Did Delhi Police forge, intimidate, and strong-arm the 17-year-old Muslim fortnightly newspaper into shutting shop?
Zafarul-Islam Khan sits in his squeaky office chair, surrounded by a cluster of towering files and stacks of printed documents. There’s an old-school vibe to his office located on the ground floor of his home in Jamia Nagar. The walls are hung with trophies awarded to The Milli Gazette—a weekly newspaper dedicated to echoing stories to and from India’s 200 million-strong Muslim community of which Khan was the editor.
Holding a prime spot is a green soft board on the wall behind his chair. Out of the various clippings pinned on it, one stands out: an edition of The Milli Gazette in its entirety with the front page proudly displayed. The headline reads “‘We don’t recruit Muslims’: AYUSH Ministry”.
Khan in his office.
The report—which was published in March 2016—is about how the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) had a bias of hiring candidates belonging to only certain castes. It was picked up by mainstream media channels and newspapers at the time. It’s this report that snowballed into a three-year-long battle between the Delhi Police, Khan and his publication. It’s a battle that involves an allegedly forged complaint letter, intimidation techniques, the paradoxical arrest of a reporter and the purposefully delayed proof that was directed to be furnished by higher authorities—all of which culminated into The Milli Gazette shutting shop at the end of 2016.
This is their tale.
“The story of AYUSH ministry not hiring Muslims as a policy was brought to us by a reporter named Pushp Sharma,” says Khan, pointing towards the article pinned on the soft board. “He showed me the RTI reply in which it says that the ministry hasn’t recruited any Muslims as a matter of policy.”
Khan did his own due diligence—he filed RTI queries as received replies that corroborated what the reporter had received. The story was published in The Milli Gazette on March 16, 2016. It should be noted that the RTI filed by Pushp Sharma created a controversy when the story came out, and its veracity was under scrutiny.
Pushback while publishing anti-establishment stories on the inner workings of government ministries isn’t unanticipated or unprecedented. Within 24 hours of publishing the story, the AYUSH ministry didn’t issue a statement or send a rejoinder which the newspaper asked them to do. Instead, the ministry sent a letter to the Kotla Mubarakpur police station asking for a case to be filed against Milli Gazette and its reporter.
Khan says: “At once, the police station sent around a dozen policemen to pick up the reporter Pushp Sharma. He was brought to Kotla Mubarakpur police station where he was detained for the next three to four days. All the time they were interrogating him and did not officially arrest him. In the meantime, we too lawyered up and made some noise about the injustice that was being done.”
Pushp was released—only to be officially arrested from his home in Lajpat Nagar days later. “They (police authorities) raided his house and took his laptop, CDs, etc., and alleged that he had published a fabricated report. Pushp was arrested and sent to Tihar Jail for two weeks and his laptop was sent to the forensics lab. We managed to secure his bail after two weeks.”
As of today, Pushp’s whereabouts are unknown, even though the case against him still continues in a Saket court. “The forensics lab had reported that there was no trace of any fabrication in his laptop and they had given him a clean chit,” says Khan.
On May 30, 2016, The Milli Gazette was issued a show-cause notice by the office of the Joint Commissioner of Police (Licensing Unit). It stated that a complaint had been made by “one Shri Pushp Sharma” against the owner/publisher/editor of Milli Gazette regarding publishing “misinformation that the government has purposefully denied the requirement to members of a particular community of the society”. The notice stated that Milli Gazette had violated Section 8B (i) of the Press and Registration of Books Act,1867, and called upon the paper to “show cause as to why the authentication of declaration of Milli Gazette newspaper … should not be cancelled.”
The first show-cause notice issued to Milli Gazette which cites Pushp Sharma as the complainant.
The notice directed Khan and his publication to furnish a reply within the next 15 days, failing which “it will be decided that you have nothing to say in the matter and the case will be decided on its merit”.
Khan was stumped when he received the notice. “It is a fabrication that Pushp Sharma has complained against Milli Gazette. We have got a sworn affidavit from him that he never filed such a complaint. I sent a reply back to the police on June 7, 2016, asking for a copy of the complaint so that I could formally reply to it—but none was given.”
Khan went on to file an RTI asking for the same details. “The RTI reply I received said that since I was a third party, this detail could not be given to me. I wrote back and said that I’m either the first party or second party in this situation, yet a copy and details of the complaint was not provided to me. I then sent an appeal to a higher authority in the same office, but this too did not yield any result. Till date, I have not seen this so-called complaint letter.”
The police authorities took their time and wrote back to Khan after receiving his reply. They sent him documents and a copy of the FIR to peruse through—but not a copy of the complaint. “What they did was send me a bunch of papers but no copy of the complaint. I think the complaint does not exist,” says Khan.
On October 12, 2016, Khan wrote to them again. “You have sent me a copy of the FIR No. 0225/16 dated 15/3/2016 registered at PS Kotla Mubarakpur. But this is totally irrelevant and wastage of your and my time … In your original show-cause notice dated May 30, 2016, you have mentioned a certain gentleman as having complained against our newspaper. It is in this specific context that I requested you in my previous letter to furnish the following details in order to enable me to reply to your show cause notice: 1) A copy of the complaint against us on whose basis you have taken the said action and 2) a copy of the grounds in your view to issue a notice to us under Rule 8(B) of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867.”
His letter concluded: “Please provide us with copies of the above two documents to enable us to furnish a detailed and pointwise clarification regarding the allegations made against our newspaper.”
During this back and forth, Khan was also called upon by the Press Council of India. “We received a notice asking about the details of the story and its background,” he says. “Once again we engaged a lawyer and replied to them. They then called us for about three to four hearings between 2016-17 and dismissed the case at the end.”
According to him, there was some harassment here too. “In the third hearing, the chief of PCI said they were trying to help us. But what was actually going on was that some members of PCI —who were aggressive during the hearings—were saying: why should action only be taken only against the reporter and not the editor? I don’t know how much the chairman of the council was influenced by this but at the end, the case was dismissed.”
Meanwhile, Milli Gazette stopped its print publication in 2016, retaining only its digital version. Khan says this “fiasco” was definitely a contributing factor, coupled with financial troubles
Khan then approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) with the matter. “They took their time. After about a year, we received a notice for a hearing. The first hearing took place at the CIC office in front of JNU on July 4, 2018, for which the Delhi Police and their lawyers were present.”
According to him, the CIC commissioner was “very harsh” on the police party and ordered them to furnish Khan with a copy of the complaint. The commissioner further said the police authorities could not sit on this information for so long—especially since the show-cause notice was still pending.
Despite this, Khan was not sent any documents regarding the initial complaint supposedly lodged by “Pushp Sharma”. “I once again wrote to CIC about how the police had not abided by the CIC’s direction, both in terms of the time limit set with their order, and in terms of action, by having not given me the paper that was required.”
Subsequently, Khan received a phone call from the authorities asking him to present himself before them. He refused, stating that he wasn’t a criminal. “They then sent me a formal notice dated October 9, 2018, to come and meet on October 12, 2018, in regards with the show-cause notice issued back in April 2016 regarding the cancellation of Milli Gazette newspaper. But I received this letter only on October 23, 2018.”
Khan received the letter on October 23, 2018, to present himself before the authorities on October 12, 2018.
Khan wrote back to the authorities the day after receiving their summoning letter: “I received your above-mentioned letter dated 9/10/2018 on 23/10/2018. In this letter, you have called me to attend your office on 12/10/2018 at 4 PM sharp regarding a show cause notice issued to me on 30/5/2016. This means that your letter reached me a full 11 days after the appointed date for attending your office.”
Khan also did a little bit of research to find out when the police had actually posted the summoning letter. He wrote: “Since your letter was sent via Speed Post … I logged on to indianpost.giv.in to access the tracking record of this letter. To my astonishment, the tracking record showed that the said letter was booked at Lajpat Nagar South Delhi SO at 14:31 on October 17, 2018, and arrived at New Friends Colony SO on October 18, 2018. This means that the said letter was posted by your office a full eight days after the despatch date mentioned in your above-mentioned letter and a full five days after the date on which I was supposed to attend your office.”
Once again, the authorities wrote back to Khan and asked him to come to their office on January 7, 2019. “I was made to sit in their waiting lounge for an entire hour, for my meeting with Mr Prabhakar, who is the Joint Commissioner of Police (Licensing Unit). After an hour, I went to the clerk sitting outside his office and told him I cannot wait anymore. At that moment, Mr Prabhakar came out of his office and inquired what was going on. I told him that I was asked to come and meet him and have been waiting since the past hour to do so.”
Prabhakar took Khan into his office and asked him about the issue. Khan explained that since publishing the news story, he had gathered information through an RTI which proved that what Milli Gazette published was not incorrect. “He asked about what happens when such a thing is published, to which I said that the individual or organisation which thinks that something wrong has been published about him/it writes a letter to us and we publish it. If we do, the matter ends there and if we refuse, the concerned party can seek other remedies. I told him that I had asked AYUSH ministry to send us its version but it never did. instead, it asked the police to take action.”
Khan says the meeting concluded shortly after this.
Finally, the Joint Commissioner of Police withdrew its three-year-old show-cause notice to the newspaper in an order dated January 25, 2019—long after the publication had shut down its fortnightly print edition and moved to a basic online structure.
It stated: “Whereas, it has been satisfactorily explained before the undersigned that you are ready to publish the rejoinder of the aggrieved party even though the aggrieved party did not request for the rejoinder or clarification so far as per record.” It concluded: “Therefore, I, Prabhakar, Joint Commissioner of Police, Licensing Unit, New Delhi, taking in consideration of all the above-discussed facts in view, hereby vacate the Show Cause notice issued to you.”
Delhi Police vacated the show-cause notice against Milli Gazette last month
However, the case against Pushp Sharma is still pending. The complaint letter lodged by “Pushp Sharma” has still not been seen by Khan. “It is not fair to try and suppress freedom of speech,” says Khan. “If they (AYUSH ministry) were equitable, they could have sent me a rejoinder and I was always ready to publish that. I had told them (the ministry) this through various emails but they never responded or even contacted us. They only contacted us through the police.”
Khan says Milli Gazette has been around in print for 17 years but now exists only as an online publication. “We stopped printing at the end of 2016. This fiasco was one of the reasons, apart from every day and ever-building financial crunch. The newspaper has always been very forthright in opposing RSS/BJP policies and very clear in writing about the so-called terror campaigns that have Muslims at the centre of it. These are fictitious and 98 per cent of such cases are fabricated. We have been saying this with proof and not just rhetoric. Our stance was not liked by the higher powers so they found this as a good handle to beat us with.”
Khan says he still stands by his publication’s story. “I myself had later sent RTI queries to AYUSH ministry and the replies were almost the same as Pushp Sharma’s. They weren’t 100 per cent same but they confirmed almost the same thing that the story said about the ministry’s pattern of recruitment and the kind of staff they house. There was just one person who was a Muslim and another computer operator who was Muslim in the ministry. I did not publish this information but these confirm that the RTI Pushp Sharma had brought to us was correct.”
With the three-year-long battle finally at an end, The Milli Gazette is still carrying out its journalistic responsibilities for the Muslim community—but is restricted to an ever-diminishing online presence. “I feel sorry that the media fraternity did not stand with us. The entire story was reported in sporadic bits and pieces. It was a big story and we were a newspaper with long standing. It was the only newspaper that was speaking for Muslims.”
When asked whether the tone of the newspaper was anti-government, Khan says: “We aren’t-anti-Modi or anything but if there was any injustice being done, we were speaking against that. During the Congress rule, we were speaking out against their policies and half-hearted attitude towards our community. We were anti-establishment, yes, just the way any righteous media organisation will be against the establishment. Now, the paper is closed and the publication runs only online, so ideally, the entire story should have been told earlier.”
Newslaundry has reached out to the Joint Commissioner of Police (Licensing Unit) for comment. It will be added once we receive it.