Reporter’s diary: Tripura government’s allergic reaction to journalism

The state used police to prevent the ‘negative’ word about the violence from getting out. To this end, journalists, civil society members and even locals faced intimidation, interrogations and arrests.

ByAyush Tiwari
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Reporter’s diary: Tripura government’s allergic reaction to journalism
Shambhavi Thakur
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Hurijala village is settled 60 km outside Agartala in Tripura. Nestled between sweeping rice fields and a verdant hillscape, it is home to 900 families, mostly Banglaphones, and a small market called Dargah Bazar.

I arrived in Hurijala on the evening of November 14. A day before, the ministry of home affairs had claimed that there had been “no reported case of damage to the structure of any masjid in Tripura in the recent past”. Media reports, however, claimed the opposite: a mosque near Dargah Bazar had been burnt down in the early hours of October 20.

On the ground, the reports turned out to be true.

The fire consumed the mosque and, as the FIR noted, “gutted” the structure and “all the articles fully burned”.

As I began interviewing locals, the police and CRPF personnel began trickling in. First came Mizanur Rahman, the station house officer of the Kakraban police station, followed by Dhruba Nath, the area’s sub divisional police officer, or SDPO.

The charred remains of the Dargah Bazar mosque in Gomati.

The charred remains of the Dargah Bazar mosque in Gomati.

Cops outside the Dargah bazar mosque in Hurijala on November 14.

Cops outside the Dargah bazar mosque in Hurijala on November 14.

“You’re the one from Delhi,” said Nath, somehow informed of my arrival.

I am, I replied.

“So, you’ve seen the situation?” he said. “It’s all peaceful here. It’s a mixed population and there is harmony.”

The SDPO told me the investigation was on but there had been no arrests so far. “There is no issue as such,” he said.

The SHO then opened a notebook and asked my name. I uneasily obliged, and he noted it down.

Nath then politely instructed me how I should report the incident.

“Give positive news,” he said. “Negative news is propagating and creating problems in other places. Some people are uploading videos that are badly misrepresented.”

To his credit, Nath then left me free to interview villagers. “Don’t go by my word,” he said. “Talk to them yourself.”

But when I met the individual I had singled out for an interview, a police officer dressed in plainclothes followed us to his home. He was here for some water, he said, and left only after I asked him to.

The individual’s account contradicted the entire gamut of claims made by the Tripura government, which called the structure a “prayer hall” and asserted that a copy of the Quran hadn’t burned in the fire. Tensions simmered in the village, he said, and Muslim leaders had to maintain the calm in the community.

My interviewee, a local, had prayed at the mosque six days a week for nearly two decades, and had grave doubts about the police investigation into the arson. But there was a problem: he was afraid to speak on record.

“If my name appears before these words,” he said, “there will be loss for us.”

I had little doubt about who he was referring to. I later learnt that locals who spoke to the media were summoned by senior police officers of Gomati district and grilled about their interviews. Some had to submit his phone to the police and sign obscure documents, coupled with threats of legal trouble.

That evening, Nath intercepted me again near the charred mosque. “Only positive, huh?” he said, exceeding his authority once again. “I don’t want the peace here to be spoilt by negative things.”

***

It was also on November 14 that HW News reporters Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha were booked by the police in Gomati for criminal conspiracy and breach of peace, among other charges. They were in Hurijala three days before me and had reported on the Dargah Bazar mosque.

Arrested in Assam on the midnight of November 15, Sakunia and Jha faced the most egregious form of police high-handedness. But they were not the first.

Delhi-based journalist Masihuzzama Ansari, working with India Tomorrow, reached Agartala on October 31. Over the next two days, he travelled to North Tripura’s Panisagar, the town worst affected by violence, and Hurijala in Gomati.

Masihuzzama Ansari, 31, a journalist with India Tomorrow.

Masihuzzama Ansari, 31, a journalist with India Tomorrow.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Ansari described how the police made groundwork difficult.

“When I would start interviewing victims and witnesses, police personnel would slowly surround us,” he alleged. “This had a detrimental effect: people would hesitate to open up and give their account. They would look at the policemen after every sentence or two.”

Another journalist, who was in Tripura in the last week of October, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claimed that a cop in Panisagar seemed to discourage Muslim residents from speaking on camera. “There was an instance where two locals had spoken to me and were ready to talk on camera,” the reporter recalled. “But a cop took them aside and whispered something. After that, both declined the interview.”

The journalist added that while he was on the field, the police questioned him about his story and wanted to know if the stories would be critical of the force.

“And it did not stop there,” he said. “They wanted all my details, even my father’s name. It was very odd.”

Ansari’s ordeal, however, began when he returned to Agartala. On the morning of November 3, as he was packing to take the 6.30 am train to Panisagar, four cops accosted him outside the Hajj House.

A two-hour interrogation ensued. “They asked me where I was going, who I accompanied and from where I belong,” Ansari told me. “They knew I had been to Panisagar and asked if I really needed to go there again.”

The cops told Ansari that a “saheb” wanted to see them at the West Agartala police station, and pointed to a police jeep. “They had been polite so far, but the moment I was asked to sit in the jeep, I felt nervous,” he said.

By the time the jeep screeched to a halt outside the police station, the Panisagar train had departed. It was Ansari’s last day in Agartala, and he’d return to Delhi without completing his interviews.

“I had to answer a volley of questions once again at the thana,” recalled Ansari, who has been reporting for four years. “There was a new set of police officers this time, led by one assistant sub-inspector, and none of them wore their badges.”

Ansari on the way to the police station inside a police jeep in Agartala.

Ansari on the way to the police station inside a police jeep in Agartala.

A picture taken by Ansari during his interrogation at the West Agartala police station.

A picture taken by Ansari during his interrogation at the West Agartala police station.

Noticing the police’s conduct, the 31-year-old journalist feared arrest. “They demanded to see my phone, which I offered,” he said. “I was made to sign a register, and then they asked me a creepy question: have you been to the Bangladesh border? I was constantly messaging my editors, fearing the worst.”

Ansari was eventually let go, dropped back at the Hajj House by 10 am. But the events of November 3 made him reflect on the weight of identity that a reporter carries.

“Even though the police seems to target reporters without accounting for who is Hindu or Muslim – Sakunia and Jha, for example – I realised that being a Muslim, ground reporting can be tricky,” he said. “Even when I was reporting in Lakhimpur two months ago, people would say that since I’m Muslim, I should take people along while reporting for my safety.”

***

The Tripura police’s high-handedness went beyond journalists. Civil society members – dubbed the “new frontiers of war” by national security advisor Ajit Doval – faced the wrath too. On November 3, it booked two advocates from Delhi, Ansar Indori and Mukesh, under section 13 of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, for their social media posts on the violence .

While the advocates haven’t faced arrest, four members of the Delhi-based Tahreek Fargoh-e-Islam, or TFI, weren’t so lucky.

Asif Raza Khan, Mohammad Qamargani Usmani, Ahsanul Haque and Mudassir Nadeem Divkar travelled to the northeastern state on November 2. In Panisagar, they interviewed the affected residents of Rowa Bazar village, where two shops were torched during a VHP rally on October 26.

The following day, the four were arrested by the local police. Ripon Hussain, a Rowa Bazar resident who met the four at the Panisagar thana later that day, recalled Usmani’s account: “He said that the police intercepted them on their way to Dharmanagar town. The cops said they were concerned about the four men’s safety in the town. So they had them turn their car around and brought them to Panisagar thana.”

Usmani said as much in a live stream on Facebook that evening.

On November 5, the Times of India reported that the TFI men made “false statements” and had been arrested preventively for “​​terrorising the situation and disturbing communal harmony”. This was attributed to an anonymous cop. They were charged under the UAPA and Tripura’s three beloved IPC sections – 120 (criminal conspiracy), 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 504 (intentional insult provoke breach of the peace), and also 503 (criminal intimidation).

The men were in custody two weeks later, when I met a senior police officer in North Tripura to inquire about their arrest.

“They went to the CRPF mosque and made unfounded claims,” the cop told me. “That it was burnt down and a copy of the Holy Quran burnt with it. That could have led to further tensions in Panisagar and we could not let that happen.”

Panisagar, a nagar panchayat in North Tripura.

Panisagar, a nagar panchayat in North Tripura.

Remains of shop at Rowa Bazar torched during a VHP rally.

Remains of shop at Rowa Bazar torched during a VHP rally.

Amir Hussain owns a shop in Rowa Bazar.

Amir Hussain owns a shop in Rowa Bazar.

Newslaundry has reported how an FIR filed in November 11 by the mosque’s committee member had alleged that “miscreants” had “burnt down many valuable articles” inside the religious structure.

The cop claimed that since the October violence, social tensions manifested in several ways: Hindus had stopped buying items from Muslims shops and vice versa; the clink of a falling fruit on a rooftop led to panicked callers complaining of stone-pelting.

The cop recalled his interaction with the TFI men. “They were men of social standing and we treated them very well,” he claimed. “They were apprehended with a notice – that they will face arrest if they failed to comply. But they got bad legal advice and did not budge. We had to arrest them.”

The police version did not correspond to reality. At Rowa Bazar, I asked residents about the TFI men, who had spent several hours at the village on November 3. Did they “disturb communal harmony” and “terrorise the situation”?

“They were very polite and wise,” said Ameeruddin, whose shop had been burned down during the violence. “Their advice was to not to do anything that would lead to further tensions.”

Amir Hussain, who had met the four men, corroborated this. “They told us that we should make sure that Hindus and Muslims should work together,” he said. “It is not what the police are making it out to be.”

But this repressive curtailment of liberty did not last long. After an unsuccessful bail hearing before North Tripura’s chief judicial magistrate on November 18 – who feared breach in “communal harmony” – the TFI members secured bail at the district sessions court on November 23.

In the bail order, the judge noted the prolonged period of their arrest and the weakness in the police's case. “On better scrutiny of the case diary it appears to this court that there is no specific allegation with regard to any overt act by the accused persons,” the order said, calling the allegations “omnibus”, and added: “Furthermore, there is no direct evidence against the accused persons with regard to commission of any of the offences as alleged.”

Also Read :
Will never come to Tripura to report, says journalist after mob attack
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