Media Trial: How a Reporter Went to Cover a Story on a Beef Protest and Got Detained by the Delhi Police Instead

On 4 October 2015, a “BEEFY Picnic,” was organised in front of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office by Gaurav Jain, a student of Delhi University and an independent journalist, to voice his dissent—and that of others—against the recent and large-scale criminilisation of the possesion and consumption of beef. AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
07 October, 2015

Earlier this week, on 4 October, I reached the Windsor Place roundabout near the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at 11 Ashoka Road in Delhi at around 1 pm. I was there for a “BEEFY Picnic,” a protest of sorts, that had been organised in front of the BJP office by Gaurav Jain, a student of Delhi University and an independent journalist, to voice his dissent—and that of others—against the recent and large-scale criminilisation of the  possesion and consumption of beef. I had been following the Facebook event page since this “picnic” was announced on 3 October. The page was, among other things, littered with abuse and death threats that were directed at Jain from right-wing supporters.

I reached the venue, not expecting anything out of the ordinary. It would, I thought, follow the usual template for a protest: there would be some confrontation thrown in amidst the socialisation that would last a few hours, perhaps a few people would be detained, and finally, after an afternoon that was peppered with varying degrees of intensity, everyone would return home.  However, little about the area stood out as exceptional when I reached there; there were a few policemen and regular traffic. The entrance to Ashoka Road was completely barricaded. I assumed that the cyber threats had had their intended effect, and rode off towards Janpath.

This story may have turned out differently had I taken the metro that day, as Mayank Jain, a reporter with Scroll did. On 5 October, Mayank had published a story that detailed his ordeal with the Delhi police after a few officials harassed him under the assumption that he was a part of the protest. Yesterday, I spoke to him over the phone. Mayank confirmed that at around 1 pm on Sunday, the police had picked him, Gaurav and another person up from the metro station at Patel Chowk. During our conversation, he repeatedly stressed upon the fact that he was there only to cover the protest. Mayank also re-iterated that he was not carrying any beef, and had met neither Gaurav nor the other person with him before they ran into each other that day. He continued, “Now I know how brutal the state and the police can be, that too right in the heart of the city,” before adding, “I didn’t have to go to Dadri to find out—they did not give a shit about the fact that I was a reporter.”

A report by The Indian Express on the protest quoted Jatin Narwal, the deputy commissioner of police (DCP) in New Delhi, “We had a tip-off there was going to be a protest with beef outside the BJP office and a group was going to try and stop the protesters. We decided to stop and detain both [15 Hindu Sena activists who were there to retaliate against the protest were also detained according to the report] to prevent them from vitiating the atmosphere. All the persons detained were let off later in the day.” I tried to get in touch with Narwal but was unable to get a response from him despite numerous phone calls to his secretary and repeated visits to his office at Parliament street yesterday.

Naresh Fernandes, the editor of informed me over the phone that the news website had written a letter regarding the matter to the commissioner of Delhi police, and that a group of journalists was planning to issue a joint statement condemning the incident. I asked Fernandes whether he had experienced something like this as a reporter, and he laughed, “I was lathicharged on my first day on the job. It was during the Narmada Bachao protests in 1992, when the president of World Bank was staying at the Taj [the hotel in Mumbai]. Quite a few journalists were detained back then.” He concluded, “The bigger problem is the refusal to recognise a journalist doing his job, and refusing his credentials—you cannot pick people like this, not just journalists, but in general!”

Shekhar Gupta, the former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express agreed, “Reporters getting arrested, or the police tearing up their cards is a very common occurrence, although it has decreased over the years. Of course, it is reprehensible—it has happened to me across countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal—but if you look at the legal aspect, there is no protection for journalists or their sources, that is only established by convention.”

Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire stated, “It’s difficult to know how to tackle such a situation, because the police do not act reasonably. They are a law unto themselves, and the very fact that they can do this in Delhi shows a complete disregard for proper procedures. The reporter must make a choice between bravado, which can lead to physical harm among other things, or simply putting up with the harassment and the humiliation, knowing that he can write about it later. So I think [Mayank] did the right thing.”

Apar Gupta, a lawyer and author, confirmed to me over the phone that such occurrences were quite common, citing the protests over the gang-rape on 16 December 2012, as an instance. “The main problem is the absence of formal accreditation for journalists. You usually just have an ID [identity] card provided by the employer, while the PIB [Press Information Bureau] accreditation takes years. And there is no specific protection for journalists in such a situation, just like with the regular public.” When I asked him about whether there were any legal remedies available, he stated, “In the landmark case, Prakash Singh [and others] versus Union of India [and others, 2006] the Supreme Court, among other things, directed the police to appoint a police complaints authority for each district. However, most states have failed to comply, so there is no process. Another option is to initiate a departmental enquiry through the commissioner and the DCP of the area, which can lead to disciplinary proceedings against the offending policemen, including dismissal—but that is rare, because there is no third-party, and the police would obviously have an inherent systemic bias to save their own.”

At 1.30 pm yesterday, I finally came face to face with the station house officer (SHO) Dinesh Kumar at the Parliament street police station. Kumar had among other things said to Mayank, “Unse mat milo, kaat ke fenk dunga.—Don’t join them [the protestors]. I will cut you into pieces and throw them away.” I told Kumar that I was a reporter with Delhi Press, to which he replied, “Delhi Press ho ya India Press, main kisi se baat nahi karta, mujhe bilkul vishwaas nahi hai press pe—Be it Delhi press or India Press, I don’t talk to anyone. I have no faith in the press” Alluding to the newspaper reports about him, I told Kumar that I wanted to hear  his side of the story. He smiled, “Mujhe kisi ke side ki zaroorat nahi hai—I don’t need anyone’s side,” before adding, “There is no legal immunity—press hai to kya hua (So what if it’s the press)? We were just doing our duty.” Kumar concluded our conversation by saying, “Jao, ye sab bhi chhap do, mujhe koi darr nahi .—Go ahead and publish this if you want to, I am not scared.”