It is a blazing summer
afternoon and Raghvendra Singh is barely managing to hold up with a wet towel
over his head and a hand-held wooden fan. His mother Sumanlata Singh lies under
the shade of a neem tree a few metres away. “She doesn’t even eat well these
days; only drinks water or other cool liquids offered to her,” says a
neighbour, who gives Singh company for a few hours every day. Raghvendra does
not speak much, gazing into the open space with empty eyes. People too have
stopped talking to him.
His conversations now revolve around offers of government jobs and the money he can receive to take care of his family. The only condition is that he ends the dharnademanding the arrest of Uttar Pradesh’s Minister of State for Backward Class Welfare, Ram Murti Verma, at whose behest four policemen and some of his goons allegedly set his journalist father Jagendra Singh ablaze on June 1. Senior leader of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) and ex-Member of Parliament from Shahjahanpur, Mithilesh Kumar, was turned away by the family when he came to meet them last week, but the “offers” have not stopped coming.
The five constables posted to ensure the safety of the family during their protest now take part in its conversations. Distant relatives, some unseen, some rarely seen, have all come together with offers of deals from SP leaders. “Most of the people who are not relatives are either members of the SP or affiliated to the party in some way,” Raghvendra says.
But Raghvendra has stood his ground. “We want justice first. Let the minister be arrested and a fair enquiry initiated against him and then we will think of our future.”
Others, however, are afraid the deals being offered now will not be offered later. “Justice is a much-hyped word in our state. If a journalist like Jaggu (Jagendra) who fought for justice for others can be killed in such a brutal manner and the perpetrators not even arrested, how can these kids fight the system which protects the guilty?” asks R. P. Singh, a close friend of Jagendra Singh and an ex-journalist who quit the profession to start a small business in the neighbouring district of Pilibhit a few years back. “This is not the first time a journalist has been killed here. Results of inquiries in all the cases have come to naught. We have seen it together and tried our hardest to fight the system, but to no avail,” he says.
As per the National
Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 62 attacks on journalists, including
murders, were registered in Uttar Pradesh in the first six months of 2014. Not
a single arrest was made in any case. The cases have gone up significantly
under Akhilesh Yadav’s rule after 2012. India was third on the list of the
International Press Institute’s list of nations where the most number of
journalists were killed in 2013 with 11 deaths, of which five were in Uttar
Singh was not surprised when SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother Shivpal Yadav, who is believed to have a bigger say in the party than even the chief minister, said no arrest would be made in the case immediately since in the past, the cases had turned out to be false.
Another senior minister, Parasnath Yadav, simply blamed Jagendra Singh’s destiny while defending the party’s decision to not have Verma arrested, even though a case of murder requires an immediate arrest.
Moreover, the SP has been steadfastly reluctant to let go of tainted, charge-sheeted ministers as long as it can use their political or muscle power. Raja Bhaiya or Raghuraj Pratap Singh is a notable example of someone who has survived and is in the good graces of the SP despite 45 criminal cases pending, including that of murdering Zia-ul-Haq, the deputy superintendent of police (DSP) of his constituency Pratapgarh, in 2012.
Small-town journalism in Uttar Pradesh and in most of the country is a life of struggle with no rewards. Salaries are around minimum wage level, and local politicians and their goons are a constant threat to life and limb. One story, one perceived slight too many—and all the press freedoms of this country come to nothing. In Uttar Pradesh, it has happened with alarming regularity, especially under the SP’s rule.
In August 2013, in Etawah, the home district of the chief minister, a senior journalist Rakesh Sharma, who worked for the Hindi daily Aaj, was murdered. He had been exposing illegal gambling in the district and received many threats over the phone. Journalists who know him and his work say Sharma had found links between the gambling mafia and senior office bearers in the SP.
Sharma was shot dead in his hometown of Bakewar while on the way to cover an alleged crime on his motorbike, after receiving an anonymous call. He lay on the roadside in a pool of blood for barely a few minutes before his body was recovered by police, raising suspicion that the police were either hand-in-glove with the killers or had prior information that Sharma was going to be attacked.
Shahjahanpur too has seen its share of journalists being murdered. Last year, Narendra Yadav, a crime reporter with a popular Hindi daily, was killed outside his office. Yadav is said to have run into issues with local politicians while working on a story to expose the land mafia in the region. His killer was waiting outside Yadav’s ground floor office in Shahjahanpur’s busy Sadar area. Yadav’s throat was slit, local journalists claim as having heard from eyewitnesses, none of whom came forward to testify. The case remains unsolved.
In 2005, the bureau chief of a local daily, Pradip Shukla, was murdered. Another reporter, S. K. Sharma, was killed in 2009 while on assignment to cover a local crime. He was writing on intimidation of witnesses in a land grab case before his death.
Pilibhit, an important city of the erstwhile Rohilkhand region, of which Shahjahanpur was the most important centre, has also seen many attacks on journalists. Five days after Jagendra succumbed to his burns, Haider Khan, a stringer attached to a Hindi news channel, was beaten up by a group of five people with lathis, tied with rope behind a motorcycle, and dragged till he lay unconscious. His attackers fled leaving him for dead. Among the attackers was Arvind Prakash, a local real estate agent against whom Khan had been airing stories over a period of time.
With the rise of social media, politicians have another forum to watch. Senior SP leader and strongman Pandit Singh barged into the house of a college student in Gonda after reading a post against him on Facebook. He threatened the youth with dire consequences if the post was not deleted immediately; the boy was also made to apologise in public.
Jagendra, however, is the first person in the state who has paid with his life for doing journalism on Facebook.
R. P. Singh and
Jagendra Singh started out as journalists together almost a decade back.
Hailing from the small town of Khutar, 52 kilometres from Shahjahanpur,
Jagendra graduated from the Gandhi Faiz-e-Aam College. While in college, he
often led student protests to government offices in the district, demanding
better administration. Local policemen used to call him “Jaggu dada”
during his college days.
“We both entered as trainees in different newspapers and came into contact while covering stories,” Singh says. The friends had strong views on editorial pressures and the way their stories were “mellowed down” to save politicians or bureaucrats from embarrassment, which they thought was nothing but appeasement.
We decided long back that we would approach like-minded people, save money, and eventually launch a local newspaper which would write independently and with a no-holds-barred approach on every issue concerning the people of the district.
“We decided long back that we would approach like-minded people, save money, and eventually launch a local newspaper which would write independently and with a no-holds-barred approach on every issue concerning the people of the district.”
But the death of a freelance journalist, S. P. Srivastava, in 2007 troubled their minds and was an important reason they did not set out to be independent journalists. Srivastava, who had worked for several newspapers in the state, had been freelancing for more than two years and wrote for many leading dailies. He was shot dead on the way to meet a farmer regarding a land dispute. Srivastava was known to be a firebrand whom politicians dreaded.
“Politicians feared him because they knew he was beyond their reach. He might have been in Shahjahanpur but his work was known across the state. He was a frequent traveller and all the editors and reporters in the region had great respect for him,” says S. P. Singh, a local journalist who worked under Srivastava for two years. “Most top politicians in the state also respected Srivastava; he would often mock them, although in a subtle manner, at press conferences.”
The 2012 riots in Bareilly were a breaking point for Jagendra. He was working with the Hindi newspaper Swatantra Bharat at the time and saw first-hand the communal hatred being incited by politicians and the administration, making selective arrests and investigations into cases of rioting.
“He also used to say the media could have probed deeper into these matters and that he did do so, but his stories were either rejected or watered down to read more like agency copies than ground reports,” says R. P. Singh. The riots had allegedly been instigated by Bajrang Dal members but they were never held accountable, and no arrests were made.
Jagendra decided to start freelancing, but it took him a long time to quit his job. His father Sumer Singh, who owns a small parcel of land close to Khutar, used to contract it out to other farmers while he worked at a local shop for almost three decades. He was in no position to help Jagendra financially and his health was deteriorating.
R. P. Singh’s family, on the other hand, runs a shop selling textbooks and stationery in Pilibhit. Singh eventually joined the business, and expanded it to run another shop in a different area of the town.
Jagendra, however, started saving money so that he could support his family in case of emergencies, and then quit.
“Independent journalism allows one to write freely and the newspaper that publishes it (the story) also does not have to take full responsibility for you, since they can stop accepting your articles if and when they wish. Also, newspapers have backing from different political groups nowadays. A story that one might not take could be a front-page story for the other,” Singh says.
Jagendra had a
reputation among editors and bureau chiefs of newspapers in the region, and so
was sure to get work on a consistent basis. Arvind Sharma, a local journalist
who works for a Hindi daily, says, “He became popular among readers in the
district once he started freelancing. Newspapers often carried his stories of
wrongdoings in various government departments.”
But financial constraints and his father’s failing health forced Jagendra to take a hard decision last year. He decided to stay at the rented house in Awas Vikas Colony of Shahjahanpur alone, and moved his family to their ancestral house in Khutar, closer to uncles and cousins.
“This way we could take better care of him (Sumer Singh) as well as that of our children since it was becoming taxing for him (Jagendra) to keep doing his work and also attend to his father,” says Jagendra’s wife Sumanlata Singh. Most of the extended family lives within a 200-metre radius of the family house in Khutar.
The number of stories Jagendra would write for the dozen-odd newspapers started to go down during the months when he was busy taking care of his father and resettling the family. That was when his younger son Rahul and daughter Diksha pushed him to learn to use Facebook.
“We used to tell him how one post can be read by all the friends in your list within minutes after you put it out, which he found very appealing,” says Rahul. Diksha says, “All our friends are also active on Facebook and would often ask about what he writes, which is why I wanted him to create a page where all his stories could also be uploaded for everyone to read.”
Jagendra started a Facebook account and created the Facebook page “Shahjahanpur Samachar” where he would write a few paragraphs from stories published in various newspapers. He would also post photographs while highlighting issues no paper would touch. He realised that the younger generation was more active on social media and started to focus on issues concerning them, especially colleges and schools and the areas surrounding them in the district.
“His page was a big hit among children, since he would talk to them and their teachers in various schools and write about their issues,” says Arvind Sharma. One of his popular stories, in which he wrote about how the fight between two children over balloons led to firing between the two families, was reportedly given by a student who lives in the same locality and had witnessed the fight.
The reach of his Facebook page was not limited to Shahjahanpur district, and some stories were carried in newspapers after Singh posted them online. The impact was much bigger and friends and followers of his page grew by the day—he had almost 5,000 friends and close to a similar number of followers.
He used to say that his work is now also read by people sitting in Lucknow and Delhi and not just Shahjahanpur. That is the reason he was targeted by Verma and his goons because they did not want their deeds to be exposed.
“He used to say that his work is now also read by people sitting in Lucknow and Delhi and not just Shahjahanpur. That is the reason he was targeted by Verma and his goons because they did not want their deeds to be exposed. They have the clout to run the city and suppress information but my son’s reach was beyond these geographical boundaries, which is why he was killed,” says Sumer Singh, Jagendra’s father.
Sita (name changed)
was a housewife till a few years ago when her husband died in a road accident.
She had two young children to take care of and only a small amount in savings.
She spent her savings to bribe some government officials, while well-wishers
also put in a good word for her and helped her get a job at an anganwadi centre
in the town.
She met minister Ram Murti Verma during a recent function held in Shahajahanpur where he was the chief guest. Since then, Verma had allegedly sent his representatives to call her over to meet him at various locations. “She did go and meet him once but suspected that he had ulterior motives since he made obscene gestures and offered extraordinary help and money to her in future. He said he could get her a better job too,” says a woman who knows Sita. She requested anonymity, fearing reprisals from the minister and his men.
On April 15, Anil Bhadauria, a local journalist and a known associate of Verma, met Sita at her residence and told her that the minister wanted to see her personally. Sources in the police say that Sita was offered money and that Bhadauria assured her that she would be treated well. However, she refused to accompany him.
Sita was then regularly visited by the station house officer of the Chowk Kotwali police station Sri Prakash Rai, who kept telling her she should have accepted the minister’s invitation since he had sent his “khaas aadmi” (important associate) to pick her up. He said Verma was upset with her for rejecting his request.
Ram Murti Verma,
four-time MLA and two-time Shahjahanpur MP, is the most influential Lodh
Kisan Rajput leader in the state. This distinction earlier went to Kalyan
Singh, whose clout and voter base was exploited by the BJP in the Nineties for
the Ram Janmabhoomi movement when he was also made chief minister of the state.
In the past decade, however, Kalyan Singh fell out with the BJP and formed his
own party, hobnobbing with SP and BJP as per his convenience. However, his son
lost his seat Dibai in Bulandshahr district in western Uttar Pradesh in the
2007 assembly elections and his voter base also waned. This void has since been
filled by Verma.
After losing the 2007 assembly elections, Verma joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in an attempt to champion the cause of the Lodh Kisan Rajputs, but returned to SP for the 2012 elections with assurances of a ministerial post. He campaigned extensively with Akhilesh Yadav in western Uttar Pradesh and turned the tide in favour of the party in many constituencies it had never won earlier.
Victory by a huge margin from Dadraul constituency of his home district, Shahjahanpur, also cemented his place as one of the most influential leaders of the party. Sources in the party say the only person he listens to is party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, and that not even Shivpal Yadav can ask him to step down. Devendra Singh, ex-MLA of the SP and one-time rival of Verma, learnt of his stature the hard way. He spoke out against Verma after charges of murder were levelled against him in Jagendra’s case and said that the minister should give up his portfolio till the enquiry was completed.
Devendra Singh was expelled from the party three days after this statement.
“It shows that the government has lost its moral compass and is openly supporting perpetrators of heinous crimes such as Ram Murti Verma. Sane voices in the party are being muzzled to appease goonda elements, the trend for the past three years of its rule,” Singh said, speaking over the telephone.
Verma will be important to the SP if it has to have any chance of retaining power in the next elections in the state in 2017. He has switched six parties since he came into politics—Lok Dal (Bahuguna), Janata Dal, Samajwadi Janata Party, SP, Congress and BSP—and with his current voter base and reputation among his community, any party would welcome him with open arms.
The Lodh Kisan Rajputs are a predominantly agrarian community and fall under the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Uttar Pradesh, entitled to reservations in higher education institutes, and government jobs. Even as caste loyalties run deep and people from his community blindly support his rise as their most important leader, Verma knows how to present a clean and pro-poor image in his constituency.
At his lavish white bungalow-cum-farm house in Shahjahanpur, he has made arrangements for mass meals for the poor on a daily basis. People who travel to the city from rural areas are provided lodging, although on a preferential basis, with members of his community getting priority. Verma blends the trappings of his ministerial office—the guns, the sirens—with his disregard for the state’s institutions to carry out his lumpenism in public, an act that earns him admiration and fear of his supporters.
On the afternoon of
May 5, Inspector Rai forced Sita into his jeep while she was returning home
from her anganwadi centre. He was accompanied by Verma’s aides Brahm Kumar
Dixit, Gufran, and Anil Bhadauria. They took her to the Public Works Department
(PWD) guesthouse where Verma was waiting.
Rai reportedly stood guard outside the guest house while Verma and his associates took turns to rape her. She was then left outside her house and had to crawl her way back in. She tried to recover from the shock but did not report the matter to anyone, except sharing it with people close to her.
Rai reportedly stood guard outside the guest house while Verma and his associates took turns to rape her. She was then left outside her house and had to crawl her way back in.
had been investigating a matter relating to issuing of Above Poverty Line
certificates to thousands of families in the district who were actually below
poverty line. The district supply officer, Brajesh Shukla, had been issuing the
certificates allegedly at the behest of Verma. In his post on Facebook on April
18, Singh exposed the collusion between Verma and Shukla by quoting two
separate letters written by Verma, the first of which alleged Shukla had been
indulging in corrupt practices. The other letter, however, written barely days
after the first, heaped praise on Shukla and said that there had been a
misunderstanding earlier. Both these letters had been sent to higher officials.
Jagendra did not stop at the letters. He reportedly started investigating a matter of land grab by Verma on the outskirts of the town when, on April 28, he was attacked by people he couldn’t identify with rods. He claimed in his post, put up the same day, that Verma was behind the attack that had left him with a fractured leg. On May 7, undeterred by the threats, Jagendra wrote about the land grab case on his page.
“He loved challenges.
The injuries motivated him to expose Verma and he filed the story earlier than
expected despite the fracture, which doctors had told him would take at least a
month to heal. The response was immense and local papers too were forced to
carry small stories about the case,” says Avnish Mishra, a Shahjhanpur
journalist and friend of Jagendra.
On May 12, Verma’s aide Bhadauria filed a complaint with the Chowk police station that Jagendra had tried to kidnap him and opened fire at him in an attempt to kill him. “It is completely false. Bhadauria and Singh had no enmity and there is no reason why Singh should have attacked Bhadauria,” says Mishra.
At the time of the alleged incident, Jagendra was still nursing the fracture. “He was mostly at home and would only walk using a stick around the house and till the door if and when someone visited,” Mishra says.
Having heard and read about the work by Jagendra, and probably motivated by his reputation as a hard-hitting and honest journalist, Sita approached him for help and guidance to report the matter of her rape by Verma and his men to the police.
“One can understand what she must have been going through since the men who took her to the guesthouse where she was raped were themselves policemen. Yet she was courageous enough and had to have had some faith in him (Jagendra) to reveal her ordeal,” says Mishra, adding that random visits by Verma’s associates and Rai did not stop after the May 5 incident.
Sita wanted to lodge a complaint with higher officials in the police against Rai and Verma but was afraid that they would not act against one of their own and that it would lead to further harassment.
According to journalists who helped him with the story, Jagendra made phone calls to various sources to cross-check the facts mentioned by Sita. He wrote a small story on May 28 on his Facebook page, in which he pointed out that the woman had been raped in the presence of, and with the help of, policemen. While the story did create a flutter, it did not have a big impact.
Sita, however, appeared before the chief judicial magistrate the same day and recorded her statement with the help of lawyer Virendra Pal Chauhan, who is now also representing Jagendra’s family. The FIR filed by Bhadauria also had the names of Virendra Pal Chauhan and other lawyers known to be close to Jagendra. These names were withdrawn from the FIR and later on May 28, only Jagendra’s name was kept in it.
Singh wrote a longer story on May 31, detailing the events of the day that led to Sita’s rape. This time, the story had a bigger impact and local television channels reported the incident and questioned the inaction of the police. Singh put Sita through to some higher-ups in the police and encouraged her to file a formal complaint.
The next day, on June 1, Sita reportedly filed a written complaint at the office of the SP at the Sadar police station. The police have refused to share or give any information regarding the complaint. At about 2 p.m, when she was returning home after locking the anganwadi centre, a jeep carrying Rai and other policemen came up to her. She was asked to get into the jeep. She thought it was part of the investigation of her complaint and got in.
Sita was taken by Rai and four other policemen to Jagendra’s house. According to a police officer familiar with the complaint, Rai told Sita he was there to teach her and Jagendra a lesson.
Jagendra’s son Raghvendra claims he was present in the house but that he was inside while his father was in the outer room. Associates of the minister—Bhadauria, Dixit and Gufran—also entered by jumping the boundary wall from the side not visible from the road.
Sita claimed in the initial testimony, and Raghvendra too wrote in his complaint, that the policemen held Sita while Verma’s men poured kerosene over Jagendra and set him ablaze. Sita says she tried to run out of the house, fearing that she too would be set on fire, but was dragged inside and made to watch Jagendra burning. Raghvendra, meanwhile heard his father shouting in pain and rushed out of the house to see his father wrapped in a bedsheet, which too had caught fire, and being dragged out of the house by two policemen who were holding his legs. He was dumped in the back of the jeep even as Sita screamed for help.
After taking him to the government hospital, the policemen left, never to return. The hospital did not have facilities to treat Singh since he had sustained almost 70 per cent burns but the medical officer on duty arranged an ambulance to shift the journalist to the government hospital in Lucknow. Hospital staff refused to comment. Some spoke on condition that they would not be named, and referred to many cases where journalists speaking the truth were murdered. According to them, most of the burns on Singh’s body were around his head and chest, which is rare to find in cases of self-immolation.
“A person always sets his lower body attire on fire first if he has to set himself ablaze, whereas in cases of dowry deaths, we have seen that the upper body is set on fire first. In all probability, this was a case of the victim being set on fire by others and not a case of self-immolation,” a doctor said.
A team at the Forensic Science Laboratory, led by its director S. B. Upadhyay, has gathered information from Singh’s body to prepare a detailed report, which is yet to be submitted to the police. In its FIR of June 1, the police accused Jagendra Singh of attempt to suicide and criminal conspiracy. Notably, the police had not initiated any action against Verma and the four other people accused by Sita of raping her in the case filed on May 28.
Babloo Kumar, the Shahjahanpur SP, went on to announce that Jagendra was not a journalist and that it was a case of suicide where police acted swiftly and tried to save his life. The FIR, however, states that the police had gone to Singh’s house to arrest him in the case registered by Bhadauria and that they were forced to break open the door of his house when they heard him scream after he set himself on fire.
“We do not use any appliance that requires the use of kerosene or petrol—no generator, no stove, not a kerosene lamp—then why would my father keep kerosene in the house at all? And where could it suddenly surface from when the policemen and Verma’s men came to our house?” asks Raghvendra.
Jagendra struggled for
his life in Lucknow for a week as the matter was reported in the local media
and in newspapers in the state. His statement was recorded before the chief
judicial magistrate in Lucknow, the video of which surfaced on social
media sites later.
Jagendra is clearly seen in the video saying that Verma could have simply had him arrested instead of setting him ablaze. But the motive seems to have been to have him eliminated.
Even after the statement given by Singh before his death on June 8, the police did not register a case against Verma or his aides and the five policemen including inspector Prakash Rai. The national media too woke up to the brazen attack on Singh only after his death, as has been the case in most cases across the country, even as journalists’ groups like the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) come out with reports and petitions requesting swift action for protection of journalists.
To appease these groups, the Uttar Pradesh government made an announcement that it would soon set up a helpline number for journalists in the state to address their grievances. The Press Council of India (PCI) too set up a three-member committee which will submit its report to the chairman of the PCI, Chief Justice (retired) C. K. Prasad. The team met Jagendra’s family in Khutar on June 16 and will file its report soon.
The FIR against Ram Murti Verma, his three associates, and police inspector Prakash Rai was filed five days after Jagendra’s death on June 13. While the family told the press council team that Jagendra had received two calls from a number saved as “MLA” in the contacts list of his mobile phone, this finds no mention in the FIR. Moreover, Verma and his associates have not yet been arrested or even apprehended, and are still on the loose though the police can obtain non-bailable warrants against them. Instead, they have been asking for more time in the court in both the case of Sita’s rape and the murder of Jagendra.
The SP has taken a
firm stand that it will not punish Verma until the enquiry is completed. This
is a deviation from the past, since even bigwigs like Raja Bhaiya were asked to
step down from ministerial posts when allegations were levelled against them,
whereas Verma continues to run his ministry from hiding. This is simply because
Verma is a leader the party cannot afford to annoy.
Sita has been put under tight police protection in her house, with locals comparing it to virtual house arrest. She could not be traced for many days after Jagendra’s death, with the police claiming she had gone into hiding. However, she resurfaced and has since given her statement to the police again. Some local journalists have claimed, based on sources in the police, that she has changed her statement and made a U-turn, now claiming that Jagendra immolated himself while she was present at his house.
The family of Jagendra Singh, meanwhile, plans to stay out in the open in protest and also to go on a hunger strike if Verma is not arrested soon. “What other option do we have?” asks Jagendra’s wife Sumanlata Singh.