Dangerous Pursuit

In search of justice for Umesh Rajput

By Sumit Galhotra and Raksha Kumar

Parmeshwar Rajput walked exhausted into his lawyer’s office in Bilaspur, weighed down by a black bag filled with court documents, police records, and newspaper clippings about his brother’s death, after the six-hour train and motorbike journey he had taken from his village of Hirabatar so he could meet with CPJ. The 36-year-old is accustomed to frequently traveling with these files. They are his only hope that the killers of his brother, Umesh Rajput, will be brought to justice.

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Umesh Rajput, a reporter with the Hindi-language daily Nai Dunia, was shot dead outside his home in Chhura village, on the outskirts of Raipur district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, on January 23, 2011. He was 33.

Since his death, Umesh’s brother has channeled his grief into a fight for justice that has taken him from police stations and court houses across the state, to the Central Bureau of Investigation. But more than five years later, there have been no arrests and vital pieces of evidence appear to have gone missing, Parmeshwar Rajput and his lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj said.

Silencing a critic

Umesh Rajput had a reputation for exposing corruption and reporting on the exploitation of tribal communities in Chhattisgarh for several newspapers. He was so preoccupied with visiting people in villages to report on their problems that he had little time for day-to-day family obligations, Parmeshwar Rajput said.

In the lead up to his death, Umesh Rajput was covering sensitive stories. One report, on apparent medical negligence at a government-run clinic, led to him being threatened. The others involved reporting on a candidate standing against an incumbent member of the state’s legislative assembly and on allegations that the incumbent’s son was involved in an illegal gambling business.

A health worker who allegedly threatened Umesh Rajput over his reporting on the clinic, and the son of the politician were among the eight people later questioned by police in connection with his murder, legal documents show.

In the story that led to threats, Umesh Rajput had reported on January 13, 2011 about the death of Runjibai Gond, a tribal woman who, her family claimed, died due to negligence after having an eye operation at a community clinic in Chhura. The family said they informed a health worker named Saroj Mishra that Gond had high blood pressure. After the operation, Gond’s condition deteriorated but Mishra discharged her and sent her home, where she later died, the family said. A chief medical officer at the hospital was quoted in the piece saying that no complaint had been received, but that the help given did not indicate damage. Umesh Rajput reported that other complaints of alleged criminal negligence had been made against the clinic’s staff, and addressed the wider issue of medical personnel allegedly using political connections to avoid being transferred as a punishment when they have been accused of criminal negligence. Other media outlets picked up Umesh Rajput’s reporting.

Umesh Rajput’s news editor at Nai Dunia, Ghanshyam Gupta, said, “There are often instances of negligence. And that is what Umesh wrote about. He didn’t sensationalize in the report.”

The day after Umesh Rajput’s report was published, Mishra, the health worker, asked the journalist to come to a local hospital under the pretense of having him take a statement from the victim’s widower, according to a First Information Report that Umesh Rajput filed with police the same day. In the report, which has been viewed by CPJ, Umesh Rajput said that when he arrived at the hospital, Mishra held up a copy of the newspaper article and threatened him with dire consequences. Police took no steps to protect Umesh Rajput, his brother said. The health worker was only questioned after his death, according to reports and legal documents. While in India, CPJ was unable to locate Mishra to speak with her about the case.

Police also questioned the son of an official whom Umesh Rajput had reported on in connection with the murder. Parmeshwar Rajput and his lawyer, Bharadwaj, said that Umesh Rajput’s favorable reporting on a candidate standing against Onkar Shah, then a member of the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly, had irked the politician. Umesh Rajput had also published reports that alleged Shah’s son, Rituraj, was involved in an illegal gambling business, according to Parmeshwar Rajput. Bharadwaj said, “Umesh was challenging the authority of this entire group in a very feudal place.”

Delays and failings

Parmeshwar Rajput looks through a file of documents related to his brother, Umesh’s, murder.  The journalist was shot dead in 2011. (CPJ/Sumit Galhotra)

On January 23, 2011, the day Umesh Rajput was killed, the journalist heard someone calling for him outside his home in the evening. As he slid aside the curtain to his front door, he was shot dead, according to the journalist’s wife and a colleague who were in the house at the time. The two assailants fled on motorcycles. A note recovered at the scene of the murder read in Hindi, “Khabar chaapna band nahi karoge toh mare jaoge,” (If you don't stop publishing news, you will die,) according to news reports.

After his murder, Umesh Rajput’s colleagues at Nai Dunia visited Chhura to speak with the superintendent of police, Kamalochan Kashyap, about the case. He assured them the culprits would be caught, Ghanshyam Gupta said.

As well as questioning the health worker, police considered motives including possible involvement of Maoists that operate in the nearby conflict-affected areas and an affair, his editor said. But local journalists and family members dismissed these motives, arguing instead that the police were complicit in protecting a powerful network of people allegedly involved. Police have been unable to substantiate these alternate motives or provide evidence supporting their claims, The Hoot reported.

Umesh Rajput’s lawyer and his brother told CPJ that vital pieces of evidence, including the journalist’s cell phone, the curtain that had a bullet hole in it, and the threatening note, have gone missing; leads have not been followed up on; and key stages and analysis that police should have carried out have been ignored or delayed.

Bharadwaj, a human rights lawyer and general secretary of the Chhattisgarh chapter of the human rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties, said that failings by the police to properly investigate were apparent from the outset, when officers did not seal off the area where Umesh Rajput was killed. Had the police immediately done so, perhaps they could have apprehended the gunmen, said Bharadwaj, who is handling the case pro-bono.

Bharadwaj said no analysis was ordered of the handwriting in the threatening note and police failed to examine phone records within two years of Umesh Rajput’s murder, meaning the records can no longer be accessed. In India, service providers do not usually retain call records for such an extended period. She said that the state admitted, in a reply to one of the writs she filed, that evidence including the note were missing.

“Even in daily soaps you see routine things that police [are] supposed do, that there was an absence of,” Bharadwaj said. “It’s surprising.”

When CPJ called the police for comment, Superintendent Amit Kamble said that he would look into the case, and said to call back. CPJ’s follow up calls were not answered.

Documents that Parmeshwar Rajput showed CPJ serve as a paper trail for how his brother’s case has gone from being acknowledged at the highest levels of state government to being seemingly lost in a backlog of cases. In February 2011, Chhattisgarh’s home minister said in the state legislature that a Special Investigation Team would be set up to handle Umesh Rajput’s case, media reports said. Altogether, four such teams were formed over the years, according to Bharadwaj. The following month, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh told Umesh Rajput’s family that the murder would be investigated and that compensation would be provided.

"Umesh was challenging the authority of this entire group in a very feudal place."Sudha Bharadwaj

Parmeshwar Rajput said that during a closed-door meeting with Mukesh Gupta, the inspector general of police in Raipur, he was asked not to accuse any powerful people of involvement because it could lead to legal backlash against the family. “I thought to myself, ‘Is he trying to get information from me or is he trying to shut my mouth?’ ” Parmeshwar Rajput said. CPJ tried to contact Raipur police for comment but was unable to locate a number for the station.

Umesh Rajput’s brother said police failed to carry out a credible investigation. “The people behind his murder are surely powerful people,” said Parmeshwar Rajput. “It appears the investigation has been influenced. What can be influencing it? It’s either money or political connections. Only time will tell who is actually behind the murder.”

Among the court documents that Parmeshwar Rajput carries around is a file that shows how in May 2011, a judge granted permission for a narco-analysis, during which suspects are questioned while in a semi-conscious state. Later that month, permission was given for the suspects to be questioned using brain scan technology.

Despite a judge ordering the scans and analysis, more than six months later there had been no progress. Parmeshwar Rajput approached the High Court in Bilaspur in October 2011 to demand action. In January 2012, police finally carried out the Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature Profiling— a technique where electrodes are attached to a suspect’s head to analyze signals in the brain as a way of determining whether they had memory of a crime or event—but it took a court order in April of that year to force them to disclose the results, the records kept by Parmeshwar Rajput show.

One of eight suspects named in the court documents was Rituraj Shah. Nai Dunia editor Ghanshyam Gupta told CPJ that Umesh Rajput may have had documents that potentially implicated Onkar Shah in allegations of irregularities in land possession. He also heard Umesh Rajput was planning to publish a critical story. CPJ was unable to verify Ghanshyam Gupta’s account.

Court documents on the findings of the brain analysis alleged a plot to have Umesh Rajput killed. It stated, “In addition through [Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature Profiling] of Saroj Mishra, Ashok Dixit [a Congress Party official] and Ruturaj Shah, [sic] it is also signified that the conversation related to Umesh Rajput’s supari [contract killing] had taken place. Hence it is recommended to investigate thoroughly about the same.”

Onkar and Rituraj Shah did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment. CPJ was unable to locate Dixit for comment.

The brain analysis, Bharadwaj said, is only an indicator that must be corroborated with other evidence. “A brain mapping can lend clues to investigators about the direction they should take,” Bharadwaj said. “But if you’re not at all keen on getting any evidence, you’re not going to get any.”

In a writ petition the lawyer filed with the Bilaspur High Court on Parmeshwar Rajput’s behalf in September 2012, Bharadwaj wrote that an officer in charge of the investigation stated under oath that no helpful clues had been found from the brain analysis, despite the results indicating an apparent plot to kill Umesh Rajput.

Bharadwaj said that when the courts asked police about the questioning of suspects, the officers said they maintained their innocence. “What suspect will voluntarily admit their crime of murder?” she said. The lawyer said that police tried to implicate Umesh Rajput’s friend and wife, who were questioned during the investigation. “There was an extreme reluctance to touch any of the bigger fish,” she said.

In addition to their meeting with Chief Minister Raman Singh, the Rajput family met with the governor and the highest echelons of the state police, but there is no sign of progress. In the meeting with Raman Singh in March 2011, Parmeshwar Rajput said he had no faith in the local investigation and asked for the case to be moved to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Parmeshwar Rajput said that the chief minister provided assurances that the state-level investigation would be sufficient, and did not agree to the Central Bureau of Investigation taking over.

Raman Singh did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment on the status of the case.

Parmeshwar Rajput eventually turned to the courts to request that the case be transferred. In December 2014, Justice Manindra Shrivastava of the High Court in Bilaspur agreed to his request. In his judgment, Shrivastava raised questions about the local investigation and said, “Overall picture which emerges from the facts and circumstances of the case leads to an inference that the investigating agency, right from the beginning, has not taken prompt and effective steps to solve the mystery of the murder.” He said that the case required “much more serious attention…than what has been exhibited.”

In the decision, Shrivastava wrote, “Whenever a pen is stained with the blood of its writer, who happened to be a journalist, without anything more, the State machinery, in a constitutional democracy, owns a duty to bring to book those offenders who are threat to impartial and fearless journalism and pose challenge to the very existence of the fourth pillar of democracy, the press and the media.”

In March 2015, the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case, Parmeshwar Rajput said. But more than a year later, no one has been brought to justice. In May 2016, Parmeshwar Rajput said that a Central Bureau of Investigation representative called him and asked if he could arrange for evidence including his brother’s laptop and cellphone to be sent to them from the local police.

The Central Bureau of Investigation did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment on the status of the case, whether the suspects were still under investigation, what motives it believed were behind the killing, or claims that police tried to shield powerful people from being implicated in the case.

Hostility in Chhattisgarh

Umesh Rajput’s news editor Ghanshyam Gupta, pictured at the Nai Dunia offices, says the journalist was always objective in his reporting. (CPJ/Sumit Galhotra)

Umesh Rajput worked as a correspondent for Nai Dunia out of Chhura. Like much of the state of Chhattisgarh, Chhura has witnessed more than three decades of conflict as Maoist groups—designated as terrorist organizations by the Indian government—have led an insurgency in the central tribal areas of the country. Meanwhile, the government has pushed for intensive resource extraction in this mineral-rich state, which is violently opposed by Maoists.

“I was always concerned when he commuted overnight from Raipur to Chhura,” his editor, Ghanshyam Gupta, told CPJ. He said that correspondents at the paper are not permitted to travel into Maoist areas unless they have permission from management.

Journalists have frequently been caught between Maoists and government forces stationed around the state. CPJ has documented how police pressure, harass, or abuse journalists in an effort to silence critical reporting or compel them to serve as informants, and how Maoists have attacked journalists who they accused of being informants for police. In the case of Sai Reddy, a reporter for the Hindi language Deshbandhu, Maoists claimed responsibility for his murder in 2013, but the veteran journalist had also faced harassment from police, according to local news reports. At least four journalists have been arrested in the region since July 2015 and two were forced to flee out of security concerns, according to CPJ research.

Such a climate of intimidation risks creating an information vacuum in parts of the state. A further problem is the difficulty in communicating with key ministers or officials about press cases. CPJ’s experience in advocating for journalists in Chhattisgarh illustrates the challenges. In January 2016, CPJ sent a letter to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh asking him to ensure a safer working environment for journalists in the state. At the time of publication, the minister had not responded. Similarly, requests for comment from CPJ to police in Chhattisgarh when reporting on journalists who have been arrested, attacked, or threatened, have been met with resistance.

Violence in the state has increased in the past year. After Prime Minster Narendra Modi visited the region in 2015, the Chhattisgarh government signed agreements with steel companies to set up plants in the region. The police then announced an operation called “Mission 2016” against the Maoists, according to news accounts.

Accounts by rights groups and journalists of fake surrenders by alleged Maoists, extrajudicial killings, and gang rapes have increased in the past year. “The government is waging a war on the tribals, and it wants to root out all witnesses,” Isha Khandelwal, a lawyer at the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which used to provide free legal services to the poor in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, told CPJ.

Brother’s keeper

Parmeshwar Rajput, a pen clipped to his top-left shirt pocket, set down his bag of court documents and news clippings about Umesh Rajput’s death and pulled out a file that contained photos of his brother. “Silencing my brother has meant the silencing of many stories about local problems that people face,” Parmeshwar Rajput said. Many villagers still look back on Umesh Rajput and the positive changes his reporting helped bring, including better access to water, roads, and healthcare, he said.

Parmeshwar Rajput said it has been difficult making the frequent hours-long journey by train and motorbike to the police station and courts over the years. Along with trying to fight the case and hold down a job, Parmeshwar Rajput said he was trying to care for his mother, who had cancer. She died in 2014, without seeing justice served for her son. “At times, I felt completely hopeless,” he said.

"Silencing my brother has meant the silencing of many stories about local problems that people face."Parmeshwar Rajput

Parmeshwar Rajput said he could not let those moments break his resolve. Although more than a year has passed since the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case, he said he hopes that when the investigation concludes, the results will bring him closer to finding justice.

Bharadwaj was more skeptical. When asked if she had faith that the Central Bureau of Investigation could help secure justice, she said, “not much” and cited the December 2010 murder of journalist Sushil Pathak, whose case was taken up by the bureau in 2011 and which, she said, remains unresolved. (CPJ is investigating to determine if he was killed in direct retaliation for his work.) She said that while the Central Bureau of Investigation is less likely to be influenced, she was concerned that local power structures have permeated investigative bodies. She said that “the nexus forged between businesses, politics, and old feudal forces” has grown stronger over time. “The scale of corruption has also grown so immense.” It has become very difficult to solve cases of human rights defenders getting killed, she said.

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