“PAAJI, YOUR KIDS go to which school?”
I had been talking for about twenty minutes at the Barista in Chandigarh’s Sector 17 to a man who identified himself as Ranbir. I immediately understood the question to be a polite threat. Ranbir had earlier refused to come to my office at the Hindustan Times, where I then worked, and insisted on meeting at the café for the sake of his “anonymity as an informer.” He soon became more direct: “Our request is that you stop writing on illegal sand mining in Pathankot.” He was referring to what is broadly known as the mining mafia. He assured me that “they” would have “no objections” if I chose to continue writing about illegal sand mining in other places.
After the encounter with Ranbir, I went to the office of Sushminder Singh, the state geologist of Punjab. I was meeting Singh to inquire about the legal quarries for sand and gravel auctioned across the state. In the middle of this interview, two muscular men barged into the room and sat on either side of my chair. They began interrogating me about my work on the mining issue. The geologist, who seemed friendly with them, did nothing to remove them from his office or try and intervene to neutralise the situation.
By mid October in 2013, when these meetings took place, I had extensively reported on the illegal mining of the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers, and the Shivalik Hills adjoining Himachal Pradesh. That year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had also constituted a special-investigation team with the express purpose of identifying the mining mafia assisting in the large-scale plunder. Threats and intimidation come with the territory, but sometimes there are fatal consequences. The query about my kids’ school had put me on alert.
One of my colleagues, Jasdeep Singh Malhotra, had died “an accidental death” a month before. The fatal incident took place just a day after his story on extortion—known as “royalty” or “goonda tax”—in Pathankot’s mining business made it to the front page of the Hindustan Times. Malhotra had reported that although mining had been banned in the district since July that year, the mafia had somehow managed to collect tax up to Rs 20 lakh per day. The next day, a lorry reportedly hit the vehicle he was travelling in on the Pathankot–Jalandhar highway. He was on his way to do a follow-up story. He had hitched a ride with a senior police official from Pathankot. The senior superintendent, who also sustained a spinal injury, described the incident as nothing more than a road accident. But it had unnerved us all.