In Class 4, Niranjan Takle, the journalist who broke the Judge Loya story, wanted to become a lawyer.
This was because in 1971, the state government had acquired 16 acres of his family’s agricultural land, for development of low-cost housing projects, without due compensation. As the family waited for their due, Niranjan’s dream of owning a bicycle was also put on hold.
Back then, a municipal school student in Nashik, Maharashtra, Takle would spend part of his morning delivering newspapers. Recalling those days, Takle says, “My father owned a small newspaper and magazine stall. While I did not understand the depth or the social and political implications, I was attached to newspapers and magazines. I would deliver newspapers to our subscribers, and in order to sell them, I would shout out the biggest news at the bus stand.”
At such a young age, Takle hadn’t thought he would be an investigative journalist. Let alone dream of breaking a story that would make him unemployed for months on end—or a “political hot potato”, as he puts it.
On November 20, 2017, 51-year-old Niranjan Takle authored: “A family breaks its silence: Shocking details emerge in death of judge presiding over Sohrabuddin trial” for The Caravan. The story was about the death of special Central Bureau of Investigation court judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, who was hearing the 2005 fake encounter case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. Takle’s story raised disturbing questions about inconsistencies in the reported account of Loya’s death. In the 2005 case, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national president Amit Shah was the prime accused.
The next day, Takle wrote a second piece for The Caravan, headlined: “Chief Justice Mohit Shah made an offer of Rs 100 crore to my brother for a favourable judgment in the Sohrabuddin case: Late Judge Loya’s Sister”. While the first story broke down the events that led up to Loya’s death, the second piece established in detail—through testimonies of family members—the pressure Loya was facing while hearing the Sohrabuddin case. It also highlighted how the Supreme Court’s 2012 order was violated, and underlined how the news cycle was seemingly coordinated with to keep the judgement—the acquittal of Shah in the 2005 case—out of the media limelight.
Going back to the start
In 1985, Takle had enrolled in Pune University to pursue engineering. “Those times were pretty different. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, he was talking about science and technology. Sam Pitroda was heading Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) which was leading the telecom revolution. So everybody wanted to be an engineer. And even I got carried away. In the late 1980s, GDP was growing, it was above eight per cent, the highest ever. Still, the government lost due to Bofors.”
Takle and I are outside the Constitution Club, sweating in the Delhi heat. He was in Delhi to attend the Inclusive India Citizen’s Conclave, and also participate in a panel discussion on “Silencing The Media”, which was being chaired by The Caravan’s political editor Hartosh Singh Bal.
Finding no place to sit down, we head to the Club’s sprawling flight of stairs, only to be shooed away by security personnel. There are many people in that gathering of students, activists and journalists who want to speak to him, and he patiently engages with all of them. We finally sit down on the parapet outside the air-conditioned building to continue our conversation.
Takle describes the chronicle of events that brought him to journalism. “In big rallies, all these leaders used to say there is an account in Swiss bank, there will be an arrest in 15 days. An idea started creeping into my mind that this is all propaganda.” In 1994, Takle started his own company in Nashik. “It was a good experiment. The economy was growing very well.”
Despite this economic development, the government was defeated. “Because of Babri Masjid and the Harshad Mehta scam,” Takle says. “There was propaganda on news channels again. Propaganda was created to divide the society on religious lines. So I thought if it was all about propaganda and the media was going to lead it, why not be a part of it and do the right thing?”
From bureau chief to being unemployed
“I started a local cable news channel Vedh in 2000,” says Takle. “In 2005, I joined CNN-IBN. I remember on my first day, one of my stories was a launching one. It was about smuggling of placenta chords from government hospitals.” Initially employed as a stringer for a few months, Takle was subsequently hired as a correspondent. In 2008, he became Network 18’s Maharashtra (north) bureau chief. “But the news from Nashik was only about grapes, onions, kumbh mela and farmers’ suicides,” Takle says, adding, “I started feeling restricted to those news stories only.”
So Takle moved to Bombay to work for The Week. “I was there for seven years (2011-2017), I could do a lot of stories there, from culture to agriculture.” However, there was one story that he says The Week refused to run. It was this story that would make Takle unemployed, for at least eight months now.
Speaking of his resignation from The Week, Takle says, “I left because they refused to publish the Loya story.” This story was later published by The Caravan. Takle says The Week didn’t give him a reason for this editorial call. This was despite him being in possession of all the documents required to support his story. “I had the post-mortem report, the forensic analysis, histopathology report, viscera analysis report, letter written by Anuj Loya, diary pages by Anuradha Biyani—all the documents that were published later,” Takle says.
“So until they refuse [the story], it is their intellectual property. But after they refused it, it was no longer their intellectual property. It is mine now.” And so he resigned.
‘He doesn’t trust the media’
But that’s not all that kept Takle going. The reason behind his continuous search for a news organisation that would publish his story was a conversation he had with Anuj, Judge Loya’s son.
Takle knew the story he sought to make public was a very big matter. He understood the scale and gravity of what publishing the story would mean. He also knew that it was equally essential for someone from the Loya family to speak out.
In this effort, he went to meet Anuj Loya, who was living with his grandfather at that time in Pune.
“To start a conversation, I asked him, ‘what are you doing now?’ But his grandfather replied and said, ‘he is studying’. I asked again, ‘what are you studying?’ The grandfather replied again, ‘He is studying law’.” Takle sensed that something was going on.
Even to Takle’s subsequent question, the grandfather replied, instead of Anuj. “I asked him [grandfather], why isn’t he [Anuj] answering. I’ve been asking him so many questions. To which the grandfather said, ‘he doesn’t believe in any person, any institution in this world—not the judicial system, not the political system or the media’,” Takle says.
Then, Takle asked the grandfather the reason behind Anuj’s disbelief in the media. “After Brij’s death, he lost faith,” the grandfather said, and this disturbed Takle. “I was very shocked to hear this young man had lost all faith. I telephoned my daughter who is nearly the same age as Anuj. I asked her what I could do to restore his faith. And she told me that while I couldn’t do much about other aspects, I could restore his faith in the media.”
“And this has kept me going. Honestly, this is why I resigned after they refused my story,” Takle says.
But things were to become even more complicated after the story’s publication.
On November 27, 2017, a week after The Caravan published their first report on Judge Loya, The Indian Express published two reports: “CBI judge BH Loya’s death in 2014: Nothing suspicious, say two Bombay HC judges who were at hospital”, and “CBI judge Loya’s death in 2014: Can never get past grief, says family”. In these reports, The Indian Express disputed the Caravan story stating: “…crucial claims in the Caravan report … are not supported by evidence on the ground, including official records.”
The Caravan has stated that it stands by each of its stories. Following Supreme Court’s judgement on a batch of petitions seeking an independent probe into Judge Loya’s death, The Caravan Executive Editor Vinod Jose tweeted: “…Caravan magazine stands by each of its 22 stories.” Bal on numerous occasions called out The India Express‘ “journalistic sins“. On January 26, 2018, the Caravan also published a report, raising questions on The Indian Express‘ report. In one of its November 27, 2017, report, The Indian Express had, among other things, disputed the Caravan‘s claim that the ECG machine was not working. The Indian Express report was accompanied by a copy of the ECG report, dated November 30.
The Caravan‘s January 26 report stated: “The Indian Express, in an attempt to discredit the family’s concerns, published the chart of an ECG test purportedly carried out on Loya at Dande Hospital. The time and date on the chart indicated that the ECG test had been carried out on the morning of 30 November 2014, even though Loya died on the night intervening 30 November and 1 December.”
The Indian Express later published an “update” justifying the date on the ECG as a technical glitch.
However, according to documents submitted before the Supreme Court the ECG machine at Dande Hospital was not working, The Caravan reported, raising more questions.
Speaking about the repercussions of doing such a story, Takle says, “I am a political hot potato. No one wants to touch me now.” After eight months of breaking one of the biggest stories in 2018, Takle remains unemployed. He says he approached multiple organisations for jobs, but to no avail.
Organisations have approached Takle to freelance for them, but he says he wants a regular full-time job.
Meanwhile, his friends told him to take the precaution of not sticking to a particular routine, just in case. Don’t leave home at the same time, don’t go to a particular restaurant every day. Takle has also been on the receiving end of abuse on Facebook. He hasn’t accused anyone of any crime in the story, but “as is the case of any Right-wing organisation, they were claiming the blame.”
Relationship with The Caravan
After the initial two stories by Takle, The Caravan would go on to publish nearly 20 other stories related to Loya’s death. While some were under The Caravan’s byline, others were authored by Atul Dev, Anosh Malekar and Nikita Saxena, among others.
Newslaundry spoke to Bal to understand why the magazine ran a story that several others chose not to run.
Bal says, “In our case, the question with a story never is who this hurts, who it favours. Those are irrelevant questions for us. We run any story that comes to us—we look at it in terms of does it make a good story, have we done the work necessary to be done—and if it’s fine, we run it.”
Bal says, “People will not choose to run a story like this because they are afraid of the consequences in the context of who is in political power, who is not. In our case that is never a consideration.”
Bal mentions Niranjan’s characteristics that stood out to him over the course of their work together. He says, “You need a lot of courage to even attempt a story, when you don’t have an organisation backing you, as was the case with him for a period of time.” He says that courage is very rare in Indian journalists, adding, “To persist with it, when you have no outlet: that is even rarer.”
Bal praises Takle’s tenacity as an investigative journalist. “The very fact that he stayed with the story, going back to consistently follow up and in the aftermath, continued to cooperate as our young reporters—who have over three-four months put in an enormous amount of similar investigative, on-the-ground legwork—is a clear sign that somebody believes in what they’ve done.”
Despite this, Takle has no takers. “The very fact that he doesn’t have a job, that he is facing difficulties, is a perfect indication of why journalists don’t pursue such stories,” Bal says. “Everybody wants to admire such things from a distance, nobody actually wants to take the risks that go with such stories. It is not just the biggest story of the year, it is the biggest story of the Modi tenure.”
Would The Caravan hire Takle? “We would like [to hire] journalists of Niranjan’s seniority, not just Niranjan, but a host of journalists who cover a number of issues that we know need to be covered but we don’t have the resources.” He adds, “We would love it if people step in, if the public endorses this journalism. If the magazine has a greater circulation, that [hiring] would be one of the first things that we would do.”
While Takle has risked a lot to do justice to a story of such magnitude, in return, he has found little respite. Some of his journalist friends still do not talk to him. And unfortunately, there are no provisions for independent journalists provided under the Working Journalists Act.