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How cops hounded journalist Malini Subramaniam out of Chhattisgarh

The investigative reporter was forced to leave Jagdalpur. Who will march for her press freedom?

 |  8-minute read |   19-02-2016
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Malini Subramaniam, Scroll.in contributor from Jagdalpur, in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, has been forced to leave the place by an aggressive local police, reports say.

Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal, both members of the all-woman Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) which was working on a number of local issues and representing some of the residents, including a jailed journalist Santosh Yadav, as well as Subramaniam, have been asked to leave too.

They have been sent eviction notices by their landlord, who reportedly was "scared".

Subramaniam had earlier faced repeated threats, as well as stone-pelting at her premises while her car windows were smashed by men belonging to Samajik Ekta Manch, for covering and reporting on various issues related to police atrocity, sex trafficking, curbs of press freedom, etc.

Though the Manch, supposedly an "anti-Naxal" group, has been openly issuing threats and intimidations to Malini Subramaniam's family, her domestic help as well as her landlord, since January this year, the Chhattisgarh police has been of no help.  

Below we reproduce the statement given out by Malini Subramaniam:An atmosphere of insecurity and intimidation has compelled me to leave Jagdalpur. On the evening of February 7, a group called the Samajik Ekta Manch demonstrated outside my house, taking objection to my reports in Scroll.in and warning me not to tarnish the image of the police. Hours later, around 2.30 am, I heard a motorcycle enter my neighbourhood. Stones were thrown and the rear window of my car was shattered. It took the police two days to register a First Information Report. The investigating officer threatened the women in my neighbourhood who had given witness statements in support of my complaint. Samajik Ekta Manch held street rallies asking for my arrest. As reported by The Hoot and Caravan, the Manch has close links with the police.After an editor of Scroll.in met chief minister Raman Singh and urged him to intervene, the Inspector General of Bastar SRP Kalluri and district superintendent of police RN Dash visited my house and assured me that the investigation would be fair and my family would be safe. They told me I could continue my work without any fear. Despite that, the Samajik Ekta Manch continued to campaign against me, creating an atmosphere of insecurity. The police also wrote a letter to my landlord making spurious claims about me, summoning him from Raipur to Jagdalpur.On Wednesday, the police detained my domestic worker and put her through several hours of interrogation, accusing her of throwing stones at my house. It became clear that in the guise of investigating my complaint, the police was going after those associated with me. The last straw came when my landlord served me an eviction notice on Thursday afternoon. By evening, the Samajik Ekta Manch was staging another protest outside the house of my lawyer. Fearing for my safety, the editors of Scroll.in asked me to leave Jagdalpur. It is heartbreaking to have to abruptly leave the place I have called home for the last five years. Despite reassurances from the state's chief minister, it is evident that journalists are still being threatened and intimidated in Bastar. At a time when the nation is outraged about attacks on journalists, one would expect the police to do its utmost to protect citizens and members of the press no matter where they are. Instead of offering this protection, the Jagdalpur police has contributed to a situation where I was so fearful that I felt compelled to uproot my family and leave my home.

Here is the letter of desperation and a cry for help that Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera had sent out yesterday (February 18):

Dear all,

Things are taking an ugly turn in Jagdalpur.  

First there were whispered threats, "don't go to Bijapur, the police will arrest you if you go there again." 

Then, there was a whole week of public lynching of JagLAG as defenders of "bloodthirstly Naxalites" by the Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante group formed by the police.  At the same time, the local Bar Association again renewed their campaign to stop our practice by harassing the local lawyers standing with us.

Then, late last night, police visited our landlord- who is a driver by profession, and took him away to the police station. He was kept there till wee hours of this morning, and dropped back in a police vehicle; his car having been impounded. 

Our badly shaken landlord informed us at 2:00 am this morning that he has no option but to ask us to vacate our house and office within a week.Things have been rocky for us in Jagdalpur for a while now. 

For a year and a half now, we are being hounded out by the local police. From giving thinly veiled threats at press conferences that the police are closely monitoring NGOs providing "legal aid to Naxalites", to informing our clients that the police are about to arrest us for our Naxalite activities, to claiming before visiting journalists and researchers that we are merely a "Naxalite front", various officials of the police have been out to get us.

We have had police diligently investigating "anonymous" complaints that we are "fraudulent" lawyers.  For which, we had to make multiple trips to the police station with all our impeccable certificates and sound credentials. Then the local Bar Association, clearly prompted by the police, took out a resolution prohibiting our practice in the local courts. We countered this by challenging this resolution in the State Bar Council and obtaining an interim order allowing our practice. Unable to get at us any other way, now, the police are resorting to pressuring our landlord and his family.The timing of these events does not escape our notice. 

This is coming at a time when the whole countryside of Bastar is on fire.  Under the guise of anti-Naxal operations, the security forces are indulging in rape, pillage and plunder. With teams of women activists, we have documented at least three cases of mass sexual violence in the past three months itself, where security forces have run amok in the villages, stripping women, playing with their naked bodies and indulging in gangrape, looting their precious food supplies, and destroying their homes and granaries. 

The number of so-called "encounters" is at an all-time high, people are simply "disappearing" from villages in large numbers, only to show up in the list of "surrendered" or "arrested" Naxalites several days or weeks later. 

The local police and administration are talking in one voice of "clearing" the area within one year.In this scenario, all who are challenging the official narrative, are being silenced. Social mobilisations are being orchestrated by the police to provide a cover to their illegal harassment of journalists, lawyers, activists. 

When mass gangrapes in Bijapur were being uncovered, a group calling itself the "Naxal peedit Sangharsh samiti" under the leadership of the ex-Salwa Judum leader Madhukar Rao, took out noisy belligerent rallies against Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia and "outside NGOs", threatening all of us with physical violence if we entered Bijapur again. 

When Malini Subramaniam wrote about the fake surrenders of Maoists, or the fake encounters, a motley group led by the nephew of the local MLA, calling themselves the "Samajik Ekta Manch" launched a vilification campaign against her. When we tried to get her complaint of stones thrown into her house registered, the Manch publicly declared us as their next target, for defending "khoonkhar Naxalites" (खूंखार नक्सली - dreaded naxalites) and going to villages inciting people against the state. (राज्य सत्ता के खिलाफ भड़काते हैं).

The local Bar Association also renewed their fatwa against local lawyers working with us..Unable to stop us from continuing our work here, the police have now resorted to threatening others associated with us. 

Prachi, the young household help working at Malini's, was summoned to the police station twice yesterday for interrogation, and kept there for hours.  Despite the clear letter of the law that women witnesses can only be examined at their place of residence, she was taken away to the police station late at night for questioning, much to the alarm of her family. She has been taken to the police station again this morning and is still there. 

Malini's landlord,who lives in Raipur, was also summoned to the thana this morning, and by now has also issued an eviction notice to her. 

Malini's husband, Ashim, who was called inside the thana in the afternoon, is also now being held inside and not being allowed outside.

Our landlord, a person of very modest means, is also a member of the minority community, and vulnerable in this climate of pervasive fear. Our landlord's family have always had the greatest love and concern for us, which we return in equal measure. 

We understand that they had no choice this time but to ask us to vacate. We also understand that it would be exceedingly difficult to find another rental place in this time of inflamed passions and provoked agitations. 

We are still trying. We take solace in the despair apparent in the highest echelons of police, who have had to stoop to such crude levels of indecency to throw us out of Jagdalpur.

- Isha, Shalini.

Also read: Malini Subramaniam's ordeal shows journalists are an endangered lot in India.

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