On 22 June, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the chief secretary of Lucknow regarding a complaint accusing the Uttar Pradesh administration of cracking down on a journalist for reporting unflattering news. On 26 March, Vijay Vineet and Manish Mishra, both journalists with the Hindi paper Jansandesh Times, published a report about the dire straits of villages in Varanasi district, where members of the Musahar community, a Dalit sub-caste, reside. In Koiripur village, Musahar children were compelled to eat seeds from wild grass to keep from starving, they reported.
The Musahar families in the village had been unable to procure food owing to the sudden announcement of the national lockdown. That same day, Vineet received a notice from Kaushal Raj Sharma, the district magistrate of Varanasi. In it, Sharma had termed the article “false,” adding that it was a “sickening attempt to stigmatise the Musahar families.” He demanded that the report be rescinded and that the newspaper issue an apology in the following day’s edition, adding that an inquiry would be launched if this was not done.
The next day, a human-rights activist named Lenin Raghuvanshi filed a complaint with the NHRC regarding Vineet’s case. Raghuvanshi said Sharma’s notice was a “threat” to journalists. “The administration’s attitude is such that no journalist or newspaper will publish ground realities,” the activist wrote. In its notice, the NHRC asked the chief secretary of Lucknow to take appropriate action on the issue in eight weeks, and to inform the body of its action.
The notice issued to Vineet and the editor of Jansandesh Times appears to fall into a pattern in Varanasi, where the UP administration and police, under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister Adityanath, has been acting against journalists publishing news that suggests any governance failures during the coronavirus lockdown. In mid June, the Uttar Pradesh police had registered a first information report against the journalist Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Scroll, for a report on the impact of the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Reporting from a village the prime minister Narendra Modi adopted in Varanasi—the constituency from which he was elected to the Lok Sabha—Sharma had found that its residents were struggling to find food during the lockdown. The police registered an FIR on the basis of a complaint by a resident whom Sharma had interviewed, who claimed that she had been misrepresented in the article. The FIR charged the journalist with, among other things, printing defamatory material and of offences under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
On 10 July, the Press Council of India released a statement taking “suo-motu cognizance regarding alleged targeting of journalists during the COVID-19 lockdown period in the State of Uttar Pradesh.” It noted that an FIR had been filed against four journalists in the state’s Bhadohi district, and also that a notice had been issued to Vineet for “reporting on issues that concerns the plights of people during the lockdown period.” The statement called for comments from the UP government.
In their report, Vineet and Mishra reported that Musahars in various Varanasi villages, including Koiripur, who were already in desperate circumstances, had been further marginalised during the lockdown. “In the Musahar settlements of Aurang, Puarikala, Ayer, Belwa, people are facing severe financial crisis. The stoves are not burning in their homes due to a lack of ration,” they wrote. The report also named Raghuvanshi. It quoted the activist as having said that Musahars in around a dozen villages in Varanasi were daily-wage workers in brick kilns, whose work had come to a standstill due to the threat of the coronavirus. The report also said that the activist’s attempts to procure food for the Musahars had been in vain, as security forces did not allow him to move around. “Let alone sanitisers and masks, the people in these villages don’t even have soap and water to wash their hands,” the report read. An image that Vineet and Mishra published with the report, of the children eating wild grass, circulated widely on social media.
“I have been a journalist for more than thirty years,” Vineet told me. “What I reported from Koiripur is true. The people there live hand to mouth. They don’t have any savings and if they don’t work for a day, they go hungry.” He said that he called the district magistrate’s office for comment, but had not heard back.
In his notice to Vineet, the district magistrate had claimed that upon the publication of the report, the administration immediately dispatched a committee comprising top officials from Pindra, the tehsil under which Koiripur fell, to conduct an inquiry. The notice claimed that these officials found that the seeds the children were eating were not wild grass, but “akhri dal,” or pulses. “This shows that the report you published is demonstrably false … it has been published in an attempt to spread misinformation among the public, which can be sensitive in the current time,” the notice said. It asked Vineet and the editor of Jansandesh Times to respond within 24 hours, or face an inquiry.
Sharma later posted a photograph of himself with his son on social media, in which he said the two were eating “akhri dal.” According to a subsequent news report published on the website Media Vigil, however, a professor at the Banaras Hindu University said that the dal was unfit for human consumption. “If eaten in large quantities by cattle, the akhri ‘dal’ can cause diarrhoea,” the report said.
Raghuvanshi wrote in his complaint to the NHRC that “police officials had gone to the basti and were intimidating the residents there.” In fact, “as a responsible citizen, the journalist had brought this issue to light, to help the administration, after which the rations and other essentials were made available to the Musahars of Koiriput,” he wrote. Looking at the approach of the administration, Raghuvanshi added, “It appears that it doesn’t want the truth from the ground to come out publicly.”
My calls to Sharma’s office went unanswered. An email and message sent to his number did not receive a response.
Another staffer of Jansadesh Times, Mohammed Irfan, said that he had been harassed while reporting in Varanasi. On 14 May, Irfan was reporting in the district’s Harua block, where a centre had been set up to screen the migrant workers returning to Varanasi. “When I was there, I saw that no social-distancing measures were being followed,” he said. “I took out my mobile and began taking photos.”
One of the guards working with the sub-divisional magistrate stopped him, Irfan said. “He began speaking to me rudely, and abusing me,” Irfan added. “When I said that I was a journalist, he said, ‘You wait and see.’” Subsequently, the SDM, A Manikandan, also arrived. The SDM is also among the district officials who conducted an inquiry into the Koiripur report. “He was not even wearing a mask,” Irfan said. “He checked my card and said, ‘This Jansandesh fellow, send him to jail.’” Irfan said that the district officials did not listen to him, and sent him to the nearby Baragaon police station. “A police officer deleted my phone’s photo gallery in front of me. They questioned me for two hours, and then charged me under Section 151,” Irfan said. Under the Code for Criminal Procedure, Section 151 relates to an arrest to prevent the occurrence of any cognisable offences. Irfan added that he had only secured bail on 12 June.
When I called Manikandan, he asked me to send my queries via a text message. When I sent him the queries, he asked me to check the Jansandesh edition dated 15 May. Upon finding no mention of his response, I called him again. He refused to answer my queries. I called the Baragaon police station. When I called the station, Ajit Kumar Singh, a sub inspector, said that he had recently been appointed to the station and had no information on Irfan’s case.