These days the discourse in the Indian media is high on “freedom”. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious and cultural freedoms, academic and intellectual freedoms. I can open any English language newspaper today and read about how Modi has wrecked press freedom. I can hear them shouting from the rooftops that their voices have been stifled.
Whatever virtues the Indian media might have, irony is clearly not their strong suit.
The voices have recently grown louder with the CBI raid on Prannoy Roy. In a clear violation of press immunity, the CBI raided residence of NDTV founder-promoter Prannoy Roy in connection with an alleged financial fraud.
Oops! Did I say “press immunity”? I meant “press freedom”. I always struggle with these concepts of having immunity vs having freedom. Anyway…
But there is one voice that I cannot hear. A voice that is gone forever. All that we have left is a few screams on tape.
That’s the job of a journalist. Asking questions. And Jagendra Singh wanted to ask why “they” had to burn him alive? On his death bed, the helpless man wanted to ask why the “minister and his goondas” – which included police officers – could not have given him a lesser punishment, such as beating him up.
Well, there are journalists who are burnt alive and have to beg for the more merciful “punishment” of being beaten up. And then there are journalists who have to be rushed to TV studios and Thinkfests with severe third degree injuries from getting trolled on Twitter.
Jagendra Singh belonged to the former category. His journalism was a no-frills operation, for he ran a mere Facebook page called “Shahjahanpur Samachar” – basically he did not even have a proper job, but he had a passion for journalism.
For those who don’t know, Shahjahanpur is one of those sleepy little towns in Uttar Pradesh that never make the news. Shahjahanpur is definitely a bigger town than Dadri, though, but I digress.
On the Facebook page of Shahjahanpur Samachar, this man Jagendra Singh ended up writing extensively about alleged corruption of one Ram Murti Singh Verma, a minister in the then Akhilesh Yadav government of Uttar Pradesh.
So, a journalist accuses a minister of corruption. The next thing, the journalist is burnt alive and leaves behind a dying declaration (caught on video, no less) accusing people in power of burning him. (the video contains strong words and visuals, discretion advised)
Jagendra Singh was taken to a hospital. Apparently a police officer told the doctors not to tend to Singh and just let him die. The doctors did not listen to this ‘advice’ and transferred the grievously injured o Lucknow hospital, but Jagendra died of his burns a week later, back in June 2015.
What happens next? Does the Press Club hold an emergency meeting to begin a nationwide movement for justice to this journalist? Do intellectuals start returning heaps of awards to stir the national conscience?
No, of course not! The minister in question was secular, a member of the Samajwadi Party. The state of Uttar Pradesh was ruled at the time by the “Achche Ladke” team headed by Akhilesh Yadav.
Lutyens crowd was more interested in discussing Gajendra (Chauhan) than Jagendra.
So, nothing happens. Intellectuals keep their awards. Journalists keep raising awareness against the scourge of internet trolls. And activists demand FTII be saved.
Nothing to see in Shahjahanpur. A few months later, Dadri would go on to happen in “Modi’s India”. That’s when the cameras came, crying aloud for freedom.
Meanwhile the family of Jagendra tries to fight back, alone. They don’t get prime time television slot that may shake the conscience of the nation.
But the law had to take the case to its logical conclusion. Something had to be done about the complaint lodged by Jagendra Singh’s son.
Oh thank god! Jagendra Singh’s sons had earlier lodged a complaint against the minister. That was before they had a chat with their mother and discovered that his father had planned to threaten self-immolation all along. So nice of these two upright young sons to come forward and actually “demand a clean chit” for the minister.
Lest I am accused of not acknowledging good work by the Akhilesh government, let me also tell you that earlier the then state government announced 30 lakh rupees as compensation and two government jobs for the believed family. All of these just a day before media reports suggested a suicide angle. Kaam bolta hai, you see.
Who says that “ghor kaliyug” has come? It is moments like these that restore our faith in humanity.
Fortunately, the alleged sole eyewitness in the alleged murder of the alleged journalist (hope I have used “alleged” sufficiently many times) also remembered just in time that it was actually a self-immolation. What an awful misunderstanding that could have hurt the image of one very upright individual minister in the secular government of Akhilesh Yadav.
Here ends the story of Jagendra Singh. You won’t hear him telling his wild stories ever again. His Facebook page has not been updated since then.
His voice was not silenced. His freedom was not curbed. He did not need a press conference at the Press Club of India in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.