Gangs of ‘Miningpur’
Speaking truth to power was likely a phrase coined by the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. In modern times speaking truth to power has become a popular way to describe taking a stand. However, for a journalist in India to speak truth to power can often have gruesome consequences. As the events of the past few weeks have proved, this is no country for honest journalists working in small mofussil towns. Sandeep Kothari’s life was not easy, neither was his death. His dead body was found near a railway track in the Butibori forest of Wardha district in Maharashtra. It must be remembered that it was only last year that illegal acid dumping killed scores of cattle and endangered multiple farmers near Butibori. It was in this forest that Sandeep Kothari breathed his last. He was first ruthlessly murdered and his dead body was subsequently wrapped in a mattress and set on fire. It took seven people to conduct this heinous and blood-curdling crime.
In Anurag Kashyap’s film Gangs of Wasseypur, which revolves around the sinister activities of the extremely brutal mining mafia, Pankaj Tripathi plays Sultan Qureshi. Sultan, as he is referred to in the film is the nephew of Dacoit Sultana and is a butcher by profession and association. Sultan is the brains and brawn behind some of the most brutal and violent acts committed in the film. To say that the character of Sultan is representative of the sheer ruthlessness of the mining mafia would not be a far stretch.
The real-life mining mafia’s sheer scale of violence is both mind-numbing and stomach churning. The murder of investigative journalist Chandrika Rai and his family is a sordid example of the savage levels of violence the mining mafia can resort to. Rai had been consistently fighting illegal coal mining at great risk to himself and his family. Living about 450 kilometres from Bhopal and witnessing the illegal activities in scores of coalfields from close quarters, he contributed a series of articles to a Hindi daily from Bhopal, and a Nagpur-based English daily with editions in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In some articles, he seems to have highlighted the involvement of a prominent local leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Rai and his family had to pay the ultimate price for Rai’s crusading journalism. Rai, 43, his wife Durga, 39, son Jalaj, 20, and daughter Nisha, 17, were found dead, battered with an iron rod at their residence in Umaria town on February 18 2012. This is not to suggest that journalists are the only ones who have suffered the mining mafia’s wrath.
In 2012, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Narendra Kumar Singh, posted in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district, was brutally killed by members of the mining mafia. He was run over by a tractor trolley in his attempt to stop an illegal mining racket. Following the customary outrage at the death of an honest IPS officer the case all but disappeared from the media limelight. Given how short the public memory is the mining mafia got away with murder, quite literally in this case, and that too of a bright young police officer. It is common sense that without the active support of politicians no mafia could survive. The fact that it continues to survive says a lot about our local politicians.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) research shows that at least 35 journalists have been killed in India since 1992. India is ranked a depressingly high 13th position on CPJ’s annual Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go scot free. A look at the data released by CPJ reveals a systemic problem. Most journalists who were killed were either covering Business (31%) or Politics (43%).This is perhaps more applicable in current times than anytime else. With business and political interests converging rapidly, any journalist who wants to be a fly in the ointment will bear the brunt. <g data-gr-id="70">Jagendra</g> Singh certainly bore the brunt. Singh, a freelance journalist who reported critically on politics and current affairs in Hindi-language newspapers and was particularly critical of UP minister Ram Murti Singh Verma on Facebook, died from burn injuries he sustained after a police raid at his home on June 1. It was a police raid in name only apparently.
While being treated in hospital for burns covering more than half of his body, Singh made a statement to a police officer, Amitabh Thakur, in which he said another police officer, Sriprakash Rai, had doused him in petrol and set him on fire allegedly on the orders of Ram Murti Singh Verma.
It is revealing that both <g data-gr-id="62">Jagendra</g> Singh and Sandeep Kothari not only encountered gruesome deaths but have been subject to a vile smear campaign against them post their deaths. Kothari has been accused of being a history sheeter, which he is not. Of the 25 cases registered against him in the past decade, Kothari was convicted in one – and even there he was acquitted by a higher court.
Furthermore, Kothari was not a former journalist. After he left his job at a newspaper, he began editing a small daily from <g data-gr-id="63">Katangi</g> where he relentlessly covered scams by mining companies and chit fund companies. According to the family members of the deceased, <g data-gr-id="64">Jagendra</g> had similarly posted messages on Facebook against the minister, regarding his alleged involvement in illegal mining and land grabbing. The safety of Indian journalists has long been compromised, particularly in small towns where local authorities can wield enormous power. According to the Press Council of India, a statutory press watchdog group, 79 journalists were murdered in the past two-and-a-half years in India, with very few convictions.
Speaking truth to power is literally playing with fire, as far as Indian journalists are concerned. <g data-gr-id="57">Jagendra</g> Singh and Sandeep Kothari’s deaths are proof. Paying lip service to freedom of speech by politicians and the media is pointless if journalists get cold-bloodedly executed just for doing their job.