I told myself Tihar is my beat: Mandeep Punia on journalism, jail and reporting in prison

05 February 2021
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to The Caravan, was released from Tihar Jail in Delhi on the night of 3 February. The Delhi Police had picked up Punia on 30 January from the farmers’ protest at Singhu, between Haryana and Delhi. 

Earlier that day, he had posted a video on Facebook about a group that attacked the Singhu protest on 29 January. Punia reported seeing fifty–sixty people arrive at the site. He said in the video that the group pelted stones at the protesters, lobbed a petrol bomb and tried to set fire to their belongings, in front of thousands of policemen. Punia reported in the video that two of the assailants were associated with the BJP. Later that evening, he was arrested. The police filed a first-information report alleging that Punia had tried to pull a constable, Rajkumar. It characterised him as a protester, and not a journalist. 

Shahid Tantray, an assistant photo editor at The Caravan, interviewed Punia hours after his release. Punia said that the police beat him and told him, “You will tell who pelted stones on farmers, is it? Keep reporting.” The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Shahid Tantray: Can you narrate what all has happened in the past few days? 
Mandeep Punia: They must have dragged me around 7 pm—I don’t remember the exact time. I was going to cover the press conference by the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee [a prominent union at the protests]. I was close to the barricades [at Singhu]. 

Two or three policemen came, pulled me towards the barricades and said, “This is Mandeep Punia.” The other policemen began beating me with lathis. About 100 policemen gathered there and then shut me in a tent. Even in the tent, they beat me relentlessly. While beating me, they said, “You want to report, is it? Keep reporting, keep reporting … Become farmers’ well-wisher … You will tell who pelted stones on farmers, is it? Keep reporting.” They hurled filthy abuses at me, jo batane laayak nahi hai [which aren’t worth saying]. They rained batons at my legs. If you look at them, there are a lot of marks as well. 

I was made to sit in a vehicle, and they took me across the Yamuna once and across Wazirabad. They found out that the video has reached everywhere—people knew that I was dragged and beaten up. They got my medical examination done at Ambedkar Hospital at 1.40 am. 

After three police stations, I was taken to Samaypur Badli. They told me that I have been booked in different charges—misbehaving with the police, fighting with them, things like that. I wasn’t given the exact sections [of the Indian Penal Code].  

ST: The police’s narrative is that you attacked them and tried to go through the barricades they had put up. 
MP: More than 100 policemen were there. How can one attack 100 policemen? How can one person do it? 

ST: Did you try to speak to any officer at the tent when they were beating you? 
MP: Jatinder Singh Meena, [the additional deputy commissioner of police Outer North Delhi], had come there to talk then. I had told him, “We had spoken earlier in the day, sir. I was doing a story on that, I am a journalist.” He said yes. “Yes, you are a journalist. We will leave you, after medical aid.” But after that, he left and the whole thing was repeated.

ST: For how long did all this happen? Did they let you speak to your family? 
MP: They didn’t let me speak to my family that night. My family was with my journalist associates in the Alipur station. They thought that’s where I would be. [After news of Mandeep being picked up was released on social media, journalists and family members began a search for him. The first-information report against Punia was registered at the Alipur station.] Then in the morning, about 9 am, they reached the Samaypur Badli station. 

When they were beating me in the tent, I kept asking what was my crime. They kept saying again and again, “You want to report? Make a video? Come, we will make you do it.” A policeman was breaking my camera, and he was saying, “Issi mein hai na iska?” [This has it, right?] It had footage of those who were pelting stones at the farmers. They broke it. I have no idea where it is. I had a Samsung phone, they broke that. There was another phone that they broke.

They made me sit at a station in Wazirabad. Whoever would come near me, would taunt me, “Aur ban le reporter, aur kar le report”—Go be a reporter, go report. Some slapped me. They troubled me at the police station.

ST: Can you elaborate on how they troubled you?
MP: For instance, I was requesting them that “if you are arresting me, let me speak to my family for legal aid. Let me speak to them once at least.” They did not let me speak to anyone. They were saying strange things, again and again, that “What case should we book him under?” “Let’s book him under this case,” “Let’s book him under that case.” They would start laughing after saying this. They were trying to scare me completely.They were continuously saying such things—that they would implicate me in a rape case or in some other case. I was getting scared also about being booked in false cases.

I would tell them “I want to speak to my family members” or “I want to speak to my editors” or “let me speak to my editors then you do whatever you want to.” But they would keep laughing, saying, “You are gone, you will be gone for a while. You will rot in jail, then you speak to your editors and family members as much as you want.” 

Shahid Tantray is a multimedia reporter at The Caravan.

Keywords: press freedom Farmers' Protest
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