In the early hours of Thursday, July 16, Rajib Sarma, a correspondent with Assamese news channel Dy365, had unexpected visitors at his house in western Assam’s Gauripur.
At 2 am, a contingent of police personnel from the Dhubri police station, about 10 km away, knocked on Sarma’s door. A complaint had been filed against him by the divisional forest officer. Sarma requested that he be allowed to not leave his ailing father at this odd hour, being his father’s only support as his younger brother lives in Nagaon in central Assam. He asked if he could appear at the station the next morning.
An altercation ensued and soon after, Sarma was whisked away.
The action proved costly. Sarma’s father, Sudhin Sarma, already suffered from paralysis. After his son’s arrest, he had a cardiac arrest and was found dead in his bed the next morning. “He died of shock from what happened last night,” his arrested son outside a court that day.
Sarma was granted three days’ interim bail due to personal loss.
His arrest came a day after Dhubri divisional forest officer Biswajit Roy accused him of demanding money and verbally “misbehaving” with Roy’s wife.
The FIR against Sarma, and the backlash
According to Roy’s FIR, this took place on July 8. Sarma went to Roy’s official residence, the FIR claimed, demanding Rs 3 lakh in exchange for hushing up news reports on corruption in the forest department.
The FIR said: “He again told me that he could however manage to stop the news from being telecasted and for that he demanded Rupees One Lakh (1,00000 INR) for him and Rupees Two Lakh (2,00000 INR) for his higher ups of DY 365 channel in Guwahati (sic).”
Roy also alleged that Sarma “forcefully” took Rs 10,000 from him and warned him not to report the matter to the police or anyone else.
Sarma was booked under Sections 389, 384, 385, 354 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code. Charges include threat of extortion, criminal intimidation, and criminal force or outraging the modesty of a woman.
The arrest created an uproar. Journalists and politicians from the opposition parties condemned the move. The state unit president of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party led a delegation to meet chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal on Friday, registering its protest against Sarma’s arrest.
The backlash prompted the government to take action on Friday. Roy and police superintendent Yuvraj were transferred from Dhubri with immediate effect. Gyanendra Pratap Singh, the additional director general of the Assam police, visited Sharma at home on Friday and announced three separate inquiries into the matter.
Rounak Ali Hazarika, the deputy inspector general of the Assam police’s western range, told Newslaundry that an investigation into Roy’s allegations against Sarma will be carried out independently by the state’s Criminal Investigation Department, or CID.
“Moreover, the chief minister’s Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Cell will look into charges of corruption against the forest officer,” Hazarika said. In addition, a separate special investigation team, or SIT, will inquire into allegations of illegal syndicates and trade practices in Dhubri district in the past two years. Hazarika said the SIT will likely comprise officers from the police and forest departments, among other relevant bodies.
Hazarika said Sarma’s arrest in the middle of the night was an “unproportionately prompt” action. “I wrote this in my report as well,” he said. On Thursday, taking notice of the Dhubri police’s role in the case, Hazarika had transferred the case against Sarma to the jurisdiction of the neighbouring Bongaigaon district. On Friday, the police’s additional director general went a step further and handed it over to the CID in Guwahati.
False allegations, says Sarma
Is there any merit in the allegations against Rajib Sarma?
Sarma himself outright rejected them. He claimed that he was being targeted for reporting on Roy’s involvement with cattle and timber smugglers.
“I did go to his residence for a soundbite regarding the report, but that was four or five days ago,” Sarma told the media outside the court. “He offered me Rs 10,000 and requested [me] not to carry it. But I turned it down and left his house. This made him angry and he levelled the false allegation.”
More importantly, Sarma said, contrary to the claim in the FIR, Roy’s wife was not present at the time of the conversation at Roy’s house. The only other person in the house was Minhaz, a household help, he said.
“I urge chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal to order a CBI or CID inquiry against the officer to make things clear about his [Roy’s] nexus with the cattle and timber smuggling syndicates,” Sarma told the media. “Let there be an inquiry to find out if I have done any wrong here.”
Others refused to believe the charges too. Masood Zaman, a Dhubri-based lawyer, told Newslaundry that the manner of Sarma’s arrest raises questions on whether it was done vindictively. “I fail to understand what was the urgency to arrest him in the middle of the night,” Zaman said. “Is he a wanted terrorist to be dragged away like this?”
According to the 2014 Supreme Court judgement in Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar, Zaman said, the police is required to send a notice to the accused under Section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
“If the accused doesn’t respond, they may come to arrest him. But this procedure was not followed in Sarma’s case,” he said. He added that Sarma was not given a chance to present his side, and the police acted solely on the basis of Roy’s complaint.
Did Sarma’s reports precipitate the arrests?
Dhubri shares a porous international border with Bangladesh. Throughout the year, there is rampant smuggling of cattle from the Indian side through the border.
For the past few months, Sarma had filed occasional reports on the international cattle syndicate. On March 19, for example, that the police were aiding the syndicate by providing a smooth passage. Dy365 broadcast images of cows with numbers inscribed on their bodies, being pulled by ropes.
On July 13, showed dozens of cows huddled on boats, waiting to be ferried across the river to Bangladesh. Here too, Sarma questioned the role of the local police in facilitating the illegal cross-border trade. He mentioned two key figures in the racket: Reddy and Adam Ali.
According to Pranjit Saikia, the executive editor of Dy365, a week before his arrest, Sarma told several people that he had received threats to his life. “He mentioned two names: police superintendent Yuvraj and one Adam Ali, purportedly the mastermind of the cattle syndicate,” Saikia told Newslaundry. “Rajib said that if anything happened to his life, both would be responsible for it.”
Sarma had also reported on illegal timber smuggling in Dhubri. He had filed a report on this four days ago, and Saikia said it was odd that Roy filed a complaint right after.
Saikia also pointed out that Roy had filed his complaint on July 15, while the complaint claimed that the incident at Roy’s house took place on July 8. “Why would it take one week for someone to report any misbehaviour towards his wife?” he asked.
There have been frequent allegations of corruption against Roy. Locals claim his involvement in the illegal trade of timber, sand and stone, among others. In , Dy365 played an audio clip of a telephone conversation, where Roy allegedly demanded Rs 1 lakh from a student activist in nearby South Salmara. The activist had asked Roy to stop illegal timber mills from running in the area, to which Roy reportedly asked him to deposit an advance amount of Rs 1 lakh for “expenses of operation”.
On July 14, news channel Prag News carried a , stating that there are over 200 timber depots in Dhubri — far higher than the approved figure of 60 on paper. Prag News claimed that this was due to Roy, who allegedly collects up to Rs 30,000 per depot per month in exchange. The channel also claimed that Roy’s wife was involved in managing the scam.
Bijoy Sarma, the president of the Dhubri Press Club, told Newslaundry that Rajib Sarma’s arrest stands in stark contrast to the government’s oft-repeated slogan of “zero tolerance” against corruption.
Cattle smuggling and illegal timber depots cannot continue to operate unhindered without the support of police and forest officials, Bijoy said. “But instead of acting against the accused, the messenger has been punished. This is ridiculous.”
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