The Caravan contributor Mandeep Punia granted bail after more than two days in jail

The Delhi Police picked up Mandeep 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. In it, he said that a day earlier a group of fifty or sixty people attacked the protesters. Punia showed in his video that two of the assailants were associated with the BJP. Courtesy Leelashree Godara
02 February, 2021

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. 

In his Facebook live video—which became viral after his arrest—Punia had said that about 2,000 cops provided a “backup” to the group of fifty or sixty people who showed up at the site on 29 January. “I saw with my own eyes how the police lathi charged farmers, teargassed them.” He added later in the video, “It’s necessary to raise questions on the police’s role.”

The group of fifty–sixty people “even lobbed a petrol bomb on the farmers,” Punia said. “They tried to burn their blankets and mattresses, and also tried to burn the tent of the women protesters.” He named Pradeep Khatri Tholedar and Aman Dabas among the group of fifty or sixty people. Tholedar, Punia said, had identified himself as a BJP district convenor on Facebook. “He was stone pelting at the farmers yesterday,” Punia added. Dabas’s wife, Punia said, was a BJP municipal councillor. A picture of Dabas with the home minister Amit Shah is also circulating on social media. “I saw Aman Dabas pelting stones with my own eyes yesterday,” Punia said in the video.

Punia then said that the police dragged a Sikh farmer volunteer who had a kirpan in his hand, a Sikh dagger that is worn as one of the five distinguishing signs of the Sikh Khalsa. “In those videos, you will see that the stone pelters are also bashing him up.” He said that Pradeep Paliwal, the Alipur station house officer, while dragging the volunteer got hurt on his hand and that the SHO “handed him over to the mob.” He mentioned that he would be reaching out to Paliwal for his version of the events of 29 January, and add the police’s response to his report.

Punia added that he was dismayed by the media coverage of the events that unfolded that day. “Many reporters I know, whom we consider to be good journalists, they are also reporting the opposite thing,” he said. He mentioned that the Dainik Jagran had cropped the presence of the policemen standing behind the stone pelters in a photo with a news report on the events of that day.

After witnessing the violence on 29 January, Punia came to my house for the night. He narrated the entire episode and was sad about what he had witnessed. “Sacchai bahar aani chahiye, Prabhjit”—The truth should come out, Prabhjit—he told me. Punia kept working silently through the night, talking—whispering almost—to his sources, well after I had switched off the lights. Next morning, he rang up two senior police officers, including Jatinder Meena, the additional deputy commissioner of police Outer North Delhi, for a police response. Before we left for Singhu that day, Punia had posted his video on Facebook, around 10.30 am.

I was among the people trying to locate Punia the night of his detention. The policemen at Alipur station did not tell us Punia’s whereabouts. It was only the next morning that the investigation officer verbally told us that Punia was at the Samaypur Badli Police Station.

The next day, Punia’s lawyer and family had a tough time. “When he was being produced before the magistrate, a reasonable time is required to be given to the accused to have legal representation before the court,” Naved said. According to him, the concerned police officers informed Punia’s family and lawyers that he would be produced at 2 pm before the duty magistrate at Rohini court. But, he said, at 12.20 they were told that Punia has been taken to a Tihar jail court and was “to be produced as soon as they reach there, essentially deprived him of legal representation at the time of the hearing of the judicial remand application.” Several journalists protested against his arrest that day, using the hashtag “ReleaseMandeepPunia.” On 1 February, the Editors Guild of India too released a statement against his arrest.

Punia’s bail order, dated 2 February, said,

It is pertinent to mention here that the alleged scuffle incident of present case is of around 6.30 PM. However, the present FIR was registed at around 1.21 AM on the next day. Moreover, the complainant, victims and witnesses are police personnel only. Hence, there is no possibility that accused/ applicant can able to influence any of the police officials. Admittedly, the accused is a freelancer journalist. Moreso, no recovery is to be effected from the accused person and keeping the accused further in Judicial Custody would not serve any cogent purpose. It is well settled legal principle of law that “bail is a rule and jail is an exception.

Minutes after the order, his wife, Leelashree Godara, told me that while she feels good, this was a “half win.” She spoke of a list that was circulating on social media, comprising about 120 people who had been arrested during the farmers’ protests that included Punia’s name. “Other families must also be going through this,” she said. “Many of them must not even know where their children are. I feel very lucky that Mandeep had so many people’s corporation and because of everyone speaking together, we were able to get him out. But many are left.”