Bhopal: Abduction, criminal conspiracy, obstructing an officer on duty and cheating were among a dozen serious criminal offences in the first of the three criminal cases that the Madhya Pradesh (MP) police filed against 47-year-old journalist Tanveer Warsi between May and July 2021 during Covid-19’s deadly Delta wave.
Warsi, a journalist of 22 years, has reported for Sahara Samay, ANI and NDTV, among other media, from the western MP district of Rajgarh, about 120 km northwest of Bhopal, near the state border with Rajasthan.
The complainant in the first information report (FIR), the starting point of a criminal investigation, was a state employee who had lost his baby at childbirth in a hospital co-owned by a relative of Warsi’s. The journalist had nothing to do with the hospital, not connected to it in any manner, from ownership to its running or in any other way.
“Forget an FIR, not even a complaint about any minor offence had ever been made against me at a police station before this,” Warsi told Article 14.
Warsi is not the only journalist to have faced the state government’s ire for reporting on Covid-19 mismanagement. At least five other journalists in Madhya Pradesh critical of the government’s handling of the Delta wave had cases filed against them.
But Warsi was the only one arrested. “Why were the authorities so prompt in my case? I spent more than four months in jail—the price I paid for being an honest journalist and a Muslim.”
Journalists increasingly face criminal cases and arrest in the course of doing their jobs in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, as Article 14 has reported (here, here and here).
Of 154 Indian journalists arrested or facing government hostility for their professional work between 2010 and 2020, more than 40% were in 2020 alone, according to an analysis by the Free Speech Collective, an advocacy group.
The 2021 global Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, a global journalism watchdog, listed India at 142nd out of 180 countries, the same rank in 2020, behind countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan, and lower than the ranks of 133 in 2016 and 140 in 2014.
Fellow journalists in Bhopal are cagey about talking about Warsi’s arrest and jail term. Fearing retribution, a journalist for international media organisations spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The Madhya Pradesh government is vindictive against Muslims,” said the reporter, who is Muslim. “If today I say Warsi was harassed for being a Muslim then tomorrow my house may be bulldozed by the government [a reference to the government’s demolition of homes, especially of Muslims, as retribution].”
On 28 March, Warsi petitioned the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court to quash all FIRs against him.
"I will fight legally to ensure the government officials who tarnished my image and sent me to jail are punished."
Declared A Fugitive
As soon as the first FIR was filed on 22 May at Rajgarh’s Kotwali police station, Warsi went to Bhopal to seek legal help. The Rajgarh police were unable to arrest him. Within 12 hours, the district administration declared a reward for information on his whereabouts.
“I was declared a fugitive with a reward of Rs 5,000,” said Warsi. He stayed away from Rajgarh.
In June, the Rajgarh police, under orders of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Roshni Vardhman, opened a second probe accusing Warsi of illegally running a Hindi-language daily Prabhat Sanket.
Warsi said he had bought Prabhat Sanket, a defunct Hindi weekly that used to be published from Indore around 2010, with his own money. The paper’s registration and formalities were completed by January 2021, Warsi’s wife told the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy group.
It managed a print-run of 5,000 copies and was read, Warsi said, in Indore, Bhopal, Gwalior, Chhinwada and Ujjain. He had continued to work as an independent journalist for NDTV, ANI and Punjab Kesri from Rajgarh.
Following the first FIR, the Indore collector had ordered that publication of Prabhat Sanket be stopped, so Warsi had ceased its printing from 22 May. As the case against him was reported in the media, and Warsi put out a video statement on 30 May, the state public information department cancelled his press accreditation on 31 May.
In its second FIR on 21 June, Rajgarh police accused Warsi of cheating and forgery under five sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 177 (furnishing false information), 420 (cheating over property), 464, 465 and 468 (forgery and cheating), punishable with seven-year prison, and of flouting rules and making false statements under sections 12, 13, 14 and 15 of the Press and Book Registration Act, 1867. Warsi said his paper was registered with the offices of the district magistrate of Indore and the office of the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI).
"My paper was published from Indore, why was the Rajgarh district magistrate keen to move against it?"
“Surely along with me, district officials of Indore and the RNI office must also be held responsible if I was fraudulently running the paper?”
On 13 July, Rajgarh’s land records department started yet another probe. Warsi was accused of encroaching on government land and using false documents to claim its ownership. The third FIR was filed under five IPC sections—420, 467 (forgery of will), 468, 471 (using a forged document) and 120-B.
“Similar charges of cheating, forgery and some more were added in the third FIR,” said Warsi.
Away from Rajgarh for almost two months since the first FIR, and as the Delta wave started to recede, Warsi went home to Rajgarh, a barely three-hour drive, for Eid. He was arrested on 22 July in Rajgarh and spent the next four months in jail.
Warsi’s wife Zarina Khan is a doctor at J P Hospital, a government institute in Bhopal. His daughter Madiha, the eldest of his three children, is also a doctor, currently pursuing a master’s in surgery. His elder son is in an engineering college while the younger one is in school.
Stories About District Hospital Led To First FIR
Warsi said he became “an instant target of government officials especially Rajgarh district magistrate and the police”, when Prabhat Sanket published reports of “mismanagement of hospitals, shortage of medicines and oxygen” in April 2021.
“Things turned topsy-turvy for me as I started reporting that government officials were misleading people,” said Warsi.
"They tried to give an impression that everything was fine in district hospitals but it was not so."
The Rajgarh district hospital, called the Civil Hospital, had been renovated, but the roof of the ICU ward meant for Covid patients started to leak when unseasonal rainfall swept Madhya Pradesh.
Warsi wrote about the leaking ceiling and published photos in Prabhat Sanket on 18 May. ANI ran a video on 17 May of water pouring from cracks in the ceiling.
Prabhat Sanket also ran a photo of government engineers draining water from the flooded ICU. A committee was instituted to probe the leakage but Warsi said: “no-one knows what came of it”.
These stories followed earlier ones on state mismanagement. Warsi ran a report and photos of engineers from Indore fixing ventilators in the same hospital. Three ventilators were bought using funds from the PM Cares fund, but they did not work.
On 15 April, Warsi said Rajgarh district magistrate Neeraj Kumar Singh and police superintendent (SP) Pradeep Sharma “tinkered for a couple of hours” and claimed they had repaired the ventilators.
Neeraj Kumar Singh is no longer the district magistrate but Pradeep Sharma is still the SP. His office said since the matter was subjudice, Sharma would not comment.
Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh who belongs to Rajgarh used his offices to send two engineers from Indore to repair the faulty ventilators. “Engineers Pankaj and Chirag repaired the ventilators,” said Warsi, whose paper reported the same on 7 May.
Warsi’s Experience Of Persecution
The first FIR was filed four days after Warsi’s May ANI video, and after he published the photo of the district hospital’s leaking roof in Prabhat Sanket.
In it, Warsi was among 22 accused in the case against private hospital KCHL Hospital and Trauma Centre, jointly owned by Warsi’s relative Sahil Uddeen and Vinod Sharma.
When five newborns died there between March and May, SDM Pallavi Ved investigated the deaths on the complaint of Ajay Nakwaal, a stenographer at the Rajgarh collector’s office, who had also lost his baby during delivery here.
“My only crime,” Warsi said with a self-mocking smile, “was that I was related to a person who ran a private hospital. I don't have any link with the hospital in even the remotest way.”
The FIR named the two owners, 19 staff members and Warsi. “My name doesn’t figure anywhere in any document related to the hospital,” he said. “Then how can I be held responsible if any anomaly is found in the hospital or its functioning?”
“All of us were charged with culpable homicide and abduction of children, furnishing wrong details, forming a gang to commit a crime and so on under IPC sections 177, 186, 269, 188, 304, 336, 369, 417, 34 and 120B,” said Warsi.
A law graduate, Warsi said police acted only against him and the two owners of the hospital. “The remaining 19 were asked to furnish an affidavit saying they had nothing to do with the case. No action was initiated against them. Why? Why were they also not arrested and jailed like the three of us?”
Warsi presented all relevant documents related to the hospital, his daily and his land but the officials refused to peruse the same.
What worried Warsi also was that his elder brother was harassed.
Pervez Warsi has owned a medical store in Rajgarh district for 35 years. “He ran the store 24x7 without break for 35 years,” said Warsi. “But as soon as the first FIR was lodged against me, authorities sealed the store on 26 May. Police even detained my brother for a few days. When he was released, his son was picked up for interrogation. What has my brother or his son got to do with my case?”
FIR After FIR
“As my first case came up, the judge pushed back date for the hearing but before that, the second FIR was lodged,” said Warsi. “The judge postponed the hearing but one more FIR was lodged before my case could be heard and police declared I was a serial offender.”
The bail hearings of all three FIRs finally took place virtually one by one before Justice Subodh Abhyankar of the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Warsi’s counsel Vivek Singh said the police presented the second case as soon as the judge granted bail in the first case.
“The moment my client got bail in the second case, the third FIR was filed against him,” said Singh. “Even the judge was peeved and said to the Rajgarh police, ‘Why can’t the police club all the FIRs and present them before me as one case? Why is the accused being produced in the court repeatedly?’”
Warsi finally got bail on all three FIRs on 9 December. Officials quickly unlocked his brother’s medical store the same day. Warsi walked out of Rajgarh jail on 11 December.
Warsi has started reporting again for NDTV, ANI and Punjab Kesri. But Prabhat Sanket remains out of print.
(Rohit Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.)