Malini Subramaniam's ordeal shows journalists are an endangered lot in India
Bastar is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of threats, intimidations, harassments and even murder that scribes face.
- Total Shares
Smashed car windows, tyres punctured with glass shards, walls pelted with fist-sized stones, repeated and loud clanging of the iron-gate - these are the sounds that Malini Subramaniam was subjected to on the early hours of Monday, February 8 at her house in Jagdalpur, Bastar, Chhattisgarh. She was lying awake because the previous evening had already seen a harsh round of stone-pelting, sloganeering and name-calling orchestrated by a group of about two dozen men, interestingly attended by party workers and post-holders from the local units of both the Congress and the BJP.
By now, the harrowing experience of Malini Subramaniam, Scroll.in's contributor from Bastar, has been reported in some quarters of the national media. The Network of Women in Media, India has condemned the harassment. As I write, it's been more than 36 hours since Subramaniam, along with Isha Khandelwal of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, have been trying to lodge an FIR at the local police station. Subramaniam's complaint letter (see below), and other documents verifying her identity, have been submitted multiple times.Page one of Malini Subramaniam's complaint letter to Jagdalpur police. Page two of Malini Subramaniam's complaint letter to Jagdalpur police.
To no avail.
Instead, the men who shouted slogans against her, dubbed her a "Maoist sympathiser", screamed "Naxali Samarthak Bastar Chhodo; Malini Subramaniam Murdabad", are roaming free. In fact, the honchos of Samajik Ekta Manch, the self-proclaimed "anti-Maoist" group that supposedly is helping the Chhattisgarh police to weed out Naxalites in the Bastar region, are busy telling everybody that it is Malini who is lying.Smashed rear window of Malini's WagonR. [Photo courtesy: Malini Subramaniam]
When it comes to making lives very, very difficult, whether of the locals, among them the adivasis, or the handful of journalists who dare to cover the heart-shattering stories of these splintered heartlands - Bastar, Dantewada, Dongria Kondh, Niyamgiri - the electoral animosities are easily forgotten among the rank and file of the political babas. Hence, there's little surprise in the fact that Manish Parakh, secretary of the BJP's Yuva Morcha, and Sampat Jha, a Congress party member in Jagdalpur, were in cahoots with each other, effortlessly egging on men and women for about a month now to ostracise Malini, the "Naxal supporter" among them, evidently an "anti-national" and a lot more.Punctured tyres of Malini's WagonR. [Photo courtesy: Malini Subramaniam]
Obviously, Malini has done enough to deserve this spotlight. Her reports - on sex trafficking of young girls from Bastar, the charade of so-called Maoist surrenders, routine sexual offences perpetrated by security forces in Chhattisgarh, harassment, torture and illegal detention of journalists in Bastar, abysmal state of primary education, custodial rape and murder, adivasi protests against land grab by state-corporate-complex - have invited both critical acclaim and ire from the sections with vested interests.Statement of Samajik Ekta Manch in which the members accuse Malini Subramaniam of being a Maoist supporter. [Photo courtesy: Isha Khandelwal/WhatsApp]
Hence, the campaign to oust Malini from Jagdalpur, where she has been living and reporting from for the last four years, has reached fever pitch.
Over WhatsApp, Malini and Isha show me the photos that members of the Samajik Ekta Manch sent the former, depicting burning of effigies of purported Naxalphiles. Repeated requests and personal calls to District Superintendent of Police, RN Dash, have fallen to deaf ears. Even a meeting with the district collector, Amit Kataria, has not resulted in the basic filing of the first information report.Samajik Ekta Manch members at a ceremony accompanied by Chhattisgarh cops. [Photo courtesy: Facebook]
Says Supriya Sharma, news editor at Scroll.in and a recipient of Ramnath Goenka Award for excellence in journalism, "Unfortunately, this is not the first time collectors have had to intervene in Chhattisgarh, in Bijapur district, the police registered an FIR in alleged rape cases only after the collector intervened. Obviously, the police has no justifiable reason to avoid filing an FIR."
It is hardly ironical that Malini, who had herself reported extensively on how another local journalist, Santosh Yadav, has been kept in police custody without even a chargesheet against him for about four months now, is being subjected to the same kind of ordeal and bullying tactics. Conflict zone reportage is never a cake walk, but logically enough, media organisations with the "Delhi tag" would fare a notch better than those from local and vernacular press. Both Santosh Yadav and Malini Subramaniam have filed stories on how villagers in Bastar have been rounded up, arrested and forced to say they were Maoists, surrendering. Both Yadav and Subramaniam have hours of testimonies in support of their claim. However, while Yadav has been illegally detained since September 29, Subramaniam has been subjected to endless threats, a well-orchestrated smear-campaign, in a bid to make her leave Jagdalpur.
While Chhattisgarh remains a veritable vortex of terror (including of the state-blessed variety), other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Bengal fare only marginally better.
In 2015 alone, at least eight journalists lost their lives in the line of duty (to borrow a phrase from the Book of the Armed Forces), including the 36-year-old Akshay Singh, a correspondent with Aaj Tak, the leading Hindi news channel from the India Today group. Singh, a part of Aaj Tak's special investigative team, died of "food poisoning", while he was interviewing the parents of a Vyapam scam victim, Namrata Damor in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. The last we heard, MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had ordered a "special investigation team" to examine the cause of Singh's death, and obviously, very little has come out of that effort.Aaj Tak's Akshay Singh died in July 2015 while covering Vyapam scam.
Singh's death brought the Vyapam toll to 41, possibly the mother of and easily the most murderous among the bountiful array of corruption scandals to rock the country in recent years. But Singh's sudden demise also shot up the number of media persons who lost their lives in 2015, most brutally killed - shot dead, burned alive, poisoned.
Names - such as Mithilesh Pandey (journalist with Dainik Jagran in Gaya, UP), Hemant Yadav (Chandauli, UP), Ajay Vidrohi (Sitamarhi, Bihar), Devendra Chaturvedi (Kannauj, UP), Sandeep Kothari (Balaghat, MP), Jagendra Singh (Shahjahanpur, UP) - have already stopped ringing a bell. But these are the scribes India lost only last year. In 2013 too, eight journalists were murdered and very little has come out of the criminal investigations into any of those deaths, given that such a thing was at all ordered.
Even well known senior journalists such as Siddharth Varadarajan (former editor-in-chief of The Hindu and currently the co-founder of The Wire) and Nikhil Wagle have been threatened, roughed up and gheraoed for publishing critical stories and airing their political opinions, in English and Marathi.Siddharth Varadarajan with Allahabad University student union president Richa Singh at the university campus amidst protests.
Varadarajan, a staunch critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was categorically told to "watch what he said on TV" while his caretaker was beaten up in March 2014, just a month before the historic Lok Sabha polls that saw the BJP sweep to power. Last month, he was stopped by members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP, BJP's student wing) from speaking on "freedom of expression" at Allahabad University. Wagle had faced regular life threats from Shiv Sena in the mid-1990s, while last year, members of Sanatan Sanstha, whose members have been accused of allegedly killing rationalists Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, singled him out as their "next". Hue and cry on social and mainstream media cast unfavourable spotlight on the Sanstha, which helped dilute the situation somewhat.
It is little wonder then that India scored a measly 136 at the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) 2015, put together by the international journalists collective Reporters Without Borders. In fact, as was widely reported, even Afghanistan, at 122, was ranked above us. It seemed New Delhi could only have some solace from Russia, Pakistan and China, which, at 152, 159 and 176 respectively, were at that end of the spectrum which India was approaching fast.
In fact, in a recent piece in the Guardian on the criminal case against writer Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra has compared the political climate in India to the situation in Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where governmental crackdown on the press sees journalists regularly imprisoned, tortured and executed, without much of a whimper from the supine and politically fatigued civil society. Recently, an Italian doctoral scholar from Cambridge University, Giulio Regeni, was tortured and killed in General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's Egypt, and his half-naked body was discovered in a ditch in Cairo.
While Mishra pointed out how merely writing about a supposed Naxal sympathiser, Professor GN Saibaba of Delhi University, also a quadriplegic, has invited criminal proceedings and contempt of court against Roy, we saw journalists heckled and harassed in the very heart of the national capital. Whether it was the coverage of the Anupam Kher-led "tolerance rally", or the student protests against Rohith Vemula's death, Delhi cops assaulted journalists, male and female, from prominent television and print media outlets.
2015 has been particularly bad for reporters across the world with about 199 scribes put behind bars, though according to the New York-based media watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists, this is a tad better than the 221 jailed in 2014 the world over.
While we decry how journalists are spectacularly beheaded by terrorist organisations such as ISIS, the pinnacles of civilisation and democracy don't fare much better in treating intrepid reporters. Last month, a United Kingdom court ruled that the charging of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, former Guardian journalist and the co-founder of the investigative platform The Intercept, with Terrorism Act, violated the fundamental principles of a free press. Miranda was detained at a London airport in 2013 and held ever since for carrying "encrypted documents", which were linked to the worldwide exposé by Edward Snowden of the mass cyber-surveillance carried out by the USA's National Security Agency. Of course, the US hounding of the Ecuador embassy-in-London-bound Julian Assange is now a modern lore - a slow, torturous evisceration of a man's searing intellect, courage, rage and dignity, made to play out for a 24-X7 consumer universe.
In the findings of Freedom of the Press 2015: A Global Survey of Media Independence, India is coloured yellow, meaning "partly free", and is ranked 81, somewhere in the middle of the freedom gradient. This has stayed the same for years now, ever since Freedom House started publishing the annual review 1980 onwards. However, given that we parade our "world's most populous democracy" credential at every opportunity, this is a shameful number.
While a boisterous print, television and now emerging digital media enable a climate of debate, there are certain known unknowns that are holy cows for even our rancorous, noisy newsrooms. Of course, our glasshouse and air-conditioned mediaplexes are sustained only by the priceless and brave reportage "from the ground", which contributors and correspondents, such as Malini Subramaniam, Santosh Yadav, Akshay Singh and others, offer.
And unless we can truly protect and stand up for our writers and reporters, news will continue to be in shaky hands.