On the night of 10 May, Sunpreet Singh Mangat, a 35-year-old farmer and a former journalist, was found dead in Punjab, on a road connecting SBS Nagar district’s Rahon town to Ludhiana’s Machhiwara town. Sunpreet’s father, Balwant Singh, found his body and the Punjab Police registered a first-information report in the matter within a few hours. The FIR claimed that Balwant said that his son died in an “accident” from an “unknown vehicle” driven by an “unknown driver.” But Balwant, who said he found the body in a bloody condition after Sunpreet had died, denied this. He told me that the police kept trying to convince him that Sunpreet had died in an accident. The next day, a post-mortem revealed that Sunpreet was stabbed at least 13 times and five days later, the police added murder to the offences listed in the FIR.
The initial FIR was the first among many reasons for Sunpreet’s family to question the police investigation of the murder. In a press release dated 23 May, the police said it had nabbed six young men for murdering Sunpreet who confessed to the crime. The press release claimed that the assailants were armed and inebriated while travelling through the road, looking to rob someone at random. It said that the six men confessed that they stole a silver chain from Sunpreet.
But Balwant said that his son never wore such a chain. Sunpreet’s maternal cousin, who requested anonymity, said that it would be strange for intoxicated men to travel through a main road when a nationwide lockdown was in place to combat the novel coronavirus. The family said that even if the police had arrested the right culprits, it did not seem to have much evidence which could lead to their conviction—according to criminal procedure, a confession to the police is not admissible in court.
By several if not all indications, the police appeared to have investigated the murder with haste and without due diligence, according to the family. The family said that the police was unnecessarily highlighting cases in which Sunpreet had earlier been falsely implicated, which pertained to the transportation of poppy husk. They claimed that the police was trying to malign him to ease the pressure to solve the murder. The police also appeared to be ignoring that Sunpreet had pursued stories on illegal sand mining as a journalist, the family said—several people who knew of his work said that the police should probe whether it was connected to the murder. Due to these gaps in the investigation, Sunpreet’s maternal cousin said that the family would demand a high-level probe by an independent agency into the murder.
Sunpreet was the only breadwinner of his family, which comprised his parents, wife and two children. After the news of his death spread, his friends and journalists in SBS Nagar took to social media to mourn Sunpreet’s death. He was a “fearless” reporter, one of them said. Sunpreet’s maternal cousin, too, described him as a reporter “who rubbed many a people up the wrong way.” Two journalists who knew him told me that it was possible that he was murdered because of his sand-mining stories.
Although everyone I spoke to emphasised that Sunpreet was an honest journalist, he had been sent to prison twice. In April 2017, when he was working with the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, the Punjab Police had charged him under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 for his involvement in transporting 20 kilograms of poppy husk in Machhiwara. “He spent more than a month in jail before his bail,” the maternal cousin said. He was again booked under the NDPS in March 2019, for transporting seven kilograms of poppy husk, for which he spent another month in jail. Sunpreet’s family claimed that he was the only one to be arrested in both the cases, and that it indicated his innocence. Hiscousin said, “The investigations, it seems, started and ended at him.”
After his first stint in jail, Sunpreet quit journalism. A journalist from a Punjabi daily who knew Sunpreet said, “He stopped interacting with us”—referring to fellow journalists—“and just focused on farming. He redirected the same hard work towards his fields for three years.”