On 2 February 2021, a Rohini district court in Delhi granted bail to Mandeep Punia, a fellow journalist who regularly contributes to The Caravan. The Delhi Police picked up Punia on 30 January from the farmers’ protest venue at the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi, hours after he posted a 15-minute long video on Facebook narrating what he witnessed on the site a day earlier. Punia said he was at the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee’s stage at the border when fifty or sixty people with national flags arrived at the spot. In the presence of thousands of policemen, he said, the group pelted stones at the protesters, threw a petrol bomb at them and tried to set fire to their belongings. Punia showed in his video, a Facebook live, that two of the assailants were associated with the BJP.
That evening, the police detained Punia along with another journalist, Dharmendra Singh. A video of the moment he was detained, which circulated on social media, shows the police violently manhandling Punia. For hours after this, it remained unclear where the police had taken him and on what grounds. The next day, the Alipur police station registered a first-information report against him under four sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those on obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions and assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty. The FIR characterised him as a protester, and not a journalist. It alleged that Punia had tried to pull a constable, Rajkumar, near the barricades.
Though Punia was produced in court on 31 January, his lawyer, Sarim Naved told me he was not given accurate details about the hearing. “We were told that he would be produced before the duty magistrate in Rohini court at 2 pm, but suddenly they took him away to the Tihar Jail courtroom and produced him there at 1 pm,” Naved said. Punia was produced before a metropolitan magistrate, Akhil Malik, at the Tihar jail court room, and sent to 14 days of judicial custody. Naved said they filed a bail application for Punia that day.
Singh, a journalist with the YouTube channel Online News India, released a video on 1 February narrating a blow-by-blow account of his and Punia’s detainment on 30 January. That evening, Singh said, some people told him that some labourers and security officials were arguing at the barricades as the former wanted to cross over during which the officials verbally abused the labourers. He said he took out his phone to record testimonies of people present at the scene and also asked a jawan who was standing there about the allegation. “I don’t know what issue the security officials had with my question, but they asked to pull me in,” he said in the video. Singh added that he then showed them his press card and said, “I am just asking questions.” But still, he said, the officials pulled him in.
During all this, he said, Punia was standing somewhere behind him. “I want to thank Mandeep for this—he said, ‘How can you do this with a media person?’ Raising this point, he came ahead. Then whatever you saw in the video happened to him,” Singh said. “But the point is, it was a normal question. There was no operation that the police was doing that we could not cover it.”
Singh said that the two journalists were taken to a tent. “They broke my cell phone through which I was recording and confiscated another phone that I had and got it formatted,” he said. Singh added that some policemen then came and expressed their regret saying, “Whatever happened to you, should not have happened.” He said the journalists thought that they would be let go. But the journalists were then taken to the Samaypur Badli police station, where Punia was separated from Singh. It is pertinent to note that the Samaypur Badli police station does not exercise jurisdiction over the Singhu border where the journalists were picked up from. Singh was released in the early hours of 31 January and the phone which had been formatted was returned to him. “The question is why did all this happen?” Singh said.