Malini Subramaniam, a contributor to the news website Scroll.In, was among the few journalists reporting from the Bastar area in the state of Chhattisgarh–the epicenter of the conflict between Maoist and security forces–until early 2016. Most journalists work in Chhattisgarh temporarily and are based in safer areas like the state capital, Raipur.
In contrast with the conflict in Kashmir, there is little awareness about the decades-long unrest in India’s “Red Corridor,” where Maoists are leading an insurgency to demand a greater share of the region’s natural resources for indigenous peoples. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said the Maoist insurgency was the biggest internal security challenge facing the country.
Subramaniam has reported on abuses by police and security forces, sexual violence against women, the jailing of minors, the shutdown of schools, extrajudicial killings, and threats against journalists in the region. She has been interrogated, surveilled, and harassed by police and members of a pro-police vigilante group in connection with her critical coverage of human rights abuses and politics. Police have attempted to malign her and label her as a Maoist agent.
In February, a vigilante group began protesting outside Subramaniam’s home, chanting, “Death to Malini Subramaniam.” Men attempted to incite her neighbors to attack her home. In the middle of the night, unidentified attackers hurled stones at Subramaniam’s home, where she lived with her daughter.
Subramaniam told CPJ that while police allowed her to file a complaint they initially refused to file a First Information Report, a necessary step to set in motion a police investigation. Days later, police finally did register a First Information Report, but Subramaniam told CPJ that it was weak because it did not name any individual and because the charges related only to trespassing and damage to her property.
Later that month, Subramaniam’s domestic staff and landlord were detained by police for interrogation. Police allegedly pressured her landlord to serve the journalist an eviction notice.
Subramaniam decided to leave Bastar, realizing that the people around her could face repercussions in connection with her work. Since Subramaniam’s departure, journalists, rights advocates, including lawyers defending imprisoned journalists, and a BBC correspondent on a reporting trip have also been forced to flee the Bastar region.
Journalists working in Chhattisgarh do so under dangerous conditions, CPJ research shows. Police pressure journalists to serve as informants and jail those that report critically on them, while rebels frequently attack journalists who they suspect are reporting critically of them. At least four journalists are imprisoned in Chhattisgarh, with many others unable to report freely due to pressure from the state and from Maoist rebels. Several journalists have been killed reporting on the conflict, CPJ research shows.
The text of Malini Subramaniam’s acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
I feel greatly honored by this award. But I also feel deeply resentful and angry at having been attacked, intimidated, and forced to leave the town I considered home.
The indigenous Adivasi community in Bastar are subjected to fake arrests, killings in fake encounters, forced surrenders and the most heinous of all crimes–rape and sexual assault of Adivasi women and girls by security forces. As journalists struggle to bring forth this suffering, the state government of Chhattisgarh found appalling methods to silence all voices that are supporting the local Adivasis to fight human rights abuses. The press has been under constant attack just for doing its job. Reporters have been arrested with trumped up charges and I was driven out of Bastar. And the government of India watched, doing nothing.
However, amidst this, the bold and supportive voices from the journalist fraternity from India and abroad was a huge pillar of strength for me.
I bow with deep gratitude to the editors, Naresh Fernandes and Supriya Sharma of Scroll to whom I contribute my articles. Despite my status as freelance contributor, Scroll and its team stood by my side during my most trying periods and mobilized support from the media community to stop harassment of journalists.
I thank the Editors’ Guild that immediately sent a team to Bastar to assess the situation of journalists in the state.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reached out with powerful statements of support from the beginning, issuing messages that my country couldn’t ignore. That helped give me strength when I felt shaken and alone.
I thank my lawyers and friends for their support–Isha Khandelwal, Shalini Gera, the feisty lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Bela Bhatia, the tenacious human rights activist and researcher, Adivasi leaders like Manish Kunjam and Soni Sori, the woman of steel who inspires nothing but courage. All of them continue to fight against human rights abuse in Bastar. I draw strength from the courageous Adivasi women and girls from the villages of Bastar, Sukma, Bijapur, who were willing to talk to journalists despite assaults and threats by the state and the police.
Last but not least, I thank my family including my husband, Ashim, and my two daughters, Sakhi and Samaa. My family lived through the terror and fear, yet encouraged me to continue. I’m proud to have Samaa, my younger daughter, here with me tonight.
As I accept this award I pay tribute to India’s local journalists and stringers, including Santosh Yadav, who continues to languish in jail for his work, and Kamal Shukla, here with us this evening, who is spearheading a campaign to enact legislation to protect journalists in Chhattisgarh. They are the real heroes.
On their behalf, I accept this honor bestowed upon me. Thank you again CPJ.