Teen Reporter Arrested For Questioning Minister Gets Bail, Faces Police Cases In Latest UP Media Assault

15 Mar 2023 7 min read  Share

On 11 March, 19-year-old arts student and part-time reporter Sanjay Rana questioned an Uttar Pradesh minister about the promises she had made to a village in her constituency. A day later, he was arrested and spent 30 hours in a police lock-up before his editor-lawyer had him freed on bail. Rana is traumatised, as are many reporters who face criminal cases, trial and intimidation in India’s most populous state.

Student journalist Sanjay Rana was arrested after questioning Uttar Pradesh minister Gulab Devi in Sambhal/PIYUSH RAI, TWITTER

Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh: “There is no public place in the village  where weddings can take place. There are no public toilets. You had promised you would get a street paved. You had also promised you would get the boundary wall of the  temple built. The streets are so bad that even pedestrians face difficulties.”  

That was what Sanjay Rana, an arts student and part-time teenage journalist, said to Gulab Devi, 67, an Uttar Pradesh (UP) minister, during a meeting on 11 March 2023 with her constituents while inaugurating a check dam in a western Uttar Pradesh village called Budhnagar in Sambhal district. 

“I will get work done in your village. I have started development projects in other villages of my  constituency,” replied Devi, UP’s minister of state for secondary education and five-time member of the legislative assembly from Chandausi, a nearby town and constituency of the same name, 420 km northwest of state capital Lucknow.

Rana, 19, then turned to the audience and asked, “Is it true what the minister is saying?”

“No, no, no, no,” came many responses from the audience.

“Listen to me, what you are saying is right,” said Devi. “But the time for development work has still not elapsed. I have started development works in other villages of my constituency. I will do all that I have promised.”

Rana denied the minister’s accusations, sharing the viral video of the event. The police arrested Rana about 24 hours later at about 2 pm on 12 March, while he was at home in Chandausi. 

Gulab Devi told the media after the event that she did not know the reporter questioning her. She said the reporter was “messing” with the villagers and slapped a BJP worker. 

“Police were present there and they took him away,” she said.  

Rana’s hands were tied with a rope after his arrest and he spent about 30 hours in a police lockup before he got bail from the sub-divisional magistrate. The lawyer who appeared for him was his editor, Dharmendra Singh.

‘I Don’t Know If I Will Continue As A Journalist’

The son of a wheat farmer, a bachelor of arts student and a reporter for a local media company called Moradabad Ujala, which runs a newspaper and a YouTube channel, Rana told Article 14 he was “devastated”.

In November 2021, Article 14 reported how a rash of criminal cases and other intimidation against the media had led to a chilling effect on journalism, traumatised journalists, long legal battles and shrinking space for a free press in UP, India’s most populous state.

“I have had a harrowing experience,” said Rana. “What happened to me is yet to sink in. At this moment, I can’t say whether I will continue as a journalist or not.”

According to a first information report (FIR) that led to his arrest, lodged after a complaint by a member of the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rana was accused of “voluntarily causing hurt” (section 323), “intentional insult” to “provoke breach of peace” (section 504) and criminal intimidation (section 506) of the Indian Penal Code 1860. 

While he is on bail, the cases against Rana will continue, which means more appearances before the police and in court.

Singh, the owner and editor of Moradabad Ujala, said he stood by what Rana had done and would fight for him.

“You can watch the video. Did my reporter ask anything weird?” said Singh.  “As a citizen and as a reporter, he asked his public representative about development works he had promised.” 

“Was this a crime that the reporter was handcuffed and treated like a hardcore criminal?” said Singh. “He was locked up in an isolated cell and tortured and starved.”

 A local police official denied the allegations. “We arrested Sanjay Rana after an FIR was lodged against him,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. “But the charges of beating or manhandling him are false. We released him when he got bail.” 

Singh described Rana’s arrest as “an attack on democracy”. 

“It is an attempt to gag the voice of the media and the common person,” said Singh. “The rights that the Constitution gives to the people are being curtailed.”

Growing Intimidation Of The Media In UP

Under chief minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP, cases against journalists have spiked in UP, with his government filing criminal cases, including under terrorism laws, against journalists critical of his administration since he assumed office in 2017.

Of 29 cases against journalists in UP studied by independent journalist Geeta Seshu for the Free Speech Collective  between 2010  and 2020, 27 were filed between 2017 and 2020 alone. In Seshu’s pan-India study of cases against journalists, UP led the tally. 

In a February 2022 report, the Committee Against Assault on Journalists, an advocacy group, recorded 138 cases of “persecution” of journalists since 2017. At least 66 journalists faced criminal cases, 48 had been attacked and 12 killed over this period, the report said.

“I did not do anything unexpected or untoward,” said Rana, who described the event with the minister as being like a question-answer session.

“She had promised  some things, like a public hall, toilet, paved streets, and I only questioned her about the promises,” said Rana. The complaint against him, as is often the pattern in such cases, was filed by someone close to the government, in this case Shubham Raghav, a member of the BJP’s youth wing in Sambhal.

“He (Rana) was misbehaving during the ceremony,” Raghav told Article 14. “I had asked him to behave himself. He along with his friends who were in an inebriated state started beating me.”

There is no video of or eyewitnesses to Rana attacking Raghav. 

“How can a person who is getting assaulted make a video?” said Raghav. “So, I decided to file a complaint.”

‘Rana Had Done Nothing Wrong’

Raghav’s account was disputed by journalists present at the event with Devi, the minister.

A*, the stringer of a popular television channel who was present at the function , speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said “Rana had done nothing wrong”.

“He questioned the minister about the development work in Budhnagar village,” said the stringer. “People of different villages of the constituency were present at the function. The minister said she had started many development works in other villages.” 

“Rana turned towards the audience and asked loudly if what the minister had said was true,” said A. “That was a bit childish. Otherwise his behaviour and demeanour was fine.”

Singh, the editor-owner of Moradabad Ujala, said he used the services of 150 reporters in the region and was cognisant of the risks they faced. “Big media houses” in UP, he added, had failed to stand by their reporters when they were intimidated by the government. 

“But I stand by my reporter,” said Singh, who is a lawyer as well and appeared for Rana before the sub-divisional magistrate. “I saw to it that my reporter got bail.” 

‘Rana Was Empowered By Digital India, As Modi Wanted’

B*, a journalist with a major media conglomerate in Lucknow, said there was nothing wrong if a teen with a smartphone had tried to question a minister.

After all, B said, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been pushing for Digital India  since 2014, when he came to power.

While inaugurating a Samsung in UP’s Noida district on 9 July 2018, Modi had said smartphones would bring transparency in the working of the government, said B, which is what Rana was trying to do.

“Modi had said that India had 40 crore (400 million) people using smartphones, 32 crore (320 million) broadband users and internet data was cheap,” said B. “Because mobile phones are easy to buy and internet connectivity is cheap and fast, we are ensuring transparency in the functioning of the government.”

Whether admissions in colleges, pay water or electricity bills or want provident fund or pension, “every facility is available online”, said B.

“So how can you say Sanjay Rana was doing something wrong?” said B. “He was checking the transparency of the functioning of the government because he was empowered with the digital revolution, in the words of Narendra Modi.” 

B said both the minister and the reporter were relatively cordial. 

“The reporter was cool,” he said. “The minister acted the way that was expected of her. I don’t know how the controversy arose.” 

*Some names have been withheld on request.

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(Rohit Ghosh is an independent journalist based in Uttar Pradesh.)