Ranjona Banerji: Damn the government, and get damned to death

16 Jun,2015

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Jagendra Singh used his Facebook account to post his articles: he was a “social media” journalist based in Shahjahanpur. Apparently several “mainstream” reporters in UP checked with his page regularly for updates. Singh had put out several stories about allegations of the gangrape of an Anganwadi worker against Samajwadi Party member and minister for dairy development Ram Murti Verma. He also posted stories about land grabbing and illegal mining by the minister, a Kurmi strongman for whom the SP is his sixth party. Incidentally, the gangrape story has also been covered in the mainstream media.

 

Singh was hounded and harassed by Verma and his men until on June 1 he was doused with kerosene and set alight, apparently by five policemen and Verma’s supporters. Singh remained alive long enough to record a dying declaration, accusing the minister and the police for his death and asking why indeed he was burnt when he could have been beaten up.

 

Singh’s son Rahul says that people from the party have since offered him money and a government job to hush up the case.

 

On one side, this incident represents total contempt for the law by the police and the political class. On the other, it shows the great difficulty of confronting those in power. Both sides tell a terrifying story. And yet one that is hardly new or unknown.

 

In any other world, the minister would be made to resign pending an enquiry. Here, it took a week of public outrage after Jagendra Singh’s death for the five policemen involved to be suspended. The minister remains not just on the run but in power and it seems will continue to have support from above.

 

To make matters worse, another journalist in Pilibhit, Haider Khan, was thrashed and then tied to a motorcycle and dragged along the road for 100 metres on Sunday. His “crime”? Stories on dubious land deals. He is in hospital in a critical condition and the police have started “an investigation against four people”.

 

This is when you realise the importance of a forum for and of journalists. We do not need special laws. But we do need someone who can take up the fight for the Jagendras and Haiders of the world. Because even if you assume that Jagendra was wrong in his allegations, his punishment cannot be being burnt to death by policemen loyal to a politician. We know what can be expected from the UP government when the state’s horticulture minister ParasnathYadav refers to Jagendra Singh’s death by saying, “There are some incidents that happen in the course of nature and destiny.”

 

I was going to write that we also need a society where accountability is taken seriously but it sounded like a clichéd joke when faced with such a legal and political system. The only hope is to keep covering such stories relentlessly.

 

**

 

A number of Twitter handles covering media gossip and news popped up last year using the word “Lutyens” to signify that they were focused in and Delhi politics. We all followed them and after titillating and entertaining their followers, most have petered out. @LutyensInsider remained strong however with its 40000+ followers.

 

However, when @LutyensInsider started attacking journalist Swati Chaturvedi with malicious, pernicious and slanderous tweets, you knew both gossip and anonymity had gone too far. Chaturvedi, rather than laugh it off or ignore the abuse as so many of us do, decided to do take the anonymous handle on. She filed an FIR against the handle, complained to Twitter India and did whatever was necessary. The brave anonymous handle deleted all tweets and closed the account, shifted to another and then closed that as well. All power to Chaturvedi and every support for her case which she assured her followers she will pursue to the end.

 

Does the employer of @LutyensInsider have any role to play here? He or she was presumably using information picked up in his or her line of work to share on Twitter. Was the anonymity of the handle licence enough for no one to be responsible?

 

There is caveat here for all of us who use Twitter for salacious gossip. Twitter is an open forum and this is where its benefit lies. Trolling is one of the disadvantages but there is a difference between a sad lonely person trying to annoy people and working journalists using anonymity to settle scores.

 

We also have the piquant situation where Chaturvedi is also accused of calling people names on Twitter. However, this “defence” of LutyensInsider has been put together by another anonymous Twitter handle which runs a website that attempts to critique the media. It is obviously not run by a journalist and it is nothing but a series of rambling rants on journalists the blogger does not like. It appears to be run by one of India’s millions of rightwing social media defenders of the current Central government. Irony? What’s that?

 

Expression is free and good luck to such websites. My beef here however is with journalists who pretend that such websites are credible and post links with self-righteous zeal as if blogs about your personal likes and dislikes are equal to proof. No one can be that innocent, surely? Or, er, foolish?

 

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