“Journalists are not there just for praising wearing blindfolds. Their job is to make news on public issues and seek answers from the government,” she tweeted in September 2019. She spoke up again in July this year, when a journalist was shot in Ghaziabad.
But in Chhattisgarh, where members of her party stand accused of attacking a group of journalists in a police station on September 26, Gandhi and the rest of the Congress top brass are yet to break their silence.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has incorrectly characterised the assault as a fight between rival groups of journalists, even as those attacked say they have been targeted for reporting the news and seeking answers from the government – precisely the sort of thing that Gandhi claims journalists ought to be doing.
The incident occurred at around 1.30 pm on September 26 when Satish Yadav, a journalist with a local Hindi newspaper Subah ka Prahari, was sitting at a tea stall in Kanker’s local market area not far from Kanker police station headed by inspector Moryadhwaj Deshmukh.
“I had been reporting on the corruption related to Kanker Nagar Palika for the last few months. Around 8-10 people came in an SUV there and began abusing me. This group included Jitendra Singh Thakur, who is the former president of Kanker Nagar Palika, Maqbool Khan who was the vice president of the Nagar Palika, Councillor Shadab Khan, and some others. They began beating and dragging me towards the police station. They took me inside the police station and beat me up in front of the police inspector and told him to lock me up,” Yadav told HuffPost India.
Yadav was publicly assaulted and dragged to the Kanker police station and as this news reached local journalists, many of them including Kamal Shukla, the editor of Bhumkal Samachar, reached the police station.
Shukla is a senior journalist and activist from Chhattisgarh who is based in Kanker. During the BJP’s rule in the state, Shukla had led an agitation demanding a law for the protection of journalists when the Raman Singh government incarnated many Chhattisgarh journalists and charged some under the draconian Chhattisgarh Security Act.
On Saturday, when Shukla reached the police station, a large crowd had also gathered outside the police station.
“We were around 15-20 journalists who had gathered in the police station. Gaffar Memon, who is the official representative of Congress’s Kanker MLA Shishupal Shori and Ganesh Tiwari, who calls himself a journalist, were also present in the police station when we reached there,” Shukla told HuffPost India. “As soon as they saw me, Ganesh Tiwari pointed at me and shouted that I am the real culprit and that I should be thrashed. Gaffar Memon was openly brandishing a gun inside the police station premise and was shouting that he would shoot me.”
Shukla claimed the inspector at the police station said he was powerless to save the journalists, and that the journalists should ask the Superintendent of Police for protection.
“The SP and collector had switched off their phones when some journalists tried to reach them. When I came out of the police station, the journalists present there were trying to escort me out but then I was dragged and assaulted,” Shukla said. “I was dragged on the street towards the old bus stop and assaulted by the crowd led by these Congress leaders.”
The video of the incident, which went viral on social media much to the embarrassment of the Baghel government, shows Shukla being dragged, his clothes being torn, and assaulted by Congress workers as a large crowd watches.
Tameshwar Sinha, another Kanker-based journalist, who was also present in the police station, said the mob led by Congress attacked those who tried to protect Shukla.
“I had also been reporting against the ruling party’s leaders, sand mafia, and local government officials’ scams in the last few weeks,” Shukla said, explaining why he felt he was attacked. “Kanker is witnessing a huge amount of sand being illegally transported but the district Superintendent of Police and the Collector have turned a blind eye to it. They even switch off their phones during the night which makes it impossible for journalists to inform them about any illegality.”
The Congress and the Kanker police have sought to portray the incident as a fracas between rival groups of journalists.
A press statement issued by Kanker police after the incident claimed there was a scuffle between Shukla and Dainik Srambindu’s Associate Editor Ganesh Tiwari and his associates Jitendra Singh Thakur, Maqbool Khan, Gaffar Memon due to some personal rivalry.
“There was a scuffle between two groups,” Kanker Superintendent of Police M.R. Ahire told HuffPost India when asked about the attack on Shukla and other journalists.
“We will take all the required action in this case,” Ahire said when asked about the involvement of people associated with the ruling party of Chhattisgarh.
The police press note claims Ganesh Tiwari is a journalist with little known publications Shrambindu and Amar Stambh; but his Facebook profile cover photos show him along with Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel and wearing a Congress scarf. Ganesh Tiwari’s Facebook profile also claims that he is the spokesperson and national secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Baghel condemned the incident, but claimed journalists were safer now than under the previous regime.”
“This incident is condemnable. It should not have happened. If it has happened we will take strict action,” Baghel said in a press conference. “But can you not see the difference between the previous government’s tenure and our government’s?”
Congress spokesperson Shailesh Nitin Trivedi sought to distance his party members from the incident, claiming that Congress workers spotted in the viral video was “trying to mediate” between those involved in the fight.
Shukla, on his part, was adamant that the ruling Congress was behind the assault. Shukla said his mobile phone was snatched in the struggle, and his phone had a lot of incriminating material on a cabinet-ranked member of the state congress. HuffPost India has not reviewed this material.
All the accused named by Shukla were arrested and let off on Saturday evening.
“They basically wanted to lynch me and they can do it even now. There has been nominal action against all of them. I was bleeding after the attack but they were all booked under extremely normal sections,” Shukla said.
Tiwari and Thakur have also filed a counter-complaint against Shukla and Yadav.