Raising a flag against wrongdoing can be an invitation to disaster, especially in UP

Deathbed testimony Jagendra Singh, after suffering 60 percent burns, made a dying statement that should have led to the arrest of those he named. Photo: AFP

June was the month, 40 years ago, when all basic freedoms were suspended and the spirit of the Constitution violated. Since then, there has been a steady discount on human life — and a premium on commercial gain — through the land. Still, burning a person alive is a barbaric act hardly expected in this millennium. Yet this June, journalist Jagendra Singh was burnt alive in Uttar Pradesh, a state which has known no law and order worth the description for years on end. In Maharashtra, 40-yearold Sandeep Kothari, a journalist writing for Hindi dailies in Madhya Pradesh, was abducted and then burnt to death by three men linked to the illegal sand mining racket. The perpetrators were undoubtedly sending a message to others: Keep shut, or else…

Mining by private parties, a preserve of the public sector until liberalisation, has become an illegal plunder of natural resources over which the government has little control, as it takes place in dense forests or distant river banks. Or perhaps the mining mafia are hand-in glove with the local powers that be. Still, the trucks and tractors that carry the minerals can be intercepted when they move towards towns and cities. As they often are — with dire consequences not for the mafia but for honest officials. As Durga Shakti Nagpal, a 2010 batch IAS officer, discovered when she was suspended in the third year of her career for taking on the powerful sand mining mafia when she was the sub-divisional magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar.

Interestingly, though she was reinstated later, after a public outcry, she is now a marked person. Her husband Abhishek Singh, also an IAS  officer, was later suspended by the UP chief minister for allegedly treating a Dalit teacher in an ‘inhuman’ manner in Mathura district.

The ‘inhumanity’ in question (not yet established) apparently involved asking the 55-year-old teacher to do sit-ups. Then how humane is beating and burning a defenceless person?

Joint action by journalists protesting against atrocities on their colleagues only lead to a pretence of action, like ordering an inquiry. They do have trade unions, but these entities have been crushed, disarmed or they self-destructed in the last few decades as corporatisation took precedence over the ‘public service’ mantle. Nor have statutory bodies deemed it fit to sensitise the governments at the Centre and the crimeinfested states to do something tangible against the powerful goons and dons who function with impunity in the badlands.

Indeed, as senior journalists in Lucknow and in the national capital have surmised, there is absolutely no safety for media, especially at the grassroots level. It is actually a situation where politicians and the mafia they patronise are far too entrenched to be stopped in their tracks by district administrations, especially the police. Which, carrying the legacy of the colonial days, is still being treated as the handmaiden of elected leaders. And media companies are too much in thrall of the establishment to provide even elementary cover to those who are posted in the hinterland. For freelancers and stringers, the eternal Cinderellas of the fourth estate, life is very precarious, with neither financial nor physical security of the most basic kind. Of course, media persons are not the only ones who are being randomly targeted — RTI activists, bloggers and civil rights groups are being similarly brutalised.

The Press Council of India (PCI) traditionally has been an earnest watchdog but it does not seem to have the kind of teeth to really help reverse the macabre trend that is being witnessed throughout the country. Spirited men like former PCI Chairman Justice (RETD) Markandey Katju have been second to none in castigating the large-scale assault on the media, but unfortunately, such critiques have fallen on stone-deaf ears.

According to empirical details compiled by Reporters without Borders, more than 150 journalists were killed over the last two years; figures for 2015 are yet to be tabulated, but they are sure to be very dismal indeed. Exposed on all flanks and protected by practically nobody, mediapersons who are in the forefront of reporting crime find themselves at the receiving end of powerful forces. The message that goes after every such atrocity is loud and clear: If you are taking on the high and the mighty and exposing the shenanigans of goons of various descriptions, you should be prepared to do so at a grave risk to yourself.

The platform afforded by the social media does embolden people to speak up, or to re-post articles and videos that deserve a wider audience. Activists do find strength in the number of petitions and pleas that quickly spread across the world. But as we have seen in the case of Bangladesh, the outrage that increasing attacks on secular bloggers evoked has not probably had a deterrent effect on those who think dissent is a sin.

Be it the flashpoints in the Middle East or the countries of the sub-continent, there is a brutalisation that may eventually desensitise the public. It is sad that India, which never ceases to boast of its democratic freedoms, seems to be becoming a byword for violence and mayhem, of which attacks on media-persons constitute a significant part. If the Emergency meant a sustained assault on media organisations and jailing of specific mediapersons, the situation today seems a throwback to those days, with symptoms of fascist tendencies very much in evidence today.

Like rape victims in the interiors, reporters too have to depend on personal resources rather than society at large to afford them justice. Whisper campaigns are unleashed to destroy their reputations. Their vulnerability becomes an accepted fact. Big media marons are too blasé and complacent to stir themselves to go the extra mile, while the small and medium ones are hardly in any real position to provide for safety at a sustained level.

As for UP, from organised mafia to powerful politicians — and the two are not mutually exclusive — it suffers in the hands of a callous brotherhood. If the fourth estate is crippled, who will report on the plight of the common man or expose the loot that is leading to increased impoverishment of its multitudes? To even imagine or hope that these gory instances will shake the higher-ups out of their complacence is a pipedream.