Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh: At 9 pm on 2 April, a group of about 25 men gathered outside the Kotwali police station in the town of Sidhi in north-eastern Madhya Pradesh. They sat on the side of the road outside the police station. A few began to raise slogans against chief minister (CM) Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the longest-serving CM of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and against Sidhi’s elected legislator, Kedarnath Shukla, also of the BJP. They were protesting the arrest of a local theatre artiste, Neeraj Kunder.
Ten men were arrested, including a journalist who runs a YouTube channel, seven theatre artists and two others. Later that night, the men were photographed standing inside the police station and seated on the floor of a lock-up, wearing only their underpants.
“Hame maara-peeta gaya, nirvastr kiya gaya. Kaha gaya ki vidhaayak ke khilaaf khabar chalaaage to chaddi me juloos nikaalenge (I was beaten, stripped. I was told that if I publish news against the member of the legislative assembly (MLA), we would be paraded outside in our underwear),” Kanishk Tiwari, the 35-year-old journalist among those arrested, told Article 14.
According to Tiwari, they were kept in the lock-up of Kotwali police station for 18 hours. The men said they remained semi-naked until 2 pm the following day, when they were produced before a magistrate and released on bail.
Leaked photographs of the disrobed men that went viral on 7 April were taken by sub-inspector Abhishek Singh Parihar of the Amelia police station, located 40 km east of the town of Sidhi, according to the men. Policemen had been summoned from various police stations that day to beef up police presence before the protest.
Asked why the men arrested in Sidhi were kept in the lock-up in only their underpants, Manoj Soni, the station house officer (SHO), said the men were “not completely naked”. He said, “We keep them in their underwear in the lock-up for security, so that no person hangs himself with his clothes.”
Anjulata Patle, additional superintendent of police (ASP) of Sidhi, called it a “preventive measure” by police to avoid “any incidents” in police custody. She said, “In a few cases, police ask arrested people to remove their clothes if they seem suspicious.”
Kunder had been arrested earlier that day, on a complaint filed several months earlier by Shukla’s son Gurudutt regarding slanderous material about the MLA posted by a Facebook account with a fictitious name. According to the police, investigation had led them to Kunder as the man operating the Facebook account.
The theatre artists who were arrested and disrobed said they had gathered at Kotwali police station demanding to know what proof the police had against Kunder. Tiwari was there to cover their demonstration, he said, though in one video clip he appeared to be participating in the protest outside the premises of the police station.
He said the leaking of the photographs constituted defamation. “I am scared, my family is scared,” he said.
He said the police referred to him as a “fake” journalist. “The police warned me not to report anything critical about MLA Kedarnath.”
MP Boasts Third-Highest Number of Attacks On Journalists
Journalists across India have increasingly found themselves facing criminal cases and arrest in the course of doing their jobs, with Jammu & Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh leading the trend, 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 142 among 180 countries, the same rank as in 2020, behind countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan, and lower than the ranks of 133 in 2016 and 140 in 2014.
Across MP, at least six journalists faced police cases in recent months for publishing reports critical of the state’s Covid-19 management. In 2021, the ‘India press freedom report’ by the Rights & Risks Analysis Group found MP to have the third highest number of attacks on journalists, after Jammu & Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh.
In the Sidhi case, lawyers and human rights campaigners said the arrest not only curbed Tiwari’s freedom to report on the protest but also violated the protestors’ Constitutional rights and various law-mandated police procedures on treatment of citizens who are detained or kept in police custody.
“It is custodial torture by the police,” Shashank Tiwari, an advocate at Jabalpur high court, told Article 14. “Ten people were made to stand naked in the office of a police officer while their photo was clicked and circulated. It is a psychological form of custodial violence.”
Psychological violence towards detainees, including through deprivation of food, water and sleep, or through humiliation, attacks their mental stability and composure, he added.
This was also not the first time that the MP police paraded men who were arrested. In March 2018, days after police paraded four men arrested in a rape case, CM Chouhan had said goondas had no human rights.
Arrested For Discussing ‘Unnecessary Matters’
According to the Sidhi police, protestors blocked traffic by sitting on the road, creating a law-and-order problem.
Soni, the SHO, said 25 to 30 people gathered in front of Kotwali police station to protest Kunder's arrest and refused to clear the area.
“Woh log… anavasyak baat kar rahe the (They were discussing unnecessary matters),” said Soni. Police booked them under section 151 (knowingly continuing in assembly of five or more persons after it has been commanded to disperse) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
Other sections invoked included 152 (assaulting/obstructing public servant when suppressing riot), 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), 341 (wrongful restraint), 504 (intentional insult intended to provoke breach of peace) and 34 (acts by persons with a common intention).
The image that went viral was not clicked by policemen, he claimed. “It appears that friends or relatives of these detained people clicked the image,” according to Soni.
Roshni Prasad Mishra, a theatre actor who was among those arrested, said the gathered men had been protesting peacefully. According to him, a few among the small crowd that formed also joined their protest, and began to shout slogans. The police made arrests around 10 pm.
Mishra said the 10 men were arrested while they were demonstrating peacefully. “We were severely beaten at the police station,” he said.
Footage of the demonstration, in which police officers could be seen manhandling demonstrators, also went viral in subsequent days.
Inspector General (IG) of Rewa Division KP Venkateshwar Rao took notice of the issue after the photographs led to widespread criticism of the Sidhi police’s decision to disrobe the arrested men.
“Instructions have been issued to get the matter investigated by the Additional Superintendent of Police,” Rao posted from the IG office’s Facebook account. “Madhya Pradesh Police is committed to treat the general public with respect.”
On 8 April, Sidhi district superintendent of police (SP) Mukesh Kumar Shrivastava suspended Soni and Parihar for negligence.
‘We Would Be Paraded Naked, We Were Threatened’
Mishra alleged that it was MLA Kedarnath Shukla who ordered their arrest and torture. “Town inspector Manoj Soni threatened us that if Kanishk ever spoke against MLA Kedarnath, (CM) Shivraj Singh or the BJP,” he said, “we would be forced to walk naked in the city.”
Shukla is a four-term MLA who previously made headlines after a tribal family accused him of grabbing 17 acres of land they claimed to own. Tiwari had reported on this, criticising Shukla. Tiwari was the first to break the story on his YouTube channel MP Sandesh News 24 on 30 October 2021.
Shiva Kunder, the arrested theatre person’s brother who was also arrested and photographed, said the police threatened to book them in cases if they spoke against Shukla. “Police bol rahe the… woh hame daaru-gaanje ke case me phasa denge (police threatened to trap us in narcotics cases),” he said.
According to Shiva, he was unable to hear properly after being hit by policemen.
An MLA, A Theatre Artist And A Fake Facebook Account
On 2 April, the Kotwali police arrested theatre artist and social worker Neeraj Kunder for allegedly operating a fake Facebook account under the alleged fictitious identity of Anurag Mishra. This social media account was used to criticise Shukla and his son Gurudutt Shukla, police said.
Gurudutt Shukla, 35, also a member of the BJP, told Article 14 that the fake Facebook account had repeatedly posted offensive material about him, his father and his sisters. “I have human rights too,” he said. “Vidhayak putra hone se mere human rights suspend toh nahi ho jaate (Being the son of an MLA does not suspend my human rights).”
One post on this account criticised Shukla for using the term ‘chamar’ at a public meeting. The post said, “The Supreme Court of India has banned the word chamar under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, but Kedarnath is an LLB graduate and doesn't know this?”
In multiple posts, the account used an expletive loosely translated to mean ‘stupid’, to mock Gurudutt.
In February, he submitted a formal complaint to SP Mukesh Kumar Shrivastava. “Following the investigation, police discovered that it was Neeraj Kunder operating that Facebook account,” he claimed.
On 5 April, Manoj Soni informed mediapersons in Sidhi that police had written to Facebook on 18 February requesting information on the fake ID, and the local police conducted an investigation based on the information given by Facebook, “and determined that Neeraj Kunder appeared to be using the ID”.
Kunder was booked under sections 419 (cheating by personation), 420 (cheating) of the IPC, and sections 66 C (identity theft) and 66D (cheating by personation by using computer resource) of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000.
On 2 April, Neeraj Kunder's bail application was rejected by the tehsil court. On 4 April, Kunder again failed to get bail as the tehsildar was on leave that day. He obtained bail on 5 April.
Kunder is director of Indravati Natya Sansthan, a local institution that has promoted folk art, folk performances and other activities for more than 15 years in an effort to preserve the distinct Bagheli language and culture. During the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the group conducted relief work, prompting a compliment from CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Kunder's brother Shiva Kunder claimed the police had no proof against him. He said somebody had continued posting from that Facebook account even while Kunder was in police custody. “It demonstrates that my brother is innocent.”
He added that the police came to their home in the Sidhi town on 2 April without a warrant. They gave the family no information about the matter and only instructed Kunder to accompany them to the police station.
BJP MLA Claims Journalist Is An ‘Extortionist’
Kanishk Tiwari is a “farzi patrkar” (fake journalist), according to Gurudutt Shukla, the MLA’s son.
Accusing Tiwari of publishing ‘paid news’, he said, “Kisi ke ghar me chai patti bhi khatm ho toh yeh mere pitaji ko blame karta hai (He’ll blame my father even for tea leaves running out in somebody’s home),” Gurudutt Shukla told Article 14.
In September 2021, Tiwari was charged with trespassing after he allegedly barged into a property owned by Shukla’s relative.
According to the first information report (FIR) filed at Kotwali police station in Sidhi, he entered a hostel building, assaulted the warden and recorded video footage without authorisation. He was charged under sections 452 (house trespass), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 294 (obscene acts and songs), 506 (criminal intimidation), and 34 (acts by several persons with a common intention) of the IPC.
Tiwari told Article 14 he had gone to the hostel to seek a comment from the director on a report published earlier in Patrika, a Hindi daily published in Hindi-speaking states including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. “I went to the college’s official address and had no idea that a hostel was located in the same building,” he said.
The Patrika had at the time reported on alleged inconsistencies in the way a nursing college had been granted recognition, and according to Tiwari he was trying to follow that report with his own work for his channel.
Tiwari claimed that the director of the nursing college had been compelled to file a case against him under pressure from the MLA. “I will testify in court,” he said. He had been granted anticipatory bail in the case, and hearings were now underway.
In September 2021, Article 14 had contacted Shukla about Tiwari's accusation that the complainant had been pressured by the MLA to file a case. Shukla had said, “Kanishk Tiwari koi patrakaar thodi hai. Woh kisi ke ghar me ja ke dalali karega, vasooli karega, blackmail karega (Kanishk Tiwari is hardly a journalist. He blackmails and extorts money from people).”
Over several months in 2021, Tiwari published video reports on alleged drug trafficking in Sidhi town. In one video report, he claimed that drugs were stocked and moved with assistance of the local police.
In another video, he alleged that MLA Shukla had harboured a suspected drug trafficker.
In September, Tiwari covered a protest near Jamodi police station staged by villagers from Padkuri village, 12 km southwest of Sidhi town. At this demonstration, residents called for action against the drug trade. A few protesters who Tiwari interviewed blamed the MLA too.
Tiwari told Article 14 the entire village was outraged by the traffickers’ ties with police and politicians. “I gave everyone an opportunity to speak,” he said. “I simply demonstrated why roughly 150 people were demonstrating.”
Violation Of Human Rights, Police Procedures, Press Freedoms
Citizens’ rights activists and lawyers said the Sidhi police had committed grave violations in the treatment meted out to the arrested men.
Supreme Court advocate Ali Zaidi said the move to strip the arrested men was a clear violation of Articles 14 (equality before the law) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution.
“In Francis Coralie Mullin vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court noted that any form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment would be offensive to human dignity and constitute an inroad into this right…” Zaidi said.
According to him, nothing in the statute books authorised such an act by police personnel, and the stripping of the men would not stand the test of reasonableness and non-arbitrariness. “It would plainly be unconstitutional,” he added.
Zaidi further said the act also violated section 29 of the Police Act, 1861, on wilful breach or neglect of any rule or regulation.
Ajay Dubey, a human rights activist based in Bhopal, said the police serve the public on behalf of the state. “The police department is a public institution that must earn the trust of the general public,” he said. “The police are empowered by the Constitution to serve rather than torture people.”
Aditi Pradhan, a research associate at the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, a research and advocacy group, agreed that the act was a “blatant breach” of Article 21.
She said the SC had, in D K Basu, Ashok K Johri vs. State Of West Bengal, ruled that any type of torture or cruel, inhuman, or humiliating treatment, whether committed during an inquiry, interrogation, or otherwise, would be prohibited under Article 21 of the Constitution.
“If government officials breach the law, it is sure to foster disdain for the law and encourage lawlessness,” Pradhan said, “and every man will have the inclination to become a law unto himself, leading to anarchy.”
Congress leader Kamal Nath, a former MP chief minister, called the leaked photographs “horrific”. Reacting to the incident via a Facebook post, he wrote in Hindi, “The Shivraj government's treatment of democracy's fourth pillar is condemnable."
The Editors Guild of India also criticised the stripping of the men including a journalist. In a press release, they said the “inhumane manner” in which journalists, stringers and district reporters are often treated by the police, “in an effort to suppress any independent reporting”, was a matter of grave concern.
The Editors Guild called on the union ministry of home affairs to take immediate notice of police abuses against journalists and civil society activists, and to provide firm instructions to all levels of law enforcement to uphold democratic norms and press freedoms. Their statement added that individuals who abuse state authority must face “severe consequences”.
On 8 April, MP’s director general of police Sudhir Saxena appointed Amit Singh, senior superintendent of police in Bhopal, to oversee the investigation into the events of 2 April. Singh completed his investigation in Sidhi and left for Bhopal.
The report will be released within a few days, Amit Singh told a local news channel.
(Anil Tiwari is a freelance journalist based in Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh.)