Gagging the media in Chhattisgarh
The case of Scroll’s Malini Subramaniam now poses some difficult questions to the Chhattisgarh government and its cohorts
Freedom of expression cuts both ways, especially in conflict zones. Malini Subramaniam and Scroll.in have found this out the hard way.
Subramaniam is a contributor to the combative digital publication, and is based in Jagdalpur, the district headquarter town of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. Since January, she has come under greater scrutiny by the local police and harassment by organizations evidently linked to political parties and state government agencies. Subramaniam claims that earlier this week, representatives of the Samajik Ekta Manch, one such organization, led a mob to her house, shouted slogans against her, attempted to incite her neighbours to stone her house saying she aids Maoist rebels, and damaged her car.
Subramaniam’s sin appears to be her articles over the past year that, among other things, detailed sexual abuse by security forces in conflict zones, questioned the surrender of Maoists as being faked by the government, and made allegations of torture of journalists by Chhattisgarh’s police.
Subramaniam and Scroll.in claim the district’s police chief didn’t take her call and also cut her off when she called from another phone to complain about the Manch.
For its part, the Chhattisgarh government hasn’t twitched an apologetic or conciliatory muscle. This is standard operating procedure.
The relationship between the Chhattisgarh government and the media is simple. Those praising Chhattisgarh and, in particular, its three-term chief minister Raman Singh, face few or no problems. Those who highlight the plight of tribal folks and others in the Maoist-affected areas of the state, such plight a result of government apathy and atrocities by security forces, come in for stick that has included withholding government advertising to publications, and threats to life, limb and property of correspondents by police, paramilitary and state-sponsored vigilante groups. Along with human rights and media watchdogs, I too have documented such instances, not infrequent since the creation of the vigilante group Salwa Judum in 2005.
Victims in the media include even those who detail Maoist atrocities and pressure. Maoist rebels are as insistent on one-sided narratives as the government.
Representatives of major global and Indian media organizations generally get away from the clutches of both the state government and Maoists simply because these organizations are too big, too well-known, or too well-connected to mess with. Of course, some major media organizations with non-media business interests in Chhattisgarh have voluntarily turned tame—as I have detailed in the book Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India.
Chhattisgarh can do practically anything it wishes. In 2006, it implemented a lawless gag law to prevent media and human rights groups from presenting the Maoist point of view—any point of view, really, that went against the official version in the state’s battle against the Maoists rebels. The Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, 2005 (No. 14 of 2006) had all the usual bells and whistles. Among other things, a district magistrate had the right to seize any building or area where ‘unlawful activities’ take place, and evict occupants. This included a meeting, even a conversation, let alone writing and preparing visual material such as posters—anything that the authorities felt could ‘create risk’ or ‘endanger public order, peace and tranquillity’ or ‘impede the administration of law’.
If Chhattisgarh wants to push it, anyone criticizing the government’s handling of the Maoist issue would be prosecuted. So would I—or anybody for that matter, including, naturally, human rights organizations that legitimately function as watchdogs.
The state government’s irritation with Subramaniam may go back to her days as Chhattisgarh head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ICRC was keen to expand operations in India, especially in Chhattisgarh and Nagaland. (Disclosure: I briefed senior ICRC officials in New Delhi in early 2010 about the situation in these states and the likelihood of various activities.) These operations had perforce to be non-political as the Government of India wouldn’t permit a spread beyond ICRC's limited mandate related to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. ICRC set up a healthcare operation in Bijapur in 2010.
The Chhattisgarh government has always viewed askance such organizations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, sometimes accusing them of aiding Maoists. It kicked ICRC out of Chhattisgarh in mid-2013, just weeks after Mahendra Karma, an architect of Salwa Judum, and other senior Congress leaders were killed by Maoists. ICRC’s continued presence may have escalated the conflict in global perception.
Subramaniam stayed put and subsequently began to write for Scroll.in. Her case now poses some difficult questions to the Chhattisgarh government and its cohorts. They owe credible answers.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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