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Forthright journalism under attack in India

Aug 18, 2008

Journalists and filmmakers writing and making films on issues of larger public interests are increasingly being targeted by the Indian state. Senior columnist Sevanti Ninan says it is high time to speak up for those who are losing their freedom of expression.

Are the BJP-ruled states of Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand becoming dangerous places for those who use their pen and their cameras to campaign on issues they believe in? Are left- leaning activists increasingly in danger of being termed Maoists and summarily proceeded against? It would seem so, going by recent developments.

While the doctor who has been jailed by the Chhattisgarh government since last May, Binayak Sen, has become an international cause celebre, media-related victims of state repression in these two states have received less attention.

The filmmaker Ajay TG who has made films on Binayak Sen, on the state government's Salwa Judum movement, on the lives of working women in Chhattisgarh, and on the police attack on the workers of a motorcycle plant in Gurgaon, was arrested three months ago and released earlier this month on conditional bail after the police failed to file a charge sheet within 90 days.

He was arrested on suspicion of being involved in Naxalite activity. He took the risk of coming to Delhi to speak out earlier this week about his arrest. He has to report to the police in Bhilai every alternate Monday.

“There is no FIR (first information report), no charge sheet. How do I defend myself?” he asked at a public meeting.

In Uttarakhand the anti-Naxalite movement has claimed a victim whose case received initial  publicity but who is now in danger of being forgotten even by fellow activists and journalists in the state.

For journalists who feel strongly about the issues they report, the line between journalism and activism is sometimes thin.

Prashant Rahi began back in 1993  as a journalist for the Statesman. Around 2000-2001, he shifted to being a freelance writer so that he could focus more on activism. He was involved in the movements that consumed the state where he lived, formerly UP, now Uttarakhand, particularly movements on the issues of access to land, forest and water.

It has by now been widely reported that on December 17 last year he was picked up in Dehradun, surfacing in police custody on the 20th of that month, described in a police press release as a zonal commander of the Maoist movement.

He says he was picked up from a city road in the state capital. The police have however said in an elaborately constructed FIR that they found him in the forests of Haspur Khatta. The local press faithfully picked that up. Amar Ujala reported on the 22nd from Rudrapur that a Maoist zonal commander had been apprehended. He was even described as having a nick name Prashant Sanglikar.

It has also been reported that Rahi's arrest is thought to be part of a carefully constructed case being made by the state government for receiving anti-Naxal operation funds.

Uttarakhand does indeed share a border with Nepal but there has been little evidence of the Maoist movement of Nepal having percolated into this state. Those who have written about Prashant Rahi's case so far feel that the timing of his arrest suggests that the state was in search of alleged Naxals at a time that its chief minister was claiming funds for anti-Naxal operations from the Central Government.

He was picked up when he was on his way to arrange for bail for some other arrested activists, one of whom has been released earlier this month.

The FIR filed in Rahi's case mentioned charges related to unlawful activities, waging war against the state, and sedition. The charge sheet filed since, in early July, has retained most of these charges. He is being held in a high security prison where no one except his daughter visits him because visitors have to be photographed, and if they are locals, are liable to be harassed later.

When a human rights activist asked to meet him she was denied permission. His daughter works in the Mumbai film industry and is able to make the trip to visit him in jail not more than once a month.

Prashant Rahi is in danger of being forgotten because while he is in Dehradun jail in Garhwal, his lawyer and fellow journalists who initially campaigned for him are in Nainital, in Kumaon.

Two senior journalists in Kumaon I spoke to a few days ago, Rajiv Lochan Shah and Shekhar Pathak said that there was no substantial human rights movement in the state and their own work prevented them from doing enough to keep his case alive in public memory. He needs good legal help and people to campaign on his behalf with various levels of government.

One of the charges mentioned against him in the FIR are possession of banned literature. Rajiv Lochan Shah did a right to information application wanting to know which books were banned in the state.

The answer was none. Says Shah, the concocted FIR talks of Rahi possessing a laptop while operating from the jungles. There is no electricity in the forests from where he was allegedly picked up. How would he run a laptop even if he possessed one?

Rahi has not received the facilities he is entitled to in prison. He has been given neither bed, nor a chair and table. His jailors told him, the charges against you do not allow us to give you these facilities.

A strange case

The other case of media-related oppression in Uttarakhand is a very recent and very strange one. The editor and staff of a 10 year old fortnightly newspaper called Nagarik which is published from Ramnagar in Nainital has sent out an appeal for support to all writers, activists and journalists.

The letter says its readers in Uttar Pradesh, in the districts of Mau and Gorakhpur have received phone calls from intelligence personnel in July and August accusing them of being readers of a Maoist and anti national newspaper.

The statement documents the dates and names of readers called, and the phone numbers they were called from. One of the first readers to complain said he was informed by an IB officer calling that he was investigating because the Uttarakhand government had demanded details of Nagrik readers from UP.

And how did the government get a list of the readers? From the post office through which the paper mails copies to subscribers in other towns.

The statement says the paper is progressive, not reactionary. A copy of the 8-page fortnightly that The Hoot has contains a sprinkling of national and international news, along with items on the ‘goondagardi’ of the UP police, a story on how the governor's visit to the victims of a bus accident in Uttarakhand created problems for the patients, a story on labourers who have died in a paper mill, and so on.

It does not seem to take much more than a bit of forthright journalism for the label Maoist to be applied in present day Uttarakhand.

Source : The Hoot
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