Ranchi/Giridih: Rupesh Kumar Singh is the only scribe from Jharkhand, among the forty journalists in India whose phones were spied on through the Pegasus spyware.
The independent journalist used to highlight atrocities met out on tribals in the state. In 2019, Rupesh was arrested for his alleged Naxal links by Bihar police. On July 17 this year, the journalist was again arrested, this time by Jharkhand police.
The police say the arrest was in relation to a case in 2021.
However, journalists, editors, activists and Rupesh's family allege that it was because of his report on pollution in Giridih in Jharkhand that was published two days before his arrest. They allege that the charges by the police are baseless and false.
Rupesh was arrested after a nine-hour search at his residence in Ramgarh. The police, while combing his house, seized an iPhone, a motorcycle, a receipt of a car, a bedsheet and a notebook among others.
After the arrest, Jharkhand Police spokesperson Amol V Homkar said, "He [Rupesh] was arrested for his links with Communist Party of India (Maoist) leaders in the case that was registered against Maoist veteran Prashant Bose." Homkar also added, "There is no fresh FIR against him."
The police have alleged that Rupesh used to arrange funds for Maoists.
The charges against Rupesh is similar to the charges against Prashant Bose and five others. The journalist has been charged under Sections 420 (cheating), 467 (forgery), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating) and 471 (using forged document) of the Indian Penal Code along with Sections 10 and 13 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Section 17 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.
Who Is Rupesh Kumar Singh?
The 37-year-old freelancer is a resident of Ramgarh. He has been a journalist for the last eight years. Earlier he was a manager at an event management company. His wife Ipsa Shatakshi is a teacher. Rupesh comes from a well-off family. His father-in-law Vishad Kumar is also a journalist. Like Rupesh, Vishad Kumar is known as a pro-people writer.
Rupesh was one of the journalists whose phone numbers appeared in a leaked database, which reflects potential targets of cyber surveillance through the use of the Pegasus hacking software that an Israeli company claims to sell only to governments. Three phone numbers related to Rupesh appeared in the leaked database a few months after he reported on the killing of an innocent Adivasi man by the Jharkhand Police in 2017.
"He Has Been Falsely Accused Because Of His Work"
"I have known him since 2019. It was the time when he was first arrested in another case. As journalists, we know each other. We had met during his book release. After reading his stories, I knew that his writings are pro-people," says Ravi Prakash, a Ranchi-based journalist, whose reports have appeared in BBC Hindi.
On the allegations made by the police, Ravi said, "Police have to prove the allegations. The last time, when he was arrested, Bihar police could not file the charge sheet on time, and he was granted bail. We also know that on many occasions, Jharkhand police could not prove its charge before the court and several fake encounter cases have also come to fore from time to time."
"He is a committed journalist and used to go to the spots to do ground reports, a rarity today," said Mahendra Mishra, Founding Editor of Janchowk, where Rupesh's reports were published regularly.
Aloka Kujur, a tribal rights activist raised serious questions about the seizure list of the police. "Cops are trying to link him with Maoists by showing an iPhone, Honda Shine motorcycle and car as expensive items. They say he can afford them because he supports Maoists. Any person who has a well-off background can get these things," she said.
"Rupesh is being falsely accused because of his work, and people who believe in his work should speak up and stand up for him," she added.
Did A Report On Pollution In Giridih Trigger The Arrest?
Rupesh's latest report, on the rampant pollution in Giridih in Jharkhand, was published in Janchowk on July 15, just two days before he was arrested.
The report mentioned a girl child who was affected by severe pollution caused by sponge and ferro alloys plants in Giridih. Later some doctors in Jharkhand as well as actor Sonu Sood had agreed to arrange treatment for her, Rupesh's wife Ipsa told BOOM.
"We know that the charges by the police is fake and fabricated, we have a suspicion that it has been done after he reported on pollution. There is another reason to believe it as the Medica hospital doctor (Ranchi) later refused to treat the pollution-infected girl by saying that he has got a call from a Jharkhand minister not to be involved in this matter, and he will take care of it," she said.
Janchowk editor Mahendra Mishra said that Jharkhand's recent political developments and the Enforcement Directorate raids have put pressure on the Hemant Soren government. "The police arrested Rupesh under government pressure. The pollution-related story has worked as a trigger. We also know how influential the industrialist lobby is in Jharkhand," he said.
Significantly, the President of Giridih Chamber of Commerce, Nirmal Jhunjhunwala also accepts that pollution is on the rise in Giridih because of unmonitored sponge iron and ferro alloys plants.
"All the industries are our members, but it is also a fact that there is pollution in the Mohanpur-Chatro region because of sponge iron plants. And I can name three plants which are causing heavy pollution in the area, one is Balmukund sponge iron, other is Atibir and the third one is Shivam iron and steel's sponge iron plant," he said.
The chamber president said that they have asked the pollution department to install Air Quality Index meters in two spots within Giridih town to monitor pollution on a real-time basis. "But it is yet to be done," he added.
Rupesh's wife Ipsa said that she has talked to Sudivya Kumar, JMM's Giridih MLA and is hoping to meet with Chief Minister Hemant Soren.
The MLA had helped find justice for Motilal Baske, a tribal who was allegedly killed in a fake encounter by parliamentary forces in 2017. Rupesh Kumar's report had played an instrumental role in highlighting the case and bringing it to the attention of then opposition leader Hemant Soren.
CPIML legislator Vinod Singh has also promised to raise the issue of Rupesh's arrest inside the Jharkhand assembly.
Shahnawaz Akhtar is an independent journalist. He tweets at @ScribeShah.