Journalist or spy: Did Rajeev Sharma really sell India’s defence secrets to China?

And what’s his relationship with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval?

WrittenBy:Basant Kumar
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On the night of September 14, the Delhi police’s Special Cell arrested Rajeev Sharma, a freelance journalist, for selling Indian defence secrets to China. He was booked under the Official Secrets Act and sent to the Tihar jail for custody. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.

Rajeev, 61, was returning from the National Media Centre in central Delhi when he was held by the police and taken to his house for a search. He lives with his wife Pratima Vyas, a Delhi University lecturer, in Pitampura. They have a son who lives in the United States. From Rajeev’s home, the police confiscated his cellphone, laptop, and an assortment of papers.

The news of his arrest, however, only broke five days later. Rajeev’s alleged accomplices – a Chinese woman and a Nepalese man – were arrested not long after.

“Based on inputs from intelligence agencies, journalist Rajeev Sharma was arrested from Delhi on September 14. Preliminary interrogation revealed that he was in contact with a Chinese spy agency and was giving them sensitive information related to defence,” Sanjiv Kumar Yadav, deputy commissioner of the Special Cell, told the media. “Acting on information obtained during the interrogation, we arrested a Chinese woman named King Shi and a Nepalese national named Sher Singh.”

Yadav added, “Rajeev Sharma has been a journalist for 40 years. Since 2010, he has worked as a freelancer, writing for the Chinese media organisation Global Times. In 2016, he met a Chinese intelligence agent named Michael via LinkedIn. From 2016 to 2018, he gave documents related to India’s security to Michael. In 2019, he came in contact with another Chinese intelligence officer named George, whom he gave information on the border tensions between India and China, the military’s postings, army procurement, and the government's preparedness. He got a significant sum of money for sharing the information through hawala and other means.”

Acquaintances astonished

The arrest of Rajeev, who has worked with UNI and the Tribune in the past, has shocked his friends and acquaintances. The nature of the accusations has made them cautious in airing their views publicly – most would speak to Newslaundry only on the condition of anonymity – but many doubted the police's story.

“I have known him for 10 years. We used to spend the whole day together working at the media centre. I know he wrote for many outlets on foreign affairs. The rest of the people used to write on computers at the media centre, but he would work on his phone. We would go together to the Press Club from the media centre in the evening. Not just me, everyone liked him because of his sense of humour. So, I was astonished when I heard of his arrest. If it was happening since 2016, then we might have sensed something, seen some change in him, but he was the same person,” a seasoned journalist told Newslaundry at the Press Club of India. “It would be hasty to pass judgement on the validity of the charges, but I never had such an inkling.”

A foreign affairs correspondent with a leading TV channel said, “I would bump into him regularly at the media centre. We used to ask him about issues that we were struggling with and he would patiently explain. We benefited from his knowledge of foreign affairs. He would come to the press conference of the external affairs ministry regularly until 2018. We don’t know why he stopped, although there were rumours he had been prohibited from attending. He never mentioned anything about it. He did come to the National Media Centre almost every day though.”

Asked how Rajeev might have obtained classified material, DCP Yadav said being an accredited journalist, he could gain “access” to central ministries, and meet officials formally and informally. He would get information from these officials and pass it on to the Chinese, Yadav added.

Commenting on this explanation from the police, the TV correspondent said, “I find it hard to believe that someone can meet officials in defence and foreign ministries using just a PIB card. If you have a PIB card you can go to the briefs of several ministries. But to go inside a ministry’s offices, you have to get a visiting pass. You have to inform in advance who you are going to meet there, and you go inside only after getting permission. Every gate has CCTV cameras, so it is not possible for anybody with a PIB card to just go inside and meet people. The key question is which document did he have and how did he get it?”

So, what information did Rajeev allegedly hand over to the Chinese? Yadav, the DCP, claimed it was “secret and sensitive” material, only to seemingly contradict himself. “Whatever information he sent is present on his social media and email, it’s being downloaded with the help of security agencies,” he added. “Once we get it, we will find out what information he shared and how.”

According to a report published in Hindustan on September 23, the police have asked the defence ministry and the Enforcement Directorate to help with the investigation into the documents recovered from Rajeev.

“The police are giving two opposite theories. On the one hand, they claim that Rajeev passed on sensitive information related to the defence ministry to the Chinese intelligence agency. On the other hand, they say whatever he has shared they will get it checked by investigative agencies. If you do not know whether the documents are sensitive or not, why are you telling the media he gave sensitive information to the Chinese?” questioned Rajeev Ranjan Nag, a journalist who has known Rajeev Sharma for 28 years. “It seems that the intention is to do a media trial. Another pertinent point is that you did a press conference after five days of the arrest and you still hadn't read or examined these documents. All this creates doubt. As far as I know, Rajeev Sharma is an exemplary journalist who has a great grasp on foreign affairs.”

The TV correspondent echoed this sentiment. “What documents Rajeev possessed is still not known. The police have only said the documents were sensitive. My experience tells me that no official would have given him such a document because they are inclined to pass on documents to a journalist who is an expert in the subject or who is employed by a reputed media organisation. In the last 10 years, he has not done a single report that might have troubled the government or been employed by any news organisation. Why would anyone give him such documents? The journalists who know him are raising many concerns, which can only be addressed when the police say which documents he shared with the Chinese and how those documents reached him.”

Rajeev’s counsel, Adish Aggarwala, said the police arrested the journalist on September 14, but a copy of the FIR was not shared with them or even the court until 11 days later. “A copy of the FIR has to be shared within 24 hours of the arrest but we and the court received it on September 25,” he added. “The police haven't found documents that could be categorised as sensitive. If this is the police's claim then they must tell us how the documents reached Rajeev? Who gave him those documents? A secret and sensitive document must have been shared by an official, it’s not like he could print it at home.”

Adish continued: “He was arrested on September 14, but the police shared this information with the public only on September 19. They claimed some documents were sent by him. What documents these were is not known yet. As for the money, well, he wrote for the Global Times and the South Asian Journal and he got remuneration for that. Even if there’s a problem with that, then the ED must investigate. Why is action being taken under the Official Secrets Act? All this is extremely suspicious.”

The Press Club of India, where Rajeev is a member, released a statement condemning his arrest. It noted that Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani and several other people were similarly accused of espionage in the past and even jailed, but the police could not prove the charges against them.

Asked for his views on Rajeev’s arrest, the Press Club’s president Anand Sahai told Newslaundry, “Whatever we had to say, we did in that press release. However, through you, we would like to repeat one thing: just like the Lok Sabha speaker is informed when a member of parliament is arrested or the bar council is notified when a lawyer is arrested, similarly, when a journalist is arrested, the police must notify the Press Club. This would ensure that the family of the journalist at least knows where they are and why they were arrested.”

Vivekananda Foundation link

Rajeev was associated with the Vivekananda Foundation, with his work featured on the rightwing think tank’s website. After news of his arrest broke, his profile page was taken down from the foundation's website. An article that Rajeev wrote for in 2010, headlined “Taliban targeting Sikhs and Hindu in Pakistan”, describes him as “a senior fellow and chief editor of Vivekananda International Foundation”.

Vivekananda Foundation was founded in late 2019 by Ajit Doval, now India’s National Security Advisor. Did Doval and Rajeev know each other?

In a report published by the Telegraph, the seasoned journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta claimed they did. Thakurta, who had interviewed Rajeev in November last year, said, “Sharma knew Ajit Doval very well, a fact he never hid. Did the NSA know about the activities of Rajeev Sharma is the logical question here.”

As Thakurta noted, Rajeev frequently boasted about his relationship with Ajit Doval. Newslaundry spoke to several journalists who knew Rajeev and they verified this. While some of them thought these were exaggerated claims, many believed them to be true.

“He would sometimes say he knew Ajit Doval. There was no doubt about his knowledge of foreign affairs but his good relations with Doval seemed like bragging to me,” said the TV correspondent. “If you had good relations, why didn’t you break a big news story? If you know someone powerful in the government, then you must have a lot of information. But it wasn’t so. People such as Suhasini Haider regularly put out news that makes the government uncomfortable. He never even published a planted story from Doval let alone any scoop about the government. I don’t know what to say about such relations, but he used to mention it frequently.”

Rajeev Ranjan Nag said, “There is no doubt he had good relations with Doval. They knew each other from before the Vivekananda Foundation. It appears they have been acquainted since when Doval was the Intelligence Bureau chief. They would meet even after Doval became NSA in 2014, Rajeev would tell us. He was well acquainted with not only Doval, but several officers in the external affairs ministry and used to attend their parties.”

Newslaundry contacted Rajeev’s wife to ask about her husband’s relationship with Doval and other questions related to the matter. She refused to speak with us. “Please speak to my attorney,” she said. “He knows everything.”

The attorney, Adish, said, “Yes, they were well acquainted with each other. Doval sir has been looking after security matters for a long time, all security agencies report to him. He would have known if Rajeev was doing something like this since 2016. The fact is that nothing like this happened and the police have made a hasty arrest. They prepared the confiscation records again on September 18. Why? They are supposed to be prepared when the arrest is made.”

Newslaundry contacted Doval’s office for comment on his relationship with Rajeev and the journalist’s arrest for espionage, but didn’t receive a response.

Telephone calls to DCP Yadav went unanswered, as did an email with a set of questions about the matter. This report will be updated if a response is received.

Book on Amit Shah

At the time of his arrest, Rajeev was writing a book on home minister Amit Shah. Parts of the manuscript were apparently among the documents confiscated by the police.

A fellow journalist suspected that this book could be the reason for Rajeev’s arrest, but Adish dismissed this. “The police arrested him without concrete proof. They just looked at the money coming from China and arrested him,” he said. “He used to write for a Chinese magazine and received payment from it. We have a strong case. Police haven't found anything substantial yet.”

A version of this report was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.


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