three months for journalist Santosh Yadav to prove his innocence. Arrested by Chhattisgarh police in 2015 on charges of taking part in a Maoist ambush, Yadav was acquitted by a court in Jagdalpur on January 2.

“I am extremely happy that my innocence has been proved but the past four years have been tortuous,” said Yadav, soon after the verbal order was announced by the judge. “I was implicated in the case to bring an end to my reporting from Darbha which was then in news every other day.”

Yadav, 27, worked as a stringer for the Hindi newspaper Navbharat in Darbha block of Bastar. The district is part of southern Chhattisgarh where ordinary civilians routinely get swept into the long-running armed conflict between Maoist guerillas and government security forces.

Bastar police arrested Yadav from his home on September 29, 2015, soon after he recorded testimonies of villagers accusing the police of detaining five boys illegally.

The police claimed that Yadav had taken part in an ambush laid by Maoist guerillas on August 21, 2015, in which one policeman was killed and another injured. He was slapped with a slew of serious charges: rioting with a deadly weapon, unlawful assembly, wrongful restraint, attempt to murder, public mischief and criminal conspiracy. He was also charged under anti-terrorism laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act.

But the security officer whose complaint was the basis of the police FIR was subsequently unable to identify Yadav in the identification parade.

“The court examined close to 50 witnesses in the matter, 90% of whom represented the security forces and therefore [their testimonies] did not hold ground,” said Arvind Chaudhary, Yadav’s lawyer.

All the eighteen accused in the case, including Yadav, were acquitted, he said.

A difficult time

It took the police one year to file the chargesheet against Yadav.

While in Jagdalpur prison, Yadav alleged he was beaten up and subjected to solitary confinement when he demanded improvements in the food supplied to inmates as well as reading material. He was charged with criminal intimidation by jail authorities.

Yadav was later shifted to Kanker prison, 160 km away, making it difficult for his wife and three children to visit him.

His bail was rejected twice in the National Investigation Agency court in Jagdalpur and once in the High Court in Bilaspur. He was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court in February 2017 on the condition that he report every single day to the Darbha police station.

“I have been visiting the thana every single day to be taunted and humiliated by the police personnel,” said Yadav. It was only under extraordinary circumstances that he would be granted leave from the daily appearance, he claimed.

“The condition of reporting everyday at the thana left me hardly any scope to be a full-fledged journalist,” he added.

Despite the restrictions, he had resumed journalistic work last year, producing stories for Video Volunteers, a social organisation that promotes community media. Six months ago, he was hired by Highway Channel, an evening daily published by the Deshbandhu group, to handle its sales and distribution in Darbha block.

Now, he is looking forward to returning to a full-time reporting role. “I am ready to run,” said Yadav.

A clear pattern

For more than a decade, the conflict between Maoists and security forces has cast a long shadow over news organisations in Bastar, reducing the space for journalists to report freely.

In 2015 and 2016, however, while a controversial police officer SRP Kalluri was the inspector general of Bastar, journalists in the region came under special fire. Apart from Santosh Yadav, three other journalists – Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal – were arrested by the police.

Somaru Nag was arrested in July 2015 on charges of being a Maoist sympathiser, indulging in banditry, arson and criminal conspiracy, as well as charges under the Arms Act. He was acquitted one year later.

Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal were arrested in March 2016 for allegedly trespassing in a girls school. The journalists said they had entered the school to collect evidence of cheating, but this incident was used seven months later to implicate them.

In addition, Singh was arrested under the Information Technology Act for allegedly circulating a message over WhatsApp jeering at Kalluri. The case was based on a complaint filed by Farukh Ali, a member of the Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante group allegedly set up by Bastar Police to keep a check on journalists and human rights workers in the region.

“Ali is ducking court orders for appearances,” said Singh, who secured bail from Bilaspur High Court in June 2017 after spending three months in the Jagdalpur prison.

Ali’s failure to appear in court prompted an order for his arrest, said Singh, but he had managed to evade it. In the other case too, the police’s failure to produce witnesses before the court has held back the proceedings, he said.