(New York) – The Indian government should investigate allegations that journalists are being prosecuted for their reporting of the conflict in central Chhattisgarh state, Human Rights Watch said today. In late March 2016, the Editors Guild of India reported that the media in Chhattisgarh state was “working under tremendous pressure” brought by the authorities, Maoist rebels, and vigilante groups.
The authorities should drop baseless prosecutions of journalists and end abuses by the security forces against journalists, activists, and human rights defenders in Maoist-affected areas.
“The authorities should address suffering of ordinary people and stop threatening and prosecuting journalists for bringing attention to rights abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Silencing journalists and rights activists makes it easier for both the Maoists and government security forces to commit abuses with impunity.”
Four journalists facing criminal charges in Chhattisgarh appear to have been arrested because of their criticism of the government. Deepak Jaiswal, a reporter for the local Dainik Dainandini newspaper, was arrested on March 26. Prabhat Singh, a reporter for the Hindi daily Patrika was arrested on March 21. Santosh Yadav, a contributor to Hindi language newspapers, has been in custody since September 2015. And Somaru Nag, a journalist from a tribal community, was arrested in July 2015. All say that authorities have filed false criminal charges to silence them because of reporting they did that is critical of the security forces.
The arrests of journalists have prompted widespread condemnation from Indian media associations, rights activists, and opposition politicians. In March, the Editors Guild of India, a 200-member independent group, sent a fact-finding team to Chhattisgarh to meet with journalists, police, and government officials. Their report found that journalists in the state “have to work between the security forces and the Maoists, and both sides do not trust journalists at all.” The report also concluded that the state government wanted the media to support the fight against the Maoists and “not raise any questions about it.”
On March 31, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister, Raman Singh responded to allegations that the authorities were attempting to muzzle the press, saying that his government was committed to media freedom. So far the government has not committed to take action to prevent security force abuses against journalists or hold those responsible to account.
The armed movement by Maoist groups, often called Naxalites, poses a serious security challenge in nine states in central and eastern India. In this decades-long conflict, thousands of civilians have been killed and injured and many people have been uprooted from their homes. The Maoists have committed numerous serious abuses, such as targeted killings of police, political figures, and landlords. In 2013, the Maoists killed two journalists in Chhattisgarh, Nemichand Jain and Sai Reddy.
The government’s security response to the Maoist threat has also resulted in serious human rights violations. State security forces – typically police and paramilitary forces – have arbitrarily arrested, detained, and tortured villagers, who are mostly from disaffected tribal communities. Police have often attempted to discredit human rights activists by describing them as Maoists or Maoist supporters.
Lawyers at the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which provides free legal counsel to mostly tribal villagers in the conflict-ridden area, said that vigilante groups who side with security forces have harassed them as well as journalists and activists because of their work.
“Ending police and vigilante abuses would be a stronger response to the Maoists than sweeping those abuses under the rug,” Ganguly said. “A rights-respecting administration will be welcomed by communities who have long been caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and reprisal.”
See below for more information on abuses by police and vigilante groups with additional details of arrests and harassment of journalists, lawyers, and activists.
Arrests, harassment of journalists
In 2015, Prabhat Singh had written several stories questioning police actions including alleged extrajudicial killings in the Maoist conflict. In March, Singh and Deepak Jaiswal were arrested on a complaint filed in August 2015 by a school official alleging that they had entered the school premises during an examination without permission, assaulted school staff, and demanded money. The complaint was filed after the two had reported that the school’s teachers helped students to cheat in the examination.
Jaiswal and Singh were charged under several criminal provisions, including trespassing, obstructing a public servant in discharge of his duty, and assaulting or using criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty, Singh’s lawyer said. Singh was also charged with fraud and for texting obscene material, which included his support for a law to protect against arbitrary police action. The police contend that Jaiswal is not a journalist, contradicting the view of the local journalists’ association. Bappi Roy, president of the South Bastar Reporters Association, told a newspaper that Jaiswal had been a full-time journalist for the last two years. Singh and Jaiswal have denied the charges against them, saying they believe they are being targeted by the police for their reporting on the Maoist conflict.
Singh’s lawyer alleged that the police had beaten Singh in custody, and that he suffered injuries to his chest and hands. The National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government over Singh’s “illegal arrest, detention, and torture.” The Press Council of India stated that Singh’s arrest appeared to be a violation of press freedom and sought a report from the police and the state government.
Somaru Nag was arrested in July for allegedly assisting youth who had burned down a crusher plant. He has been charged with robbery, causing mischief by fire or explosive substance, and criminal conspiracy among other criminal actions. Nag’s family alleges that he was illegally detained for three days and beaten in police custody. His brother told reporters: “We saw that he had been beaten up very badly. He told us, ‘Please speak to the other journalists and ask them to help me get released.’”
Santosh Yadav was arrested in September for allegedly joining a Maoist ambush on a police patrol that killed one officer. Yadav has been charged for rioting, criminal conspiracy, murder, and attempted murder, as well as for associating with and assisting an unlawful organization under draconian anti-terrorist laws, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have criticized these counterterrorism laws for failing to comply with international human rights standards and for being widely misused to target political opponents, tribal groups, religious and ethnic minorities, and Dalits.
Yadav’s father told the media that he believed Yadav was targeted merely for being among the first to arrive at the scene of the attack. Kamal Shukla, editor of a Bastar district-based newspaper, also said Yadav’s swift presence at the scene made him suspect. “Your editor says rush to the spot, and a stringer has to do that,” Shukla told a reporter. “Just doing our job makes us suspect in the eyes of the police and the Maoists.”
Before his arrest, Yadav had been repeatedly harassed by the police for his work. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) reported that Yadav was under pressure from the police to become an informer against Maoists, and had been picked up at least twice before and threatened. The group said three months before arresting him, the police arbitrarily detained Yadav, stripped him naked, and prepared to beat him. The police only stopped, PUCL said, because Yadav told them he would write and tell everyone what they had done.
Bastar’s superintendent of police, Ajay Yadav, denied allegations of torture and defended Yadav’s arrest: “We had been continuously watching his movements. He was very active in that area, and had links with the local [Maoist] commanders. He used to supply material to them.”
The Editors Guild fact-finding team reported that Yadav had said he took telephone calls from Maoist leaders in the course of his work as a journalist but had denied passing any information to them. He also told the team that he had occasionally dropped packets for the Maoists that included newspapers or magazines and sometimes papers of unknown contents. However, Yadav added that no one living in that remote conflict zone could refuse to carry papers for the Maoists without placing their lives at grave risk.
The chief editor of the Deshbandhu newspaper group, Lalit Surjan, told the fact-finding team that “Santosh Yadav and many other journalists working in the remote area of Bastar should be given the benefit of doubt because they have been talking to Maoists as part of their job. They don’t have any choice.”
In the Yadav case, the police claim he was not a journalist even though both newspapers that Yadav said he worked for have vouched for him. Sudha Bharadwaj, a human rights lawyer and PUCL’s general secretary in the region, said that local stringers and journalists such as Yadav are at greater risk: “They don’t get the immunity, protection, or working conditions that journalists in the national media get, even though no outside journalist can really report in these areas without a local journalist’s assistance for travel and interpretation of the local Adivasi [indigenous] language.”
Yadav has been outspoken against alleged police abuses, and had often assisted tribal people in getting legal help. Yadav had brought several tribal people, including Nag, to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group for legal counsel (JagLAG). They are now representing Yadav and Nag.
Police in Bastar allegedly began making late night visits to the house of journalist Malini Subramaniam, a contributor for the news website Scroll.in, and interrogating her about her work after she had repeatedly reported on alleged rights violations by security forces. After Subramaniam’s house was attacked by unknown assailants in February, the police resisted for a full day her repeated attempts to register a complaint. Subramaniam said that the police detained her landlord and her domestic worker for questioning and alleged that the police pressured her landlord to serve her with an eviction notice. Subramaniam left the state in February. The police have denied any coercion charges saying local officials had issued orders to all landlords to furnish documents on their tenants and domestic help, and it was part of routine questioning.
In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court said it was “aghast” that the Chhattisgarh government felt that anyone “who questions the conditions of inhumanity that are rampant in many parts of that state ought to necessarily be treated as Maoists, or their sympathizers.”
Harassment, threats against human rights lawyers, activists
Shalini Gera and other lawyers at JagLAG told Human Rights Watch that police and local vigilante groups have harassed and threatened them because of their human rights work. Since 2013, JagLAG has worked on numerous cases dealing with human rights violations allegedly committed by the police and other security forces in the state. JagLAG lawyers recently assisted tribal women in filing complaints against police and security personnel for three alleged incidents of rape and sexual assault during anti-Maoist operations in Sukma and Bijapur districts between October and January.
Harassment from police and their supporters forced JagLAG to leave Jagdalpur city in Bastar district and relocate about 400 kilometers away in Bilaspur district. In October and February, the Bastar District Bar Association passed resolutions effectively prohibiting “outside” lawyers – lawyers not registered locally in the state – from practicing in Jagdalpur courts. The lawyers at JagLAG challenged the first resolution and obtained an interim reprieve from the Chhattisgarh State Bar Council. However, according to Gera the district bar association continued to threaten them and any local lawyers who would assist JagLAG. Gera said that the police have been running a vilification campaign against the group. In March 2015, the New York Times reported that Inspector General SRP Kalluri, the Bastar chief of police, called them “Naxalite supporters.”
In February, three unidentified men on a motorcycle attacked tribal rights activist Soni Sori with a chemical substance. Sori had been helping tribal women register police complaints of sexual assault against the security forces in Bijapur and Sukma districts.
In recent months, the rise of vigilante groups in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state has reportedly become a serious threat for dissenting voices. These groups are linked to harassment and intimidation of critics of the government. According to India Today, police have admitted to supporting the Samajik Ekta Manch, an informal organization formed by local businessmen and political leaders to “counter Naxalism in Bastar and support the police in its work.” One police officer in Bastar reportedly called Samajik Ekta Manch the state’s “version of guerrilla warfare” against the Maoists.
In February, Samajik Ekta Manch held a public meeting and a demonstration against JagLAG lawyers, accusing them of being defenders of Maoists. Such statements can put lawyers and the people they represent at serious risk, Human Rights Watch said.
Chhattisgarh-based independent researcher and writer Bela Bhatia, who had also been helping tribal women file complaints, reported increasing pressure to leave Bastar. Bhatia alleged that in February, police questioned her landlord and visited her home. In March, about 100 people, including women from Mahila Ekta Manch (a group affiliated to Samajik Ekta Manch) went to her home when she wasn’t there and distributed leaflets labeling her as a Maoist and called on the landlord to evict her.
On April 15, the leaders of Samajik Ekta Manch announced that they were dissolving the group because “some people used the activities of the group to demonise the local police and state administration.”
Chhattisgarh state officials have a long history of using vigilante groups to fight the Maoists. From mid-2005 to 2011, the government supported and armed the anti-Maoist vigilante group Salwa Judum. Government security forces and members of Salwa Judum, which officials falsely described as a spontaneous citizen’s movement, committed serious human rights abuses, attacking villages, killing and raping villagers, and burning down huts to force people into government camps. The group was outlawed in 2011 by the Supreme Court, which directed the state government to “take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum” that seeks “to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally, or otherwise violate the human rights of any person.”
However, direct or indirect government support for vigilante groups has continued in violation of the Supreme Court order.