By Sampad Mahapatra
(Sampad Mahapatra is NDTV’s Chief of Bureau in Orissa and a very seasoned and highly respected television journalist. This blog has been reproduced here with his permission.)
Who’s Laxman? And why is he in jail?
Laxman Choudhury, barely 30, works as a rural reporter for Orissa’s leading daily The Sambad. Based in Mohana, a small town in Gajapati district, Laxman also sells magazines and newspapers to supplement his meagre income.
On September 20, 2009, Laxman was asked by the police to come to the Mohana police station located close to his small magazine stall. He was blithely told he was under arrest. Damning evidence had been found, the police officials told him, about his ‘Maoist links’. It was nothing short of a bolt from the blue for Laxman.
And what, pray, was the evidence?
The local police, following a ‘tip-off’, had apparently seized a packet addressed to him containing 7 copies of a ‘seditious’ leaflet in Oriya issued on the occasion of the Foundation Day of the CPI Maoist from a bus conductor. Laxman protested, saying he had neither asked for it nor was it ‘unlawful’ on the part of a journalist to get press releases from newsworthy sources. But the police would have none of it. For them, the mere fact that it was addressed to him was good enough reason to not only arrest him and the bus conductor, but also slap grievous charges like sedition, waging war against the State, criminal conspiracy and unlawful activity against them. For those unaware of the implications of these charges, let it be said that they could invite life imprisonment or even capital punishment!
So much for the alacrity of the ‘ever alert’ police in this highly charged Maoist belt.
Ironically, a reporter from the nearby Adaba town, who also works for The Sambad, had received the same leaflet two days earlier and had even got it published!
Why were the Mohana police after Laxman Choudhury’s blood ?
People who have followed Laxman’s reports in the last few months say it was his campaign against the corrupt police officials in the sub division that landed him in trouble. It was his expose’ on the unholy nexus of the local police with the ‘Ganja’ mafia and flesh traders that had incurred the wrath of the khaki babus. Union Home Minister Chidambaram’s clarion call for an all-out attack on the Maoists came in handy for them to vent their ire against him.
On September 20, 2009, the day Laxman was arrested in Mohana, the postman delivered a packet containing copies of the same leaflet at my Bhubaneswar home. And it was, by no means, a one-off affair. For the last several years, the postal department has been regularly delivering letters, leaflets and press releases sent by the Maoists to me and a number of other journalists. We have never ever been questioned about it, let alone being arrested. The Indian Postal department, which has been playing the role of a courier for the banned outfit all this while, hasn’t invited charges of sedition either – unlike the poor bus conductor, who could have hardly known what the packet contained. There are clearly two sets of laws, to be applied (or not applied) as per the whims, predilections and biases of the concerned police officials!
On the October 6, 2009, Laxman’s bail petition came up for hearing for the second time in the court of the Additional District Judge. By then, the police had withdrawn the charge of waging war against the State under Section 121 of the IPC for “lack of evidence”. But the judge still denied bail to Laxman because the rest of the charges were still pending against him. Interestingly, the judge who asked the police why they had withdrawn the charges under Section 121 (waging war against the State) never bothered to ask them what evidence they had to back the charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against the journalist!
Curiously, Ghai Majhi, named in the FIR as the person who had handed over the so-called “incriminating material” to the bus conductor, is still at large. Reports from the area suggest that Majhi, a para-teacher in a nearby village, acted as a collaborator of the local police which wanted to teach Laxman Choudhury a lesson. No wonder the police has made no efforts to arrest Ghai Majhi, who has now sought anticipatory bail from the Orissa High Court.
Laxman’s 26-year-old wife Minati and his three-year old daughter live in a dingy one-room rented space in Mohana. No one talks to them for fear of incurring the wrath of the khaki babus. No one wants to talk openly about Laxman’s illegal arrest. People, who are otherwise upright, express their anger and anguish only in whispers. A local lawyer told me: “if the police can do this to a journalist of a leading daily and that too without any evidence, imagine what they can do to lesser mortals, who dare cross swords with them.”
With her husband in jail for well over a month now, Minati has had to close down the magazine stall that he used to run. With all sources of income blocked, the pressure to clear pending bills and repay interests on loans taken is mounting on her. In the circumstances, it is no small mercy that her landlord has not yet asked her to move out.
The bail petitions of Laxman and the bus conductor are pending before the High Court. The earliest one can expect them to be heard is January 2010, placed as they are at the very bottom of a heap of 2000 such applications.
Can the state or the police punish a journalist just because a banned outfit chooses to send him copies of its press release? Don’t we, as journalists, have the right to seek, receive or collect information from just about any source as long as it is for a professional reason?
In a country where newspapers and television channels happily publish/broadcast interviews with outlaws of all hues, including dreaded Maoists and most wanted terrorists, the fact that Laxman’s arrest and incarceration for well over a month for something as innocuous as being the addressee of supposedly blasphemous material (after all, he was never found in found in possession of the ‘incriminating material’) has failed to create even a ripple at the national level is a sad commentary on the state of our media.
Journalists across the state, including those in Bhubaneswar, did stage protests and condemn the illegal police action. Unfortunately, however, the owners of media houses in the state, most of them in active politics, have chosen not to react. Some of them even believe Laxman deserved it for being a ‘stooge’ of the Maoists – a good enough deterrent for their “employees” not to dwell on Laxman’s issue any further.
The ‘enlightened’ Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik had promised media delegations, not once but twice, that the ‘ridiculous charges’ (his words!) against the Mohana journalist would be withdrawn immediately. Freedom of the Press, he told them, is sacrosanct in a democracy and no one, not even the State, should ever try to mess around with it!
Notwithstanding Patnaik’s assurance, Laxman and the hapless conductor continue to languish in jail even to this day. And each passing day provides further confirmation of what most of us know anyway – that the words of politicians need to be taken for what they are – words; empty words causing much sound of fury but signifying nothing. Is it not asking for the moon to expect the darling of the national media aristocracy to lose sleep over something as trivial as the arrest of a ‘mofussil’ reporter?
(Sampad Mahapatra is NDTV’s Chief of Bureau in Orissa and a very seasoned and highly respected television journalist. This has been reproduced here with his permission.)