Ramgarh (Jharkhand): On 17 July, a 10-member police team from Saraikela Kharsawan district on the eastern border of Jharkhand arrested independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh, 37, from his residence in neighbouring Ramgarh district, claiming he had links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (Maoist).
The arrest warrant was issued by the sub-divisional judicial magistrate, Saraikela. It said Singh was arrested in connection with a first information report (FIR) registered at the Kandra police station of Saraikela Kharsawan.
The FIR had been registered on 13 November 2021, after alleged Maoist leaders Prashant Bose, Sheela Marandi and four others were arrested by Jharkhand police from a toll plaza.
An upper-caste Rajput from neighbouring Bihar who was moved by and involved in issues concerning India’s most disadvantaged community, its 110 million Adivasis or tribals, Singh was not among those originally accused in the case.
Like Bose, Marandi and the other named accused, he was, three months later, charged under six sections of three laws.
The charges: sections 10 (penalty for being a member of an unlawful association) and 13 (unlawful activities) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967; sections 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 467 (forgery of valuable security, will, etc) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860; and section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908.
A tall, sturdily built man who smoked Gold Flake cigarettes, smiled often and was deeply moved by injustices on Adivasis, lower castes, workers, women and other marginalised groups, Singh was the latest journalist to be arrested in a democracy where media freedom is widely regarded as being under siege.
In recent years, independent voices in Indian media have been gradually choked, with criminal cases (here, here and here), pressure to self-censor and instances of top editors resigning or fired (here, here and here) over disagreements on such censorship by owners.
The Reporters Without Borders’ global Press Freedom Index listed India at 150th out of 180 countries in 2022, behind countries such as South Sudan, Nigeria and Guatemala, and lower than the country’s ranking of 142 in 2021 and 2020. The RSF note alongside the latest ranking said “violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis” in India.
Singh’s arrest appeared to follow the Kashmir pattern of action against journalists, as Article 14 has reported (here and here): file an FIR or deliver warnings in some other fashion; launch punitive action if the journalist does not back off or otherwise cooperate with the police, as in the case of The Kashmir Wallah editor Fahad Shah and independent journalist Sajad Gul, both now in jail for over six months.
The Warnings He Did Not Heed
In June 2019, the Bihar police booked and arrested Singh under the UAPA, alleging Maoist links. In addition, by Singh’s account in a December 2020 interview with Article 14, an interrogator allegedly offered him money to start a social media channel and turn informer. He declined.
With the police failing to produce a chargesheet, Singh was released on bail six months later in December 2019 and soon plunged back into reporting.
From 2020 till his re-arrest on 17 July, Singh travelled across Jharkhand, including its remotest districts where the CPI (Maoist) was active. His reported stories related to, among others, displacement, militarisation, pollution, fabricated cases against Adivasis and alleged extrajudicial killings of Adivasis. Many of these were published on the portal of ‘Janchowk’, a collective of reporters from several states, which views journalism as a medium of social change and publishes 'impartial and fact-based, popular reportage' in Hindi.
Singh reported and wrote all of these after being released on bail in the 2019 UAPA case. On his re-arrest, politico-legal advocacy group Rihai Manch said he was being punished for reporting on the plight of Jharkhand’s Adivasis, while the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), a body that promotes press freedoms worldwide, said the arrest was harassment in retaliation for his work.
Singh was the latest among a string of journalists in Maoist insurgency-hit areas in the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to face reprisals. In Chhattisgarh for example, journalist and editor of Bhumkal Samachar Kamal Shukla, who continues to report on extra-judicial killings and human rights violations in the Bastar division, faces multiple cases (see here and here). Two others who faced cases quit journalism.
In 2021, when investigations into the use of Israeli spyware Pegasus for snooping on Indian activists revealed that three phone numbers belonging to Singh and his wife Ipsa Satakshi were among the potential targets, the couple jointly petitioned the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of this surveillance.
Like in 2019, several groups condemned Singh’s arrest in July (here, here and here). Human rights groups called it an attempt to muzzle free speech and dissent, and petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), contending that his arrest was in violation of procedures.
Protests seeking his unconditional release were held in Delhi, Kolkata, Patna, Bhagalpur and other parts of the country as well as various parts of Jharkhand including Ranchi, Bokaro, Giridih, Latehar and Hazaribag.
Alleged Procedural Lapses In Search And Arrest
Singh was arrested from his residence in Ramgarh on 17 July at 1.40 pm, after a nine-hour search operation.
Around 5.30 am, the police team led by Saraikela Kharsawan’s deputy superintendent of police Chandan Kumar Vats served the couple a search warrant . “They searched the entire house for nine hours, including containers of rice and flour in the kitchen,” Ipsa Satakshi told Article 14, “and seized two laptops, two mobile phones, a hard disk, invoices of a motorcycle and a car owned by the family, a bed sheet and a notebook.”
The police were courteous, but refused to state why they were seizing items such as a torn bed sheet, a blank notebook, a hard drive that Satakshi used for academic purposes, and a laptop belonging to their 32-year-old niece Ilika Priy.
A petition filed before the NHRC by advocacy group Human Rights Defenders Alert said there were procedural lapses, including not providing hash values—a series of numbers generated via cryptographic algorithms that accurately and uniquely represent data on electronic devices—for the seized devices, leaving open the possibility of them being tampered with later.
Police also showed the couple the arrest warrant for Singh issued by the Saraikela sub-divisional judicial magistrate on 16 February, five months earlier, only after the nine-hour search was over. They brought him to court on 18 July, more than 27 hours after his arrest, violating Article 22 of the Indian Constitution, under which every person arrested or detained must be produced before the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest.
Article 14 sought comment from Anand Prakash, superintendent of police, Saraikela Kharsawan, but he did not answer phone calls or WhatsApp messages sent on 29 July and 6 August.
‘He Can’t Even See Another Human From His Jail Cell’
Following his arrest, Singh was remanded in judicial custody at the Saraikela jail on 18 July, but was taken into police remand on a number of occasions in the subsequent period.
Satakshi, who spoke to him a few times in court and over the phone said he was questioned by teams from the Ranchi and Patna offices of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Andhra Pradesh State Intelligence Bureau, the West Bengal Special Task Force, the Jharkhand State Intelligence Bureau, and various officials from Jharkhand, including the inspector general (Operations) of Jharkhand police.
Satakshi accused the jail administration of mentally torturing Singh. She said Singh was first placed in a room adjacent to those of four prisoners with communicable diseases, and was later shifted to a dilapidated and abandoned building of the jail, where he was the only prisoner.
“Forget talking to someone, he can’t even see another human being from there,” said Satakshi. She added that Singh was not being provided food and other facilities according to the jail manual.
Himani Priya, superintendent of Saraikela jail, denied Satakshi’s allegations. She said Singh was provided food according to the menu card and the jail manual.
Priya said while it was not possible to reveal, for security reasons, where Singh was lodged in the jail, he was safe. He was in a quarantine ward for 14 days keeping in mind the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
Asked when the quarantine period would end, the jail superintendent said it was difficult to say, as Singh was being taken into police remand every now and then.
Singh’s Concern For Adivasis Ruptured Stereotypes
A day after Singh’s arrest, Rajni Murmu, an assistant professor in Jharkhand’s Godda district, posted on Facebook a note about her first meeting with Singh when the Jharkhand Jansangharsh Morcha, a state-level confederation of people’s movements, was established in October 2020.
“I felt that his grief for the ongoing exploitation of Adivasis was genuine,” Murmu wrote.
She recalled accompanying Singh on reporting trips during her vacations thereafter, and learning about the plight of Adivasis in Jharkhand, though she herself was Santhal and a native of the Santhal Pargana, one of the state’s five administrative divisions, while Singh was a Rajput from eastern Bihar’s Bhagalpur district.
In November 2021, after Jharkhand Police arrested alleged Maoist leader Sheela Marandi and claimed she owned properties worth crores, Murmu travelled with Singh to her village. Marandi’s family lived in a mud hut, and could not even afford a lawyer for her, and Singh’s report from this visit busted the police’s claims about her wealth.
Singh also travelled to the villages of Jharkhand Jansangharsh Morcha members Bhagwan Kisku and Baldev Murmu, who police claimed had links with Maoists. Kisku was arrested while Baldev Murmu was detained for more than 52 hours, in late 2021, from Giridih and Hazaribag districts. Rajni Murmu recalled that he spoke to residents and fellow activists and published reports questioning the police’s claims. These reports were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.
“I was witnessing with my own eyes, for the first time, a non-adivasi who was deeply troubled by the atrocities on adivasis,” Murmu wrote. “Until then, I had only seen dikus as exploiters of adivasis.”
Diku in Santhali means an outsider, and Murmu was drawing attention to the role of dikus—mostly mostly upper caste Hindu men employed in various government departments–in disenfranchising adivasis of their traditional and constitutional rights since the colonial period.
Singh, she wrote, was a rare diku who stood with the adivasis of Jharkhand.
A Tryst With Leftist Student Politics
An upper-caste Rajput from Sarauni village in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district, Singh, in an interview with Article 14 in December 2020, recalled the discriminatory environment at home and in the village against lower castes.
Rajputs did not prioritise education, and Singh’s family was unsupportive of his interest in studies. He funded his schooling from class 10 to 12 by collecting cow-dung and making and selling cow-dung cakes.
In 2003, when Singh signed up for a Bachelor of Arts in History (Hons) degree at the Bhagalpur National College 35 km from his village, his Rajput pride received a further boost, but only for a short while.
“Rajputs and Bhumihars had complete hegemony in the college, which stoked my feelings and I started moving around with them,” said Singh. Once, when a fellow student accidentally collided with him in the corridor, he got together with his caste brethren and beat him up. Only later did he realise that the victim was the president of the students’ union and a Yadav.
The Yadavs were a powerful community—Rabri Devi, a Yadav, was then chief minister—and Singh fled to his village, fearing retaliatory attacks. There, he was approached by members of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), a students’ union affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
“I knew nothing about the organisation (AISA) or about Communism then,” Singh said. They offered to protect him in the college and make him the union’s election agent in the ensuing student council polls, and he joined them.
Inspired by a speech by CPI(ML) Liberation general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya about the role of student politics in creating a world without oppression, he began reading books including Bhagat Singh’s Why I Am An Atheist.
“I tore and threw away my janeyu (sacred thread),” said Singh.
After his graduation in 2006, he became a full-time activist with AISA and was given charge of the Naugachia subdivision of Bhagalpur.
About a year later, disillusioned with party politics, Singh quit the AISA and shifted to Delhi, where he lived with friends, worked for brief periods in a call centre, a container depot and other places until, in early 2009, frustrated by his failure in finding a steady, well-paying job, he returned to the CPI(ML) Liberation and took up the same post of AISA in-charge in Naugachia.
In May 2010, he was kidnapped and detained for 36 hours—a reprisal for organising people against criminal gangs that collected levies from people.
Eventually, unable to shake off his disillusionment with the party especially upon learning that caste dynamics was an important factor in selecting candidates for elections, Singh dissociated from CPI(ML) Liberation in early 2012 and once again moved to Delhi.
In the national capital, he worked in event management, attended protests and meetings in Jantar Mantar and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and wrote long posts on Facebook about contemporary issues and events, which catalysed his transition into a journalist.
Giving A Voice To People Ignored By Mainstream Media
In early 2014, Singh moved to Jharkhand to write a book based on ground reportage about displacement, fake encounters and state repression of the adivasis.
“Media coverage in Jharkhand is driven by events and incidents, but reportage on the rights of adivasis and their violation is rare,” Singh told Article 14 in the December 2020 interview. “Topics like false cases and encounters and state repression get even lesser attention, and I wanted to address that through the book.”
He lived on rent in Bokaro for about five years, where his would-be wife Ipsa Satakshi was a college lecturer. They married in 2016, and their son Agrim Aviral was born in August 2017.
Between 2014 and mid-2019, Singh travelled to remote tribal villages in Giridih, Saranda, Latehar and other parts of Jharkhand, documenting instances of displacement, alleged false cases and encounters, and other human rights violations. He shared these on Facebook, and he wrote numerous news reports published by portals including Mediavigil, Janchowk and The Wire Hindi.
His approach to reporting was based on his exposure to Communist politics, and he liked to listen to and learn from people, spending two-three days in every place he reported from. “...I believe that a journalist who works for the people is also supported by the people,” Singh said.
In the initial years, he would visit a village, meet the traditional village head—a highly respected person in adivasi culture—and tell them that he wanted to stay a few days and understand their problems. Most welcomed him, took care of his food and stay and organised meetings where the entire village would turn up.
Later, as activists and organisations learned of Singh and his reportage, they reached out to him with requests to cover issues that were ignored by the mainstream media.
Bacha Singh, general secretary of Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti (MSS), a trade union that was banned by the state government in December 2017 over allegations of being a Maoist front until the ban was lifted by the Ranchi high court in February 2022, remembered Singh as prompt and diligent, especially about speaking to people at the grassroots, and making their voices heard through his reports.
“Rupesh reported on the activities of our union hu-ba-hu (as it was, see here, here and here). Very few reporters do that,” said Bacha Singh, “they are more interested in adding their own spin.”
Rupesh Singh reported on protests by villagers against the establishment of security camps and police stations in Dumri and Pirtand blocks of Jharkhand’s Giridih district, which they feared would restrict their movement; and on the encounter of Motilal Baske, a member of the MSS and a doli majdoor, or labourer who carries pilgrims to temples located on hills, on allegations of being a Maoist ( here and here).
Bacha Singh and other activists in Jharkhand felt that while these reports endeared Rupesh Singh to adivasis, workers and other marginalised groups and established him as a fearless reporter, they also paved way for his arrest on 4 June 2019. The laptop on which he was writing the book on militarisation and state repression was also seized, and the draft of his manuscript lost.
Arrested in Bihar, Singh Wrote A Jail Diary
In the interview with Article 14, Singh said that he, a lawyer friend and their driver were on their way to Aurangabad district of Bihar for a short trip on 4 June 2019 when they were detained during a halt near Hazaribagh in Jharkhand. They were taken to a security camp in south Bihar’s Gaya district that housed a paramilitary unit, called the 205th COBRA battalion, and detained there till 6 June.
CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) battalions are a specialised force of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) raised for guerilla warfare to quell the Maoist insurgency.
During his interrogation, police claimed that Singh was a state committee member of the banned CPI (Maoist), and editor of Laal Chingari, its magazine purportedly published in Bihar and Jharkhand. They also claimed that Singh was going to Gaya to meet his alleged fellow Maoist leader Sandeep Yadav, to whom he was supposed to deliver a chip.
“They wanted me to agree with this story, and did not care about what I had to say,” said Singh.
He recalled being interrogated by an assistant superintendent of police who asked him why he reported about adivasi and jal-jangal-jameen (water-forest-land) issues, and claimed his reportage provided support to the Maoists. The officer allegedly offered him money to start a channel (on social media) in return for becoming a police informer.
Singh turned down the offer, he said. He was produced in court on 6 June 2019, nearly 48 hours after his arrest, and spent six months in Bihar’s Sherghati and Gaya jails before being released on bail in December.
Though the book he was working on did not materialise, he published his jail diary titled Qaidkhane Ka Aaina (Mirror to the Prison) months after his release. The book documented accounts of numerous prisoners who said they were in jail under fabricated charges, and the rampant corruption in prisons.
It also provided details of Singh’s efforts to organise the 200-odd prisoners in Sherghati jail to demand the provision of food, medical facilities, toilets, library and other entitlements according to the jail manual.
Fears That He May Be Implicated By Multiple Agencies
Like the first time he was arrested, Singh’s family members and associates believe the real intent behind his arrest is to muzzle dissent.
“We fear that he may be implicated in other cases and kept in jail for a prolonged period under false charges,” said Satakshi. “This is more so because teams from different states and agencies are interrogating him.”
Bacha Singh, the trade unionist, said Rupesh Singh was perhaps the only reporter in Jharkhand who wrote consistently about the exploitation of adivasis; and the rights of workers. “He reports truth from the grassroots, and has exposed the policy of repression followed by governments in the state and at the centre. This is the primary reason he was arrested—in 2019 and as well as now,” said Bachha Singh.
A number of protests and demonstrations demanding Rupesh Kumar Singh’s unconditional release are planned in Jharkhand in subsequent weeks. The Jharkhand Jansangharsh Morcha, one of the largest civil society groups in the state, will kick off its campaign on 19 August by demonstrating in front of the Raj Bhavan in Ranchi and submitting a letter to the governor. Demonstrations and meetings are also planned in Gumla (21 August), Dhanbad (22 August), Giridih (25 August), Garhwa (26 August) and Hazaribag (28 August).
(Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and researcher based in Kolkata.)