Death for daring

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Jagendra Singh's family members at a dharna on June 14 demanding an investigation into his death. Photo: AFP

Jagendra Singh. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In this photograph taken on June 1, Jagendra Singh talking to the police at a hospital in Shahjahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AFP

Ram Murti Verma, Samajwadi Party leader and a Minister in the Uttar Pradesh government. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sandeep Kothari. Photo: by special arrangement

The charred body of Sandep Kothari lying at Butibori near Nagpur on June 21. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The killing of two Hindi journalists who exposed the illegal activities of powerful people in their respective regions shows how press freedom is at the mercy of the politically connected.

Several controversial issues and facts have come to the fore in the context of the violent and unnatural deaths of two regional journalists in the north Indian States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in June. But there is little doubt that the intolerance of the political class of the two States was the primary factor behind the deaths.

Jagendra Singh, a freelance journalist of Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, died of severe burns on June 1. Sandeep Kothari, from Katangi hamlet in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district, was kidnapped, choked, and burnt to death approximately three weeks later. Though the two incidents were not directly connected, the life and death of the two journalists had several similarities. Both of them were engaged in a battle of sorts with socially and economically powerful people with strong political connections. The direct or indirect involvement of these influential people in the deaths is now reflecting in the investigation records.

Kothari, 40, was kidnapped on June 19 when he and a friend were returning from Balaghat on a motorbike. Kothari’s friend was threatened and chased away while Kothari was taken to an unknown destination. He was found dead in the Butibori forest in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, some 100 kilometres from Katangi, on June 21. Kothari’s body was completely burnt and his relatives could identify him only from the chain he was wearing. Kothari was publishing a Hindi daily from Katangi after stints in Nai Duniya, Deshbandhu and Haribhumi, all prominent Hindi newspapers in central India. He regularly wrote about illegal mining and instances of land grab. This was not tolerated by the powerful people of the area. His associates said he had faced a threat to his life for many years and that the threats increased when he started using the Right to Information (RTI) Act effectively to gather information to back up his articles.

The Madhya Pradesh Police have arrested Brijendra Geharwar, Vishal Tandi (both from Katangi), and Pappu alias Shahid Khan, who confessed to kidnapping and killing Kothari. The police said another suspect, Rakesh Naraswani, was still at large.

Jagendra Singh’s journalism was essentially through a Facebook page titled “Shahjahanpur Samachar”. In his dying declaration, he accused Ram Murthi Verma, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader from Shahjahanpur and a Minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, of harassing him and conspiring to liquidate him. Jagendra Singh had posted several articles highlighting the Minister’s alleged illegal dealings. According to his family members, Jagendra Singh was burnt to death by a group of policemen and goons who came in two cars and barged into his house in Shahjahanpur. The social media journalist was reportedly reminded of the warnings he had been given on writing against Verma. This led to a heated argument, following which the intruders pinned him down, poured petrol on him and set him on fire. He was rushed to the district hospital in Shahjahanpur and later moved to King George’s Medical University in Lucknow where he succumbed to burns.

The police version, as stated by Babloo Kumar, the Superintendent of Police of Shahjahanpur, is that Jagendra Singh attempted suicide when the police went to arrest him. The police maintained that he was not a journalist and that they had gone to arrest him as part of an investigation into charges of intimidation and extortion against him. The police said Jagendra Singh locked himself in a room when he saw the police coming and when they looked through the ventilator of the room they saw him burning. They said they put out the fire and took him to the hospital. Both the family’s version and that of the police are in circulation in Shahjahanpur and outside. However, the general agreement is that there existed an animosity between Jagendra Singh and Verma on account of the former’s social media posts. The Press Council of India, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International see the death of Jagendra Singh as an attack on the freedom of the press and have demanded an independent, swift and transparent inquiry into the case.

Investigations have resulted in naming Verma in the first information report (FIR) but the S.P. has refused to drop the Minister from the Cabinet or take any punitive action against him. According to S.P. leader Ram Gopal Yadav, a mention in the FIR is not enough proof to take action. On June 14, Jagendra Singh’s family members began an indefinite dharna seeking justice and action against the Minister. They told reporters that they received threats and were even offered hush money to withdraw the case. On June 22, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav met Jagendra Singh’s family and promised an ex gratia of Rs.30 lakh and government jobs for his children. The family ended the dharna on June 23.

In Kothari’s case, the Madhya Pradesh Police have questioned the credentials of the journalist. Neeraj Soni, Additional Superintendent of Police, Balaghat, said: “Kothari was a hawker who used to write dispatches for Nayi Duniya until 2012. There are several cases of blackmailing, extortion and rape against him. He was also externed from the district. The arrested [accused] and the absconder were in fact his associates in many cases, and their friendship had turned into rivalry. The three had allegedly implicated him in a rape case in which he was discharged. The enmity could be as a result of the case.”

The police’s statement is perceived not only as a demonstration of their insensitivity but also as an affirmation of the politician-businessmen-police nexus in the area. Several veteran journalists in the area and Kothari’s family members share this perception. Kothari was known to be an upright scribe, relentless in his efforts to expose the corrupt nexus of the powerful in the area. His primary focus, as a journalist, was on the illegal mining mafia that was active in Katangi and the adjoining areas of Tirodi. Kothari was also fighting a legal battle against the chit fund company Green Revolution Marketing Private Limited for alleged fraud. This battle against the powerful had turned him into an irritant.

Mineral-rich Balaghat is an extremely backward district, and relies mostly on funds from the State government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme. About 80 per cent of India’s manganese production comes from Balaghat. It is also rich in bauxite, marble, copper dolomite and limestone. Illegal mineral mining activities have been going on for more than two decades now and illegal sand mining is commonplace. Illegal miners enjoy the patronage of politicians and the police. As poverty is stark and the rate of unemployment is high in the region, the mining barons employ the poor at meagre wages, ending any signs of resistance.

A senior journalist at Balaghat told Frontline: “The employment conditions in the illegal mining sites are pathetic; it is nothing but bonded labour. No one can ask for higher wages and every one has to remain at the mercy of the goondas appointed by the mining barons. Anyone who raises his voice meets the most brutal treatment. Journalists, too, fear for their lives and hardly write about it, despite it being common knowledge. Kothari was one of the few who consistently wrote about the illegal mining activities.”

Journalists said anyone who wrote against the mining barons would face all kinds of threats, legal being one of them. Kothari had a series of charges against him – from petty ones like goat theft to grave accusations like rape. Kothari confronted the cases and was acquitted in due process. Navin, Kothari’s brother, told the media website The Hoot that the Balaghat Magistrate discharged Kothari in a rape case against him and even pointed out that he was falsely implicated. Two other similar cases registered at Goberwahi in Bhandara district and Bela in Nagpur district of neighbouring Maharashtra could not be pursued as the “affected” women openly admitted that they were forced to lodge a complaint against Kothari.

The Hoot reports that only three old cases were genuine. “For instance, one of theft because labourers had committed the crime using a truck that was in Kothari’s name or another of some local enmity with neighbours. The others were fabricated.” Kothari faced the consequences of these cases. He was externed from the district twice, slapped with over a dozen allegedly false cases, including rape and molestation, and, in 2012, was sent to jail on charges of rape. “It was only in January 2015 that bhaiyya was acquitted. After a few months, he filed an RTI application with the police demanding to know the total number of cases filed against him and their status but received no reply,” The Hoot quoted Navin as saying. All the three accused in Kothari’s murder are involved in chit funds and mining activities.

Jagendra Singh had several cases registered against him, none of them relating to journalism. He had worked in a couple of regional papers such as Amar Uajala and Swatantra Bharat as a stringer before venturing out on his own and launching the Facebook page. Local journalists say that there were allegations that the articles and reports Jagendra Singh wrote for the newspapers were aimed at settling personal disputes. It is on record that Swatantra Bharat was served with a couple of legal notices for some of the stories filed by Jagendra Singh. The paper had to tender an apology and publish a corrigendum.

But journalists also pointed out that there was considerable merit in the stories Jagendra wrote against Verma on the Facebook page. It is to be seen how far and how well his death will be probed, especially in view of the compromise his family seems to have worked out with the political leadership.

Journalists and activists struggling to expose illegal mining activities expect the probe into the murder of Kothari to take intriguing turns. Kothari’s case reflects the larger insouciance of State governments towards journalists who strive to make ends meet in India’s hinterland and yet are daring enough to expose illegal nexuses.

These journalists, who function outside the gaze of television, continuously expose the corrupt networks in their respective work areas. In many ways, the experiences of Kothari and Jagendra Singh and others like them explain why despite the so-called “development” story sold to the world, India is ranked 136 on the list of 180 nations in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based Reporters without Borders.

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