On July 25, Prabhat Singh, a 35-year-old independent journalist from Chhattisgarh's Dantewada, wrote a letter to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. The letter, accessed by Newslaundry, accused the Barsur police station of keeping a “watch” on him and his family, and collecting information on them “through friends and town residents”.
Barsur is about 32 kilometres from Dantewada, a region long affected by Naxalite insurgency. While Singh lives in a rented house in Dantewada with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, his parents and two brothers live in Barsur. In the letter, the journalist alleged that police personnel in plain clothes, along with surrendered Naxalites, had been keeping an eye on their house, shops and office in Barsur. The Singh family owns two shops in the town.
Singh, on the other hand, has been a journalist since 2012, writing for different publications. He started his own news portal Khabari Chidiya in March last year, and also has a separate business selling computers, electronic items, and furniture in Dantewada.
Singh first came to know about the police’s alleged prying about a week ago. He believes it stems from his recent reports on the police’s role in handling the Naxal insurgency in the area.
“Between July 22 and 24, I got a number of messages and calls from my friends and locals in Barsur. All of them told me that the police had been asking questions about me and my family,” he told Newslaundry. “I was also told that they [the police] had been roaming around our house and shops to keep an eye. My brother could identify some of them.”
The police inquiry touched upon several aspects, Singh wrote in his letter, including the size of his family, their occupations, their sources of income, details of bank accounts, and details of movable and immovable assets held by the family. Questions were even asked about his daughter: what school she was enrolled in, and how she commuted.
Singh’s response was to write this letter, voluntarily disclosing all the information the police were seeking. As a result, the letter is an elaborate account of every single possession held by Singh and members of his immediate family, from details of their residences and commercial enterprises, to their personal and business bank accounts, to the kitchen utensils and electronic appliances they had at home and in their shops.
But why did he address the letter to the chief minister?
Here’s Singh’s reasoning in his own words from the letter: “I believe it is under your instruction that the Superintendent of Police in Dantewada ordered one of his deputies to come to Barsur within a week to collect information on my family and keep an eye on my house, shops and office.”
‘Periodic threat assessment’, says the police
The Dantewada police, however, has refuted Singh’s allegations of snooping. The Dantewada police superintendent, Abhishek Pallava, told Newslaundry that such inquiries were part of “routine procedure” in a Naxalite-affected area.
“I cannot say if this has happened with Singh but as a general exercise, we keep doing periodic threat assessments of different individuals,” Pallava said. “Politicians, businessmen and journalists often come under the purview of such procedures.”
In Pallava’s view, there’s nothing to complain about so long as such inquiries do not infringe on an individual’s private space. Activities like phone tapping without permission, barging into someone’s house without a warrant, or harassing someone in the middle of the road would not be acceptable, he said.
“But some constable inquiring about an individual through others is very normal. The same might have happened in Singh’s case, if he is saying so,” Pallava said.
But Singh had claimed the inquiry was being carried out by plainclothes police officials accompanied by surrendered Naxal insurgents. Pallava replied, “In matters of intelligence, all this is very common.”
A journalist based in Raipur, who spoke to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity, agreed with Pallava. Such practices have been going on for years now, he said, as the police keep a wide range of people under surveillance for security purposes. “This also includes any journalist working in a Maoist-affected area in the state.”
Singh rebuffed this theory, though. If the police wanted information on him for his own protection, he argued, why wouldn’t they directly contact him?
“What’s with this secretive way to gather data?” he asked. Also, the inquiry and vigilance were done in Barsur where his parents and brothers live, not in Dantewada where he lives, he pointed out. “What’s the reason for that?” he asked.
Fears of a false case
According to Singh, the police snooping might be the result of some of his recent reports. For several months now, he said, he has questioned the police’s role in handling the insurgency in the area.
For example, , Singh accused the Dantewada police of faking an encounter and killing two Adivasi villagers. More recently, on June 8 this year, his portal on an assistant sub-inspector and armourer of police in Sukma supplying cartridges to Maoists. On July 16, he about a network of local businessmen, politicians and policemen helping the Maoists with supplies of arms, ammunition and communication devices, among other things.
The police’s activities are suspicious, Singh reiterated, adding that he had no issue furnishing any information about himself in a transparent manner. “But since that hasn’t been the case, maybe they are gathering it to see if I can be implicated in a false case at some point. Who knows?” he said.
His fears are not unfounded; Singh has a history with the police. In March 2016, he was for allegedly defaming a senior police officer with an obscene message on a WhatsApp group. In addition to this, three other cases, registered on earlier dates, were invoked against him, he said. As a consequence, he had to spend nearly three months in jail before obtaining bail. One of those cases was registered in the Barsur police station, the same station which is now making inquiries about him, he said.
However, the journalist that Newslaundry spoke to in Raipur said he personally did not think this was a case of revenge.
“At least not from the top level of the police or the government,” he said. Nowadays, he said, journalists in the state work in a better atmosphere than before, though there could be a number of reasons for enmity between a journalist and a local policeman in a small town.
“The point is, if Singh has felt uncomfortable with the police activities, he also has a right to raise a complaint,” he said. “So, let there be an inquiry into it. Everything will be clear.”
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