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Burnt For Reporting: The Story Of Shahjahanpur And Its Slain Journalist

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Burnt For Reporting: The Story Of Shahjahanpur And Its Slain Journalist

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The rape of an anganwadi worker was the last story Jagendra Singh wrote on his Facebook page. Within a few days, he was burnt alive.

 

On May 5, according to S’ statement to the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of Shahjahanpur, Inspector Prakash Rai kept guard at the door as Ram Murty Verma, Uttar Pradesh’s minister for backward classes’ welfare, raped her in the state Public Works Department guesthouse.

 

According to S’ lawyer, she met Rai the next time on June 2. It was around 1.30 in the afternoon. S, ananganwadi worker, was on her way back from the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), Shahjahanpur, where she had, a few minutes ago, filed an application with the SP seeking action against Rai and Verma. Rai was in his office vehicle and was accompanied by other cops. He offered S a ride to the police station, where he said her complaint would be registered. S, believing that Rai was acting under the SP’s orders, got inside the police vehicle.

 

S’ lawyer says Rai didn’t take S to the police station. Instead, they drove over to Awas Vikas Colony, the residence of Jagendra Singh, a “social media journalist”, who had helped S get in touch with the lawyer and complain against the MLA and the cop. Rai told her that he’d teach her a lesson on how to keep her mouth shut.

 

During the next half an hour or so, S looked on as Rai and his men – the group included Verma’s cronies too – beat up Singh and kicked him around the house.  Singh’s son, Rajvender, who was also present in the house, says he watched his father fight back helplessly, but that he was overpowered. In the ensuing chaos though, Singh succeeded in pushing S out of the house to the courtyard.  When Rajvender tried intervening, Rai pointed a gun at him and asked him to stay quiet and watch.

 

“The men poured kerosene over my father’s body and set him alight. Then they dragged him down the stairs of the house, forced him into the police vehicle, and took him to the district hospital,” he says.

 

1

Singh’s Awas Vikas colony residence where he was set ablaze

 

The police have a completely different version. They say, the police had gone to arrest Singh in a case of kidnapping, and he tried committing suicide. According to an eyewitness present in the hospital, Rai asked the doctors not to tend to Singh and just let him die. The Chief Medical Officer, however, managed to get Singh transferred to a Lucknow hospital, where he died a week later on June 9.

 

*****

 

Journalists in this eastern UP town have learnt it the hard way. Some have disappeared, never to be seen again, others gunned down. A freelance journalist was killed in cold blood in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, a reporter with a local daily was murdered. More recently, a Dainik Jagran reporter’s throat was slit right outside the newspaper’s office.

 

We are on the second floor of an electronics shop, right across the Kotwali Police Station in Shahjahanpur, where Rai used to be the Station House Officer till a few days ago. We are here with R, a friend of Jagendra Singh and a crime reporter with a local daily in Shahjahanpur. “If you check, there will be at least two people carrying a pistol in this room now, that’s how this town is like,” R whispers to me.  R has reasons to be paranoid – journalists in this eastern UP town have learnt it the hard way.

 

According to the local journalists I spoke to, a few years ago, a journalist called Sadhu Ram Gangawar disappeared, never to be seen again. In 2005, Pradip Shukla, the then bureau chief of Dainik Jagran, was gunned down. Another freelance journalist, Santosh Srivastava was killed in cold blood in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, Suresh Sharma, a reporter with a local daily was murdered. More recently, a reporter with the Dainik Jagran, Narendra Yadav’s throat was slit right outside the newspaper’s office.

 

In spite of all the reasons not to be in the profession, the town has a disproportionately high number of media organisations, as one would discover on a ride through the town. For all of them, Singh’s Facebook page, Shahjahanpur Samachar, was a repository of story ideas. “All of us would take a look at the Facebook page every night to ensure that we didn’t miss out any important stories,” says R fondly.

 

“The problem with Jagendra was that he simply wouldn’t step back and he didn’t know which fights to pick.”

 

According to R, Singh pulled no punches. “The problem with Jagendra was that he simply wouldn’t step back and he didn’t know which fights to pick. In fact, he once wrote a story against me too, in spite of us being friends,” says R.  R tells me that Singh discovered the potential of social media rather early. “He used to tell me way back in 2008 that he could reach so many more people if he wrote his stories on Facebook and by 2009, had quit his last regular job.” R says Singh was so popular on Facebook that he had to open multiple accounts.

 

*****

 

The chain of events that led to Singh’s death began on April 18, when he wrote a Facebook post alleging that a district supply officer, Brajesh Shukla, was issuing Above Poverty Line (APL) ration cards to 27,493 people, despite a state government ban on issuing them.  Singh hadcontended that Shukla was a close aide of Ram Murthy Verma, the Samajwadi Party minister, accused of being behind Singh’s murder.

 

In terms of evidence, he furnished two letters written by Verma to the state administration. In the first letter written some months ago, Verma is seen to be calling for action against Shukla’s alleged corruption. Verma, in his letter, had stated that Shukla was trying to tarnish the government’s reputation at the behest of a senior Bahujan Samaj Party leader, who he claimed, was Shukla’s father-in-law. In another letter written later, Verma assumed a completely different stance, saying it was a case of confusion and Shukla was, in fact, doing a good job.  Singh, through a Facebook post, argued that the change in Verma’s stance pointed towards a patch-up and subsequent collusion between Shukla and Verma.

 

Ten days later, on April 28, Singh claimed in another Facebook post that he was attacked by five men, and as a result of which, his leg was broken. R remembers meeting Singh in a physically battered state a few days later.  That, however, did not deter him from writing another Facebook post on May 7, where he accused Verma of land grabbing.

 

On May 12, a “local journalist” Anil Kumar Bhadoria accused Jagendra Singh of firing at him and attempting to kidnap him. A First Information Report (FIR) under Section 364 of the Indian Penal Code was registered in the Kotwali Police station. According to the Shahjahanpur police, on June 2 – the day Singh was burnt – they had gone to arrest Singh in this case. A few days earlier, on May 28, Singh had written a Facebook post detailing out S’ rape allegations against Verma.

 

*****

 

Virendra Pal Chauhan’s chamber in the Shahjahanpur district court is teeming with people who want his help. Although Chauhan is rude to most seeking his services, there’s something about his brashness that inspires confidence. Which perhaps explains the thronging of people in his office and the almost-empty chambers of other lawyers in the Dr. Rajendra Prasad Bhavan, the building inside the court complex, which houses the court’s lawyers.  Chauhan, grey-haired and formidably built, doesn’t acknowledge our presence when he enters his office after a hearing. When I tell him we want to speak about Singh’s death and the rape allegations of S against Verma – he is the counsel in both cases – he asks an assistant to get the case files from his home.

 

According to S’ statement to the CJM recorded on May 28 (the same day as Singh wrote his Facebook post), Bhadoria –accosted S on her way back home from the anganwadi centre on April 15. Bhadoria is the same person who pressed charges of kidnapping against Singh on May 12. Bhadoria asked S to accompany him to meet minister Verma. S refused. Following that, S claims, Verma called her up on April 30, asking her why had she refused to come and meet him in spite of him sending a “khaas-aadmi” (close aide) to pick her up. Verma then threatened her of dire consequences if she didn’t do as he said.

 

The statement then says that on May 5, Inspector Rai went to her home, and warned her of pressing charges of misappropriation of government funds if she refused to budge. Then, Rai, she says, took her to the PWD guesthouse, where Verma, Bhadoria and two other men, Gufran and Brahma Kumar Dixit, raped her. Guffran, along with Verma, Rai and Bhadoria, has also been named in the FIR relating to Singh’s death.

 

S has prayed to the court that an FIR be filed against the four. No FIR has been filed at the time of writing this report. The police superintendent, according to Chauhan (S’ lawyer), has asked the court for “more time” three times now. My repeated attempts to get in touch with the police superintendent were futile.

 

While the police have been reluctant in filing an FIR in response to S’ complaint, they acted swiftly to Bhadoria’s complaint against Singh.  In fact, the case history, as narrated by Chauhan, is quite interesting – and perhaps illuminating too.

 

According to Chauhan, the complaint of kidnapping against Jagendra Singh originally featured other names too. “The first version of the FIR also included names of some of my fellow lawyers, but when we protested and confronted Inspector Rai as to why lawyers would attempt to kidnap Bhadoria, he asked me to submit a representation in writing, following which the FIR was amended to keep only Singh’s name,” says Chauhan. He believes that the complaint was planted by Verma, who was starting to feel threatened by Singh’s writings. “Singh’s leg was broken hardly a week back in an attack; how could he possibly kidnap anyone and that too, Bhadoria, who is known to be close to the minister?” asks Chauhan.

 

*****

 

In Khutar, 52 kilometres off the town of Shahjahanpur, everyone knows the way to “patrakar” Singh’s ancestral house, where his bereaved family stays. At the house, we meet Singh’s two sons and his father.

 

Singh is the only son; his father is partially paralysed. Singh is survived by his wife, one daughter and two sons.  They used to live with Singh in Shahjhanpur till 2005, when his mother died. “We came back to Khutar because our grandmother passed away and there was no one to care of our sick grandfather,” says the younger son Rahul.

 

2

Singh’s Khutar home where his bereaved family stays

 

On May 31, Singh was visiting his family in Khutar when he got a call in the evening from one of Verma’s men. “They wanted to come to a compromise and asked my father to come back to Shahjahanpur,” says Rajvender. Singh left the next day along with Rahul, his younger son, who had to attend a function in another nearby town. “We went to Shahjahanpur together from where I left to attend a family function,” he says.

 

“They forced open the door and started beating my father; they pointed a gun at me and asked me to not interfere. And then they set him on fire.”

 

Rajvender also had to go to Shahjahanpur on June 2 to fetch some medicines for his grandfather. “I decided to visit my father and was right outside our home in Awas Vikas Colony, when I saw a few people and cops trying to jump the boundary wall.” Rajvender says the cops present told him they had come to arrest his father. Sensing trouble, Singh had locked himself up and refused to open the door. “They forced open the door and started beating my father; they pointed a gun at me and asked to me to not interfere,” he recalls, “and then they set him on fire”.

 

“After he succumbed to his injuries in Lucknow, a police officer Inspector VK Mishra repeatedly kept offering us Rs 10,000 as compensation and keep mum, Rahul alleges. He says the police registered an FIR only after they refused to cremate Singh’s body. “The cops there kept telling us to take some money and just cremate the body.”

 

Singh’s father, who is silent through his grandsons’ narration, suddenly gets agitated: “If my son doesn’t get justice, I’ll immolate myself.”

 

*****

 

As one enters the Kotwali police station, you are greeted by a painted message on a wall. The message says: Our [The UP Police’s] aim is a corruption-free, fear-free and crime-free society.

 

3

The Kotwali police station – where Rai used to be SHO

 

We are waiting for the investigating officer of this case, JP Tiwari. He is expected at 6pm, but it is past 6.30 and Tiwari hasn’t yet stepped out of his adjoining residence. “He is resting; he couldn’t sleep last night because senior officers had come from Bareilly,” a constable tells me.

 

Finally, when Tiwari does make an appearance, and I ask him why no arrests have been made so far in spite of an FIR, he says “investigation is still pending”. “We are collecting evidence – a team of the Uttar Pradesh Forensic Science Lab has collected evidence from the crime scene and will soon submit its report to government,” he tells me.  According to Tiwari, S’ statement hasn’t yet been recorded. “She seems to have gone underground.”

 

Why hasn’t an FIR been lodged against Verma in the rape case, though? “It is under consideration,” Tiwari says. Inspector Prakash Rai, Tiwari tells me, has been “transferred” to Jhansi (he has been suspended since).

 

Ram Murty Verma didn’t respond to any of my multiple calls.

 

“There is no justice for the common man; it’s the Samajwadi Party’s government and the police works under them. It’s foolish to even wish for a fair investigation.”

 

Jagendra Singh’s family and neighbours in Awas Vikas Colony are apprehensive about the way the forensic team went about its business. They argue someone from the prosecution side should have been present while evidence was being collected from Singh’s house. The forensic team claims the entire exercise was videographed.  “The cops came, took some stuff away and going by the way things have fared so far, what is the guarantee that evidence wasn’t tempered with?” questions a man who runs a grocery shop a few blocks away. His wife is even more pessimistic. “There is no justice for the common man; it’s the Samajwadi Party’s government and the police works under them. It’s foolish to even wish for a fair investigation.”

 

Singh’s family has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) enquiry.

 

*****

 

As R tells me about Singh, two more local reporters join us.  The conversation moves towards being a journalist in Shahjahanpur. “Once when my family and I received death threats, my relatives offered to pool in money to set up a grocery store, but I stuck on,” he tells me. Another reporter tells R that he is getting a life insurance policy immediately and advises R to get one too. “Who knows who’ll kill us when; at least the family will get some money if we die,” he says.  R agrees. All of us share a nervous laugh.

 

Ram Murty Verma, meanwhile, continues to be Uttar Pradesh’s minister for backward classes’ welfare.

 

This article has been republished from Newslaundry.com.

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