[Foreign Policy] The Mysterious Death of an Indian Muckraker

Relatives of Indian journalist Jagendra Singh, who died after he was allegedly set alight by intruders at his home, take part in a protest demanding an investigation in the Shahjahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh on June 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Indian journalist Jagendra Singh, who died after he was allegedly set alight by intruders at his home, take part in a protest demanding an investigation in the Shahjahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh on June 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

UTTAR PRADESH, India — The afternoon’s heat was thick and voices of the crowd low as two young men stood on a straw bed outside the ancestral home of the late freelance journalist Jagendra Singh. Over 100 people had gathered on June 15 for a sit-in here in Khutar, a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The young men reached for a banner strung against a tree to post Singh’s photograph in its center. It stated the reason for the sit-in, with bright red Hindi script emblazoned across the top: “Justice for martyred journalist Jagendra Singh.”

A week earlier, on June 8, the 45-year-old Singh had died in a hospital in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital. He was transferred there after his body was doused in kerosene and lit on fire on June 1, in his home in Shahjahanpur, a district of central Uttar Pradesh, which locals say is known for its carpet industry, samosas, and crime — especially murders. A preliminary forensic report by state investigators suggests the death was an attempted suicide. But on his deathbed, Singh charged a police officer, acting on behalf of Ram Murti Singh Verma, a welfare minister in Uttar Pradesh, with attempting to murder him. The burning occurred after Singh had accused Verma of a host of criminal activities and corruption on Singh’s Facebook page, which he used as a news portal.

Singh didn’t always post the source of his information on Facebook. But on his deathbed, before succumbing to the burns that charred 60 percent of his body, he declared before a magistrate and Amitabh Thakur, a longtime police officer and social activist, that he had obtained damning information through the Indian equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. Amitabh recorded his declaration on two videos that are now posted on YouTube.

“The fight against corruption and corrupt practices is the root cause of this,” said Amitabh at his home in Lucknow, a few days after Singh died. “Mr. Jagendra Singh was something out of sync with the mindset. If you expose the system’s corruption or malfunctioning, it is generally considered something that is,” he paused, cocking his head as he searched for the right words, “not usual.”

The conflicting stories at the heart of the case underscore the worries, suspicions, and frustrations that have reverberated since Singh’s death shook India. His death, along with a spate of recent attacks against members of the press across the country, has raised a larger outcry over the challenges journalists endure working outside of India’s major cities. They often operate with limited institutional support and risk their lives to report stories that both editors and organized crime would rather they ignore. Even local residents often prefer that journalists ignore some of the most dangerous stories. And that’s because these stories, once published, inevitably lead to trouble — especially in a place like Uttar Pradesh.

India’s most populous state of more than 200 million people, is notorious for its culture of lawlessness and “goonda raj” — a government run and influenced by goons. The sinister nexus of power, fear, business, politics, poverty, and policing creates widespread corruption. In this type of murky environment, an issue like the death of a journalist can sometimes become conflated with a distrust of journalists themselves. And that’s what happened with Singh.

* * *

Singh became a reporter around 2000, after three failed business ventures — a general store, a snack counter, and a paan shop, where he would sell cigarettes and the betel leaf that men in this region like to chew. He was determined to turn his passion for writing into a career and serve as a voice for poor people like himself, his 22-year-old son Rajan explained in a secluded corner of the family’s home.

He started by stringing for the Hindi paper Amar Ujala (“Undying Light”), offering news as needed and managing the paper’s distribution. Balancing multiple tasks is not unusual in India’s vernacular journalism (that is, reporting in one of India’s many languages, mostly outside of major cities) where the wages are low, even for Indian standards, and it’s expected that reporters do side jobs to earn a living. But payments were too paltry, and he left the job after a few years. Still, his work earned him a reputation as a fearless crime reporter. Sometime around 2010, Sardar Sharma, the bureau chief of the Hindi daily Swatantra Bharat (“Free India”), recruited Singh to join his paper in Shahjahanpur, a town of roughly 350,000 people near Khutar and the center of the district with the same name.

In the roughly two years he worked there, he often reported damning information on powerful local personalities, his two sons said. That was, and still is, an unconventional practice in a region where politicians regularly buy advertising in papers and local leaders wield enormous power. His reporting style and stubbornness angered Sharma, who said Singh reported false information at least once. “He was the kind of personality who used to say anything and everything in front of police officials, government officials, and his fellow journalists,” Sharma said in an interview.

“He was like a car without brakes.”

But what Singh saw, his sons say, was the newspaper’s infuriating subservience to the state’s corruption. “His seniors used to pressure him to conceal certain information, so he left the job,” Rajan said.

Singh then turned to freelancing. In 2011, he set up a Facebook account, which he called “Shahjahanpur Samachar” (“Shahjahanpur News”), to post and distribute stories. He thought he could make productive use of Facebook, his family and fellow reporters said, and considered himself a “social media journalist.”

That moniker is unusual for Shahjahanpur, where most people view Facebook as an aimless distraction. But it wasn’t odd for the reporters who found Singh’s posts helpful and sourced stories from his account, and the more than 10,000 followers he amassed across three different Facebook pages. He typically tagged dozens of people in his posts, and many were influential youth leaders with wide networks, according to A., a Shahjahanpur reporter who asked to be identified only by his first initial because of the sensitivity of Singh’s death.

For several months before he died, Singh’s posts had targeted the welfare minister Verma — so aggressively that many people in Shahjahanpur wondered whether Singh had a personal vendetta against him. Singh not only charged the minister with land grabbing and illegal mining, but also the gang rape of a healthcare worker, known as Shalini, a widow with whom Singh was reportedly having a relationship.

On May 22, Singh published a chilling Facebook post. In it, he wrote of the revenge he alleged he had received for exposing Verma’s alleged corruption: He was physically assaulted, had his leg broken, and henchmen of the minister slapped him with criminal charges. He knew the danger his choices had invited. “Ram Murti Singh Verma may get me killed. Right now, politicians, goons, and the police are all after me. Writing the truth is taking a toll on my life,” he wrote in the post.

The confrontation between Singh and the police came in the middle of a scorching afternoon just days later on June 1. Shalini was the only witness. In her original account, she asserted that a police officer had ignited Singh and also tried to pour kerosene on her before she escaped. But in a subsequent statement, she changed her story, claiming Singh was attempting to self-immolate to evade arrest for the other charges levied on him.

Verma has shunned media since the incident. (Phone calls made to Verma’s office were refused after I identified myself as a journalist.) Some political analysts in Lucknow say the state’s ruling party, the Samajwadi Party, is keeping him in the government in part to avoid alienating members of his Kurmi caste; caste affiliation resonates loudly in Indian politics and especially in Uttar Pradesh.

Meanwhile, Singh’s integrity is still being questioned. At a dingy office shared by several reporters in Shahjahanpur the week after he died, on June 16, the reporters spoke of his sometimes unethical income streams, including accepting money from locals to not report potentially incriminating information and the peculiar, but common, practice of ghostwriting news for men who identified themselves as journalists.

Another rumored income source of Singh’s was far riskier, given Uttar Pradesh’s notoriously dirty politics. Allegedly, Verma’s political rival, former state legislator Devendra Pal Singh, had paid him to write negative stories about Verma. These reporters believed that Singh and Devendra Pal Singh worked together on an election media campaign for Devendra in 2012. The two were also both members of the Thakur caste — an unquestionable reason for solidarity for many people. But gossip that Verma recently paid off Shahjahanpur reporters to paint Singh as a mentally tortured political pawn is also making the rounds among journalists in Lucknow.

In an interview, Devendra Pal Singh admitted to giving incriminating information on Verma to media and law-and-order officials, but he denied any association with Singh and also denied rumors that he offered the journalist money. Singh “used to respect me a lot,” he acknowledged. But “who am I to supply information just to him?”

* * *

Some of the harassment and pressure Singh faced has transferred onto his family. On July 3, his younger son, 21-year-old Rahul, appealed to the Indian Supreme Court to conduct an independent probe into his father’s death to compensate for what the family felt was Lucknow’s deliberate negligence. But just before the court’s hearing on July 27, Rahul sent a letter to the lawyers saying he wanted to withdraw the matter. He and his brother now reportedly agree with the forensic report — that Singh was attempting self-immolation.

“It appears from [Rahul’s] Facebook posts that he was being threatened for some time to withdraw the case,” said Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate for the Supreme Court of India and founding director of the Human Rights Law Network, a public interest litigation group in India. “He was undoubtedly scared.”

Given that few people outside of Shahjahanpur knew of Singh or paid any attention to his reports before he died — and that rumors of payoffs and coverups have festered in the weeks since — it’s nearly impossible to confirm what actually happened to Singh.

Sadly, that’s not rare for cases involving the deaths of journalists in India. “There’s always a muddled story,” said Sumit Galhotra, a research associate at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which tracks journalist deaths around the world. Personal rivalries and suspicions of being on the payroll of someone influential are not uncommon. Inadequate pay rates among journalists, and the door it may open to corrupt practices like blackmail, exploitation, and dishonest reporting, is a huge factor, he said. At least 35 journalists in India have been killed for their reporting since 1992, according to the committee. India ranked 13th on CPJ’s 2014 annual global impunity index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free. India’s watchdog media organization, the Press Council of India, says 79 journalists have been killed in the past 25 years, with few convictions.

Statistics aside, the retaliations for reporting on topics involving politicians, religious figures, and organized crime merely hint at the danger on the ground. Days after Singh died in June, a group of men beat and dragged Haider Khan, another journalist in Uttar Pradesh, behind a motorcycle for about 300 feet for reporting on allegedly suspect land deals. On July 4, Akshay Singh, a journalist with the private Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, died mysteriously while investigating a billion-dollar corruption scam in the nearby state of Madhya Pradesh.

And in Shahjahanpur, journalist Narendra Yadav reported on the alleged sexual assault of a girl by Asaram Bapu, a self-proclaimed spiritual guru whose birth name is Asumal Thaumal Harpalani and whose rape charges are making headlines again for the witnesses dying. (A spokesperson for Harpalani, who is currently in prison, couldn’t be reached for comment.) Yadav showed a picture of himself taken after attackers — whom he believes were associated with Bapu — slit his throat in September 2014. Yadav had reported on the case and supplied information on it to other reporters, a routine practice. The henchmen tried to lure him away from reporting with bribes, Yadav said. The attack came after he refused them.

Yadav tried reporting his own assault to the police. “The police told me that I was not the only journalist writing about Asaram Bapu, so why would it be only me [who was attacked]?” he said. He pointed to the photo. “The police are completely biased. They work under political pressure and consider journalists their enemies.”

Some state officials seem unmoved by the assaults on the press. In an interview, Navneet Sehgal, Uttar Pradesh’s principal secretary of information, chuckled in response to questions about the issue. “Jagendra’s case is only in isolation,” he said. “The reality is that it’s alright. Everybody is safe. What is the problem?” Sehgal added that Lucknow has “efficient” committees in every district for reporters to air their grievances. However, N.K. Trikha, former president of India’s National Union of Journalists, told me in an email, “These committees are almost nonexistent at present due to the unsympathetic and negligent attitude of the state authorities.”

Given the attention on these recent killings and scandals, a help line for journalists in Uttar Pradesh is in the works. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has also begun to collect data on attacks on journalists, activists, and whistleblowers. Others have noted, however, that these threats and deaths often rise to the national attention for just a short while before receding back into oblivion.

They are part of broader systemic issues that prevail in the absence of the rule of law, even as verifying who is an honest journalist remains a challenge.

* * *

Suspicions that Singh burned himself were spreading in Shahjahanpur even before Shalini, the only witness to the incident, retracted her original testimony. Her decision was enough evidence for some to suspect that blackmail is at play. Locals opined that perhaps “goons told her” what to say and that she’s now trying to protect herself — as some believe is the case with Singh’s family now as well.

The police officers at the scene of the burning have been suspended. But no arrests have been made. “Unless someone is proven guilty, you can’t take action,” said Sehgal, the principal secretary of information. “The inquiry is being done independently, and it will be brought before the court. If anyone is found guilty, action will be taken.”

In the end, it makes no difference who is responsible for his death, said Prem Shankar, a television news reporter in Shahjahanpur. Singh did things — or was perceived to have done things — that were unconventional and angered someone with power. That’s the fundamental reason he died, he added.

“Either he burned himself to draw attention to his plight, or someone else murdered him,” said Shankar. “The reasons remain the same.”

This piece originally published on August 3, 2015, on Foreign Policy.

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