In the wee hours of December 9, 2018, 35-year-old Amit Topno, a community reporter working with Video Volunteers, was shot dead at point-blank range. The Khunti district resident had been working with Video Volunteers, an NGO that promotes community media, since 2012. He was also associated with a few Jharkhand-based news websites during the heyday of the Pathalgadi movement in the tribal district. Topno also used to drive a cab to make a living.
Topno’s body was found in Ranchi’s Doranda area by some locals, who also informed the police. His body was shifted to the mortuary thereafter. As per preliminary investigation, there were no signs of a scuffle. There are two neat bullet wounds—one on the shoulder and another on his head. Topno’s cab and mobile phone were not recovered from the crime scene.
“Prima facie, it appeared to be a premeditated murder by someone known to Amit Topno because there wasn’t any sign of resistance and assailants had ensured Topno’s death by shooting through his head,” says Ramesh Kumar Singh, officer-in-charge, Doranda police station.
A fortnight after Topno’s murder, the Ranchi police is clueless. “We were initially trying to locate his phone number which is missing and scanning his call details to ascertain with whom he was in touch on the fateful evening. However, since that line of investigation has not taken us anywhere, we are reviewing all the available information and searching for more clues,” says Aman Kumar, superintendent of police, Ranchi city.
Topno was the son of an ex-Army man and second among four siblings. He also served as gram pradhan of his village, Nichitpur, in Torpa block of Khunti district. For about a decade, he worked for the social and economic upliftment of people from his community. Khunti is one of the 15 scheduled areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution—where traditional gram sabhas have been given the power of self-governance, as further enshrined in the PESA Act, 1995. However, its implementation has been patchy at best, which was one of the root causes of the Pathalgadi agitation.
“Topno was one of our community reporters working from Khunti for the past eight years,” says Deepak Bara, the Jharkhand state coordinator for Video Volunteers. “Since he was well-read, widely travelled and an active member of the community, Topno covered controversial issues like human trafficking, illegal mining, tribal rights, right to education. Due to his efforts, the area around his village saw some development too. He was a vocal critic of corruption and the denial of constitutionally guaranteed rights to gram sabhas.”
Hailing from an impoverished background, with a widowed elder sister and ageing parents who were surviving on a paltry pension of his father, Topno took to work quite early in life.
Helped scribes report on Pathalgadi
During the Pathalgadi movement, Topno helped many local and outstation journalists understand the root cause of problems which initiated the conflict. In some cases, he also organised interviews with leaders of the Pathalgadi movement. With his help, a rare interview of Yusuf Purti—who was alleged by the authorities to be the kingpin of the Pathalgadi movement and the Kochang gangrape of five women activists—was conducted by Newscode, a Jharkhand-based news portal.
“Topno was instrumental in getting news from tribal hinterlands which had become inaccessible to reporters due to untrusting villagers and police action. We successfully managed to break many developments during heydays of the (Pathalgadi) movement due to exclusive inputs provided by Topno. We also made him an offer to join our news portal. He worked with us for some seven months from May 2018 till November 2018, when the website was shut down due to a fund crunch,” says Om Prakash, Newscode’s ex-Jharkhand bureau chief.
Some journalists who came in contact with him during the peak of Pathalgadi movement in Khunti feel that Topno, too, was somehow involved in the movement. “I first met Amit at the Governor House during a delegation-level meeting called by Governor Draupadi Murmu with gram pradhans of affected Khunti villages to defuse the situation. Amit came across as a well-read person with strong views about the non-implementation of PESA Act in tribal areas of Jharkhand,” says a Ranchi-based correspondent of a national daily, seeking anonymity. The journalist adds, “He was always up to date with information and shared a lot many inputs to the extent that sometimes I felt he was also involved. Topno also took many journalists to hubs of the Pathalgadi agitation but I refrained from going there.”
Kochang gangrape incident
According to colleagues who were close to Topno, he was working on unravelling the details of the June 2018 Kochang gangrape incident, which led to registration of police cases against Yusuf Purti and around 20 other leaders of the Pathalgadi movement. The incident allegedly helped the administration in diverting attention from Pathalgadi to the gangrape. This was followed with violent action taken by the Jharkhand police against villagers who supported the Pathalgadi movement.
Amit believed that the Kochang gangrape incident was a conspiracy devised by the government to divert attention from Pathalgadi, says Bara of Video Volunteers, who is also a documentary filmmaker. “We had been warning him since the past few months to stay alert. He was also working with the tribal community in their opposition against permanent police pickets established at their schools and community centres after Pathalgadi.”
Another journalist friend of Topno feared sharing information over the phone as he believes his phone is under surveillance. Instead, he invited this correspondent to an in-person meeting.
“All I can say is Topno was working on unravelling the unholy nexus between the opposition and the government over suppressing the truth of Kochang gangrape incident,” the scribe says. “All the parties are in collusion over suppressing the tribal voice in Khunti because of corporate interests in prospective mines in Khunti, and the fact that Khunti has the highest proportion of gair majarua (GM) land, compared to any district of Jharkhand,” the scribe adds, on conditions of anonymity.
Picture credit: Amit Topno’s Facebook
(Singh is a member of 101reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)