Eestern Times , New Delhi : On January 30th, Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist who worked for The Caravan magazine and Junputh, was dragged across the police barricades at Singhu Border and arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police. While his whereabouts were unknown for a long while, it later came to be known that he was being held in the Alipur Police Station despite denials by the police there.
The next day at 5 pm, another journalist, Dharmendra Singh from Online News India was also picked up but let off after signing an undertaking. Meanwhile, Mandeep Punia was beaten in custody and then late at night the police issued an FIR 52/2021 charging him under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 186 (obstructing public servant from his duty), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty) and 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty).
The police allege that Mandeep misbehaved with officials. However, eyewitnesses claim that the police objected to Mandeep recording an altercation between the police and a local person trying to cross the barricade and hence arrested him.
Mandeep had been closely monitoring the Kisan Andolan since September looking into issues of Minimum Support Price, the gathering momentum of the protests and the growing unity between peasants and workers at Singhu Border.
He also covered the role of the police in targeting leaders of the agitation and local trade unions, notably the Majdoor Adhikar Sanghatan whose leaders were recently arrested. Most recently, Mandeep had been tracking down BJP activists who pretended to be locals while attacking the Kisan Andolan at Singhu Border on January 29th, 2021. His efforts at exposing the ruling BJP’s role in the attack and the police’s complicity has led to his arrest.
The day after his arrest, he was produced before the magistrate before time and presented without his lawyer. His bail was rejected and he has been sent to Tihar Jail for 14 days judicial custody.
The arrest of Mandeep Punia is not an isolated incident but must be seen alongside the barrage of FIRs filed against journalists in Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the wake of the tractor rally on January 26th, 2021. Several FIRs have been registered against six journalists including Anant Nath, Mrinal Pande, Paresh Nath, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod K Jose, and Zafar Agha. These contain charges under a range of IPC sections including 120B (criminal conspiracy), 124A (sedition), 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 504 (intentional insult with intent to promote breach of peace), 505(2) (statements conducive to public mischief).
These FIRs were filed ostensibly in light of the journalists’ social media posts on the killing of Navreet Singh during the tractor rally.
An FIR filed in Rampur district of Uttar Pradesh also charges journalist Siddharth Varadarajan for a tweet on a story reporting claims by the family of Navreet Singh which contradicts the police’s version. This FIR includes IPC sections 153B and 505(2). The targeting of journalists with criminal cases seeks to intimidate, harass and silence reporters or compel them to toe the line set by the Government.
Mandeep Punia’s arrest comes a day after around 200 BJP led goons calling themselves ‘locals’ attacked the Kisan Andolan at Singhu border.
They pelted stones, burned the bedding and tents for women and brutally beat-up people, notably the Sikh youth. All the while, police in riot gear silently looked on, springing into action only to beat those peasant protesters who the BJP led goons delivered into their hands.
When video evidence of these actions started to make the rounds, several journalists tried to locate these so-called locals. Just hours before his arrest, Mandeep released a video identifying several local BJP functionaries, notably Pradeep Khattri Tholedar and Aman Dabas, in the crowd that attacked the Kisan Andolan.
Based on discussions with locals in Bawana, Mandeep narrated how these BJP leaders, particularly Aman Dabas, had mobilised people and made arrangements for petrol bombs to be hurled at the tractor rally on January 26th. He explained how the peasants soon realised that the police-approved route would entail passing through areas where violent attacks were being planned.
Furthermore, Mandeep revealed the ways in which certain media houses and journalists had manipulated the facts and images to show a clash between the ‘locals’ and peasants despite it being clear that the attack was led by the BJP functionaries with the complicity of the police, particularly the Alipur SHO.
Referring to the suspension of mobile internet services in the area and the need to document injuries suffered by the peasants at the border, he appealed to people to help document and hold accountable those responsible for the violence.
In one of his latest posts on social media, Mandeep spoke of a Sikh youth, Ranjeet Singh, who he witnessed being brutally beaten by the BJP goons and the police and then later being carted into a police vehicle.
Ranjeet Singh’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Mandeep had even stated that he, with other journalists and lawyers, would file a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court, calling it his journalistic duty.
Ironically, after his own arrest, journalists and lawyers were not informed of his whereabouts for several hours raising similar concerns for his safety. It is clear that Mandeep Punia’s sharp investigation and reporting were proving inconvenient for the police.
The targeting of journalists reporting on police brutality is now all too familiar. The arrest of Siddique Kappan in the wake of the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) along with three others is one such case. The repeated arrests of journalist Prashant Kanojia for social media posts found unpalatable for the Uttar Pradesh government is another.
The arrests of two journalists Dhiren Sadokpam and Paojel Chaoba in Manipur for an article deemed a threat to national security and their subsequent release following an undertaking has had a chilling effect on journalists in the state. The continued incarceration of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan under UAPA since August 2018 for reporting on human rights violations was followed by the targeting of Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani under UAPA in 2020.
The outrageous targeting of comedian Kunal Kamra with contempt of court only pales before the arrest of another comedian Munawar Faruqui for jokes likely to hurt religious sentiments, jokes that he has not cracked. The targeting of journalists and comedians perceived as opposed to the ruling dispensation comes alongside the leeway given to journalists and politicians peddling falsehoods favouring the BJP.
The generous judicial interventions for Arnab Goswami by the highest court of this country invoking Article 21, the right to liberty, are only garnished by the leaked conversations between the journalist and ex-chief of the media broadcaster’s body. These reveal the deep rot within mainstream media and its links to the top leaders of the government.
The Brahmanical control over information through outright repression now threatens to wipe out any voices struggling to maintain a semblance of integrity and independence.
The violence perpetrated by the agents of Hindutva have been edited out of the papers, saffron-washed and made palatable for the consumption of the dominant caste Hindu male audience.
Those who dare to expose the Brahmanical Hindutva fascist forces aggressively assaulting democratic principles are deemed recalcitrant and find themselves behind bars. Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) strongly condemns the targeting of journalists and demands the immediate release of Mandeep Punia and the dropping of FIRs against journalists.
This use of colonial era laws like sedition is intended to intimidate and silence targeted media personnel and tacitly absolve the perpetrators of violence.
CASR stands in solidarity with Mandeep Punia and journalists like him who have taken their professional responsibility for reporting diligently as essential for a democracy despite facing the brute force of state repression.