Jagendra Singh: discredited after death
By Sumit Galhotra and Raksha Kumar
Covered in burns and writhing in pain, Jagendra Singh cries out, “They could have arrested me. Why did they have to beat me and set me on fire?” In the video, filmed at a hospital in Lucknow where Jagendra Singh was being treated for burns that covered 60 percent of his body, the journalist accuses a police officer, Sriprakash Rai, and his team, of dousing him in gasoline and setting him alight. A week after the attack, Jagendra Singh died from his injuries.
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The journalist described to his family how, when police arrived to arrest him on the afternoon of June 1, 2015, they forced their way into his home in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and beat him. At the time, Jagendra Singh was interviewing a woman who had accused Ram Murti Singh Verma, a state minister and member of the ruling Samajwadi Party, of rape. The journalist’s widow, Suman Singh, said her husband told her that before they poured gasoline over him, one of the officers said, “You write reports against the minister, we’ll ensure you have no hands left.”
In India, the death of a journalist from a small town rarely makes waves, but Jagendra Singh’s case made international headlines and the state’s chief minister promised a full investigation. Despite these promises, the investigation appears to be at a standstill. Police have disputed Jagendra Singh’s account; Verma, who denies any involvement in the attack and denies the rape allegation, remains in his government role; the police officer, Rai, was transferred; authorities have tried to discredit Jagendra Singh’s role as a critical journalist; and relatives and a key witness have recanted their statements. When CPJ started to research Jagendra Singh’s case, it was uncertain if anyone would be willing to talk.
The road to Jagendra’s hometown
The town of Khutar, where the main family home is based, is a bumpy five-hour drive northwest of Lucknow, in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. For miles, fields line both sides of the dusty road. After arriving by car in Khutar’s main thoroughfare—a narrow street filled with ox carts, honking cars, and motorbikes—CPJ decided to look for the Singh family home on foot. Vendors and residents said to search for a fig tree, commonly known in India as a peepal tree. Next to it was a haphazard two-story home that housed eight members of the Singh family.
Jagendra Singh’s elderly father, Sumer Singh, was reading a newspaper on the veranda. Seeing he had unexpected company, Sumer Singh called for Jagendra Singh’s widow, Suman, and eldest son, Raghvendra. After the long journey from Lucknow it was a relief that they wanted to talk.
The family said that Jagendra Singh, who was 46 when he died, worked for several newspapers including the local edition of the national Hindi daily, Amar Ujala. Like most small-town journalists, Jagendra Singh worked on a freelance basis. As well as reporting, he secured local advertising and acted as a distributor.
In 2011, Jagendra Singh started a Facebook page “Shahjahanpur Samachar,” News from Shahjahanpur, where he posted daily political and social news updates. Many local newspapers sourced their news from his Facebook updates, his family said. Jagendra Singh’s stories were often based on information he obtained through the Right to Information law, his younger son, Rahul Singh, said. Research by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, a Delhi-based advocacy group that tracks harassment, has shown that activists who use the Right to Information law, are at risk of violence and threats.
Jagendra Singh’s style of reporting put him in danger, said Suman Singh. He was relentless in his efforts to expose local corruption and wrongdoing. “His nickname was ‘nidar’,” his father said. In Hindi, “nidar” means fearless.
The family’s description of Jagendra Singh as a fearless journalist committed to exposing wrongdoing was echoed by his colleagues and friends. Narendra Yadav, a reporter from the Hindi-language Dainik Jagran, said that when he was attacked in September 2014, after reporting on rape allegations against a religious guru, Jagendra Singh was among the few journalists who stood by him as a friend and colleague. With such a powerful figure allegedly linked to the attack, other journalists “were all fearful of the consequences of supporting me,” Narendra Yadav said, but Jagendra Singh wrote courageously in support of him. “I will always be grateful to him for that,” Narendra Yadav said. “He was among the first people to show up after I was attacked. He alone wrote about me; he alone fought on my behalf at the time.”
At least one colleague described Jagendra Singh’s behavior as risky. Sanjeev Pathak, the bureau chief of Amar Ujala, said in an interview published in September 2015 that Jagendra Singh “did not understand [the] difference between recklessness and courage.” Referring to Jagendra Singh’s pursuit of stories on Verma, whom Jagendra Singh accused of rape, land grabs, and corruption, he added, “Touching a high-tension wire is recklessness.”
‘Writing the truth is bearing heavily on my life’
In the months before his death, Jagendra Singh published a series of critical reports on Verma on his Facebook page. In April 2015, Jagendra Singh was attacked by a group of men who beat him and broke his foot, the family said. Jagendra Singh blamed the minister for the attack in social media posts and to his family. In a May 22, 2015 Facebook post, Jagendra Singh wrote: “Ram Murti Singh Verma can have me killed. At this time, politician, thugs, and police, all are after me. Writing the truth is bearing heavily on my life. After exposing some of Ram Murti Verma’s acts, he had me attacked…”
But, Jagendra Singh’s widow said, he refused to let violence dissuade him from continuing to report on allegations about Verma. In a May 31, 2015 Facebook post, Jagendra Singh reported on allegations that the minister was involved in a gang rape, claims that were also reported in Hindi-language media. In another post a day earlier, Jagendra Singh posted a report that questioned the land holdings amassed by the minister. Despite repeated attempts to reach Verma by telephone for comment, CPJ’s calls went unanswered.
Suman Singh said that she was worried her husband could face further reprisals and that she told him not to return to Shahjahanpur, the town where he reported from. She said that he shrugged off her concerns, telling her before leaving, “Why are you scared? There is no reason to be scared.”
The next time she saw Jagendra Singh, he was in the hospital.
State of denial
Authorities disputed the testimony that Jagendra Singh gave in the hospital, when he named the police officers allegedly responsible for the attack. Rai, the officer whom Jagendra Singh accused of setting him on fire, told local media that when they arrived at Jagendra Singh’s home to arrest him, the house was locked and Jagendra Singh had set himself alight.
Police superintendent Kumar told CPJ at the time that Jagendra Singh set himself on fire and that the journalist was being arrested because he was “wanted in a crime.” The superintendent told CPJ it was in connection with a murder but, when pressed for details he said, “I don’t remember.”
That version of events remains the official police line. A forensics report submitted by the government in the Allahabad High Court, which has jurisdiction over the state, said that Jagendra Singh’s death was a case of self-immolation, reports said. “Burns caused by a right-handed person by pouring inflammable material on left side of body. It is unlikely that it was a homicidal attack. This appears to be a case of suicide,” it stated.
When asked about police claims that Jagendra Singh set himself on fire, his widow told CPJ, “Of course the police will say that.” She said that when Jagendra Singh was in the hospital, he said to her, “Try burning the tip of your finger and see how that feels. Why then would I burn my entire body? Why would I do that?”
A report into Jagendra Singh’s death by a fact-finding team set up by the Press Council of India criticized the Uttar Pradesh administration for not taking threats and attacks against journalists seriously. The committee found, “Police neither gave security to deceased journalist Jagendra before his death nor showed any interest in investigation after his death. They kept mum on the incidents of brutality with other journalists. They only completed documentary formalities.” The report, based on conversations with the journalist’s family and the police, faulted police for waiting eight days after the attack before visiting the Singh family to collect testimony and not looking into Jagendra Singh’s mobile phone records, which show that he received a call from the minister’s nephew the night before his was attacked. The Press Council of India did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.
The alleged rape victim whom Jagendra Singh had been interviewing at the time of the attack later recanted her testimony that police set him on fire. The journalist’s son, Rahul, said that she did so under duress by Verma’s associates. The woman subsequently withdrew her complaint that she had been gang-raped, according to news accounts. CPJ was unable to locate the woman to determine why she changed her complaint and testimony. To protect her identity CPJ has not named the alleged rape victim.
Rahul Singh told CPJ that police attempted to put forward two witnesses to validate their version of Jagendra Singh’s death, but the crime branch investigating the case did not accept their testimony because the alleged witnesses were not listed in the First Information Report.
Despite a minister and the local police being implicated in the journalist’s death, the case is still being handled at the local level. The Bareilly police division that is handling the case did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment and an update on the status of his case.
Journalism in the hinterlands
There are, broadly, two kinds of journalists in Uttar Pradesh: those who live and work in smaller towns and those who come from cities like Delhi and Mumbai and work for large news outlets. The former is the most vulnerable: they often have to earn money from other sources to supplement their income, and often have neither job security nor good training.
In the weeks after Jagendra Singh’s death, some authorities in Uttar Pradesh downplayed his journalistic credentials in news reports and to press freedom organizations, including to CPJ. In a June 2015 interview, Babloo Kumar, the police superintendent of Shahjahanpur, said, “He only wrote on social media.”
When CPJ sat down to talk with the family, one of the sons showed Jagendra Singh’s press cards, business cards, and newspaper clippings, as if he wanted to convince CPJ of his father’s credentials. Sumer Singh said, “People came to my son to report news and seek help.” His widow Suman added, “He didn’t fear anything.”
One of the challenges faced by small-town journalists such as Jagendra Singh and Narendra Yadav is finding newspapers willing to run sensitive stories. Journalists have written about how they are sometimes discouraged by the newspaper owners from breaking sensitive stories, and how a critical report about a powerful official can result in the loss of advertising revenue. In these situations, journalists often use social media as an outlet for hard-hitting stories.
Narendra Yadav said he was frustrated at the attempts to dilute Jagendra Singh’s journalistic credentials. “Let us first establish, who is a journalist? How do you define a journalist?” he said. “There’s a widespread belief that one is only a journalist if he or she works for a newspaper. But Jagendra Singh took his journalism to social media and he is a journalist in the truest sense,” he said. “A journalist is defined by his heart, not by a newspaper.”
A lack of personal security and a slow police response to attacks is also a challenge for rural and small-town journalists. Uttar Pradesh accounted for more than 70 percent of the total recorded attacks on journalists in India in 2014, according to national crime records. In 2015, CPJ recorded two deaths in the state. There have been no convictions in any of the murders, including that of Jagendra Singh. In almost all cases, investigations remain stalled or police have not brought charges against the suspected attackers.
In response to the attacks, the state government started a toll-free helpline in January 2016 that journalists can call to register a complaint, which officials say will be dealt with within 15 days. Most local journalists with whom we spoke and who work in the state’s smaller towns had not heard of the service. “It sounds like a nice plan to have a helpline for journalist[s] just as there are helplines to report domestic violence and child trafficking,” said Omar Rashid, a correspondent for the English-language daily, The Hindu. “But it is too new to assess how useful it is.”
Narendra Yadav’s case is an example of the culture of impunity in the state. He said he was attacked over his reporting on how Asaram Bapu, a self-proclaimed religious guru with millions of followers, allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl in 2013. Narendra Yadav told us that two men grabbed him outside his office, slit his throat with a sickle, and fled. Asaram Bapu, who denies the rape charge, is in pre-trial detention for the rape. Asaram Bapu’s office declined to respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.
Narendra Yadav, who has scars running down his cheek and neck from the attack, said he believes that the authorities lack the resolve to ensure justice. “Police were sluggish when it came to my case, but when it came time to going after Jagendra, they suddenly had it in them to be active,” he said. “The investigation [into my case] has been a football that goes from here to the crime branch, from crime branch to Bareilly [police division], from there to here, from here to there and so on.” No one has been arrested, and no one has been charged.
Since the attack, Narendra Yadav has been assigned a state policeman, but because it is not 24-hour protection, he said he has started to carry a gun. “This is my dilemma,” he said. “I carry around this gun to protect myself, but sources won’t speak to me if they see it.”
Jagendra Singh’s family told CPJ they were determined to not let his death go unnoticed. For almost 10 days after his death, Jagendra Singh’s widow, three children, and father sat in protest in the shade of the peepal tree. A banner in Hindi called for justice for the “martyred” journalist and listed demands. A crowd of residents, friends, and journalists joined them. “At one point, a hundred people gathered by the tree,” Sumer Singh said. “They had come from neighboring villages as well.” Media crews and reporters broadcast Jagendra Singh’s story across the country.
In part thanks to the media blitz, an outcry on social media, and a meeting that took place between the independent statutory Press Council of India and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, the family caught the attention of the administration. Rahul and Sumer Singh said that at a meeting with the chief minister on June 22, 2015, they made a series of demands, including that the Central Bureau of Investigation open an inquiry into Jagendra Singh’s death and that the minister, Verma, be suspended.
At the meeting, Akhilesh Yadav promised compensation of Rs 3,000,000 (US$55,000), arms licenses for the sons so the family could protect themselves, and assured them of government jobs to ensure financial stability. However, the family said, they were asked to drop the demand for a federal-level investigation. The chief minister assured them that a state-controlled investigation would handle the case effectively. Akhilesh Yadav also refused the family’s calls to remove Verma from power during the investigation, telling them that if he was found guilty, the minister would go to prison, the family said. Akhilesh Yadav did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.
“Jagendra didn’t fear anyone. And that’s the reason he is no longer here.” Sumer Singh
Verma, who is named in the First Information Report in the journalist’s death, has denied being involved in Jagendra Singh’s case and has denied allegations of rape and corruption in media interviews. He remains in his role as Minister of State for Backward Class Welfare.
At the start, Jagendra Singh’s family had pushed for the Central Bureau of Investigation to handle the case. A June 2015 petition the Singh family filed to the Supreme Court seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry says, “The fact that police officials and a senior politician are accused in the case has shaken the confidence of [the] public in investigation being conducted by the state police.”
The Supreme Court accepted the petition and ordered the state government to file responses within two weeks. During this time, the family met with the chief minister to discuss the case and then dropped requests for it to be handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation. In late June 2015, the Indian Express quoted one of Jagendra Singh’s sons as saying that “associates” of the minister, Verma, had threatened the family. “They came in a car and threatened that if we did not withdraw the case they would get us killed. They also threatened to frame our family in a false case,” the son said. When CPJ asked the family about this account, they denied that it had happened.
Since Jagendra Singh’s death, there has been little visible progress in securing justice. The state-controlled investigation, being handled by the Bareilly police division, continues to oversee the case. Representatives from the police division did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for an update on his case. “We have resigned ourselves to the fact that an investigation will take time,” Suman Singh said. “And might even result in not convicting anyone. But we have to continue living our lives.”
Suman Singh said her main concern is ensuring financial stability. Her husband used to earn between 10,000 Indian rupees (US$150) and 15,000 Indian rupees (US$225) per month. Since his death, the family’s income comes from the modest pension of Jagendra Singh’s father and the compensation provided by the government over Jagendra Singh’s death.
The family remain proud of what Jagendra Singh achieved. “The fact that he died fighting against injustice should come as no surprise to us,” Sumer Singh said. He recalled how when he was working as a postmaster, his son reported on claims that the mail was not being delivered on time. “My son wrote it; He actually wrote against me in a newspaper,” Sumer Singh said. “He couldn’t stand any wrongdoing.”
He added, “Jagendra didn’t fear anyone. And that’s the reason he is no longer here.”