Reporting under Fire
India is among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. When Jagendra Singh challenged a state minister, he was burned alive.
Story and photography by Narendra Kaushik
The freelance journalist Jagendra Singh lay wailing on a hard white table. Smeared in ointment, he smelled of kerosene and burnt flesh, and the skin on his fingers peeled away into delicate streamers that fluttered as he writhed in pain.
“They jumped in over the wall!” he cried.
“Who?” asked a magistrate’s investigator sent to record Singh’s statement.
“Sri Prakash Rai and five, six policemen. They beat me up and then set me on fire after sprinkling petrol,” he said, tossing his head left. “Why did they have to burn me? If the minister and his goons had a grudge, they could have beaten me instead of pouring kerosene and burning me.”
The minister was Ram Murti Singh Verma, 50, a state cabinet minister in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Singh had reported on his Facebook page that Verma participated in a scheme to rob the government of subsidized grain, which he allegedly resold for profit.
Not long after that, Singh wrote another post saying he feared for his life.
In India, as in Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere, journalists are routinely killed because of their work. To avoid angering powerful figures, many journalists choose to self-censor.
But Singh loved the fight. Even when a small gang ambushed him and broke his leg, he didn’t stop. He continued reporting on corruption allegations against Verma, a former legislator who now oversees dairy development and a social welfare system for the poor. Singh wrote that Verma was using his power to protect criminals and to steal public land.
Then on May 28, he reported that Verma raped a low-level government worker named Mohini (I’ve changed her name). On May 31, Singh received a call from Verma’s office, summoning him to his residence. Singh did not heed the summons.
On June 1, Mohini went to Singh’s house to discuss the rape allegations. She was still there when the police barged in. When everyone emerged minutes later, Singh had burns on 60 percent of his body.
The officers claimed Singh was waiting for them with a bottle of gasoline and that he lit himself on fire to frame them. Mohini, who saw the whole thing, refuted the police version. She recorded a statement saying it was the police who attacked Singh.
After seven days in the hospital, Singh died on June 8 at 45 years old. Verma and the police officers were all charged with murder and placed under investigation.
Singh’s family was desperately poor, but a few days later his wife bought a new car. The family began expressing doubts about his story.
Then on June 18, Mohini, the only eyewitness aside from the police, came out with a new version of events, too. Singh really did light himself on fire, she said, and she was dropping her rape case against Verma.
Like many of India’s news reporters, Singh came to journalism late and received no formal training. His father, Sumer Singh, was a postmaster, and Singh himself studied to be a machinist. He worked briefly in a factory and as a grocer.
He got his first journalism job in 1999, distributing copies of the Hindi daily Amar Ujala in his hometown of Khutar, 340 kilometers east of New Delhi. He filed reports for free, and the newspaper paid him a commission for each copy and advertisement space he sold. Almost all of the vernacular papers pay their stringers this way.
In 2005, Singh became a staff reporter based in the larger city of Shahjahanpur for Swatantra Bharat, a Hindi daily that covers Uttar Pradesh. His new colleagues came to know Singh as a man of extremes. He was foul-mouthed and short tempered. He flared at people — from police officers to his own boss — in person and on his Facebook page.
“What is it he did not say about me? He was spiteful,” Sardar Sharma, the local bureau chief for Swatantra Bharat, told me when I met him in his office. The Indian Express once quoted Sharma as saying, “Jagendra got into the habit of settling his personal disputes through the stories he wrote.
But he and others also praised Singh. He had a knack for breaking stories, they said. Sharma credits him for holding police officers accountable and for exposing corruption.
Shiv Kumar, a correspondent for Zee News, a popular Hindi news channel, said Singh had a strong sense of justice and a well of sympathy for fellow journalists. One day, Singh learned that a police officer was harassing a reporter near the Swatantra Bharatoffice. He ran outside, grabbed the officer by the shirt and berated him for several minutes. “I got the inspector released after much pleading,” Kumar said.
In September 2014, a friend of Singh’s was leaving work when a man clutched his forehead from behind and sliced his chin and neck. The friend, Narendra Yadav, was a writer for Dainik Jagran, the largest Hindi broadsheet in India. He had previously written about a guru accused of sexual assault, and Yadav believes he was attacked by one of the guru’s followers. Singh was the first to visit Yadav in the hospital.
“Jagendra was so charged after the attack on me that he even criticized the then Superintendent of Police in Shahjahanpur,” Yadav told me. “He was a real journalist.”
Not even Singh’s father, the local postmaster, was immune to scrutiny. When Singh learned mail was going undistributed or missing, he filed a scathing piece that led to an investigation against Sumer Singh.
“Grandpa in turn threw papa out of his house,” said Singh’s son, Rajan. “Papa would not compromise on truth and honesty. His bureau chiefs would find truth unpalatable.”
Singh’s style of reporting meant he didn’t last long at the newspapers he worked for. Feeling inhibited by the mainstream press, Singh created a Facebook page called Shahjahanpur Samachar, or Shahjahanpur News, in 2011.
Many of the reports were innocuous updates on crime, local birthdays and car accidents, but he also wrote on land encroachment, illegal mining and small-time corruption. Some days, he posted more than a dozen stories. He gathered a following of around 5,000 readers and became a major source of news tips for the mainstream press, which frequently paid him $15 apiece to republish his reports.
By April, Singh began publishing accusations against Verma based on information often supplied to him by Verma’s political rivals.
Journalists in India typically set boundaries for themselves to avoid confrontation, said Sanjeev Pathak, a bureau chief for Amar Ujala, who worked with Singh. He said Singh breached that boundary.
“He did not understand difference between recklessness and courage,” Pathak said. Referring to Singh’s campaign against Verma, Pathak said, “Touching a high-tension wire is recklessness.”
India is the ninth most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 1992, 37 journalists have been killed there because of their profession — more than in Afghanistan.
Uttar Pradesh saw a wave of such violence in late 2013.
Rakesh Sharma, a 50-year-old crime reporter for the Hindi daily Aaj, wrote a story about illegal gambling operations and on Aug. 23 was gunned down by two men on motorcycle. Colleagues believe the local gambling mafia ordered the murder. The next day, closer to New Delhi, the body of a journalist who goes by Zakiullah was found in a bag on the side of a road. Then, on Sept. 7, Rajesh Verma, a stringer for the Hindi news channel IBN7, was shot in the chest while covering a riot. Others were beaten up around that time.
Many reporters in Uttar Pradesh associate the rise in violence with the rise of the Samajwadi Party, which came to power in the state in 2012 under Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
“Though crime is not entirely limited to the rise of the Samajwadi Party, it is also true that lawlessness increases when the party is in power,” said Pathak. The resident editor of a prominent English daily in the state capital, Lucknow, who wrote a book about Akhilesh Yadav, said, “Crime is in SP’s DNA.”
The party has long tolerated a culture of threats and retribution, frequently allowing alleged criminals to remain in office. A month ago, a judge in Mahoba District issued a summons to Mulayam Singh Yadav, the national president of the Samajwadi Party, to answer for comments he made suggesting rape victims are liars. The next day, the judge’s landlord said he received a call from a district-level party boss demanding that he throw the judge out of his home. (Yadav had opposed tougher anti-rape laws in 2012, saying, “Boys will be boys.”)
Even party chairman Yadav himself has resorted to threats, including against a senior police officer. Amitabh Thakur, an inspector general in Uttar Pradesh, alleged in July that Yadav called him and warned: “Mend your ways.” Thakur recorded the call and filed a complaint to the police. Yadav apparently had been displeased that Thakur’s wife, a prominent activist, accused a state cabinet minister of illegal mining.
Thakur, a mechanical engineer who joined the police force in 1992, has garnered a reputation for confronting powerful politicians. He once told a reporter, “I had joined the Indian Police Service because I wanted to transform the society. I don’t know how far I have succeeded.”
When he heard that a dying journalist named Jagendra Singh was blaming a Samajwadi Party leader for the attack, Thakur decided to open his own personal investigation. He visited Singh in the hospital on June 3 and recorded a video of Singh repeating his allegations. Thakur also interviewed Singh’s neighbors. He believes the police tortured Singh, but cannot prove it.
Thakur told me there are only three possibilities: Either the police poured the kerosene and ignited it, Singh poured the kerosene and the police ignited it, or Singh committed suicide.
Singh filed his first report about Verma on April 27. He wrote that a district officer named Brajesh Shukla forged ration cards intended for the poor to purchase wheat at a subsidized price, then sold the grain on the black market. When a corruption complaint was filed against Shukla, Verma submitted a letter to the ombudsman endorsing Shukla’s work. Singh obtained a copy of the letter and held it as proof the pair were in collusion.
The next day five men attacked Singh and broke one of his legs. Far from discouraging Singh, the attack seemed to embolden him. He slogged from morning to evening, posting news to his Facebook page. If his children called while he was writing a report, he wouldn’t answer the phone.
Singh began likening Verma with Ravana, a mythological demon king who was finally vanquished by the Hindu god Rama. Singh vowed to his wife, Suman Lata, that he would end the rule of Ravana in Shahjahanpur. She replied, “You are not Rama, are you?”
He filed more stories, a report alleging that Verma had illegally mined a river bed. And he posted another saying Verma had encroached on public land by rerouting a 6-meter-wide sewage drain in Jamaur, a town about 40 kilometers from Shahjahanpur. He posted before-and-after pictures purporting to show how Verma annexed the left bank of the ditch to his own property.
On May 10, another social media journalist in Shahjahanpur, Amit Pratap Singh Bhadauria, filed a criminal complaint, known as a First Information Report, against Singh for attempted murder. He alleged that Singh and his friends assaulted him. Singh’s friends say it was only a scuffle, and Singh proclaimed that Verma had orchestrated the case. (Bhadauria did not answer the phone when I called.)
“The First Information Report filed against Jagendra is definitely false,” Thakur told me. Having had his leg broken, Singh “was not even able to walk properly. He was incapacitated. How could he have assaulted Bhadauria?”
But how much of Singh’s reports were true? Singh was not an objective newsman by most standards; he employed bombastic language and relied on dubious sources. And generally speaking, journalists in India are often paid so little — less than $200 per month for staff reporters — that they regularly accept payments from special interests. “One has to make collections from local administration, businessmen and politicians,” one local journalist told me. “If the reporter does not, the bureau chief will.”
Suman Lata told me Verma had offered money to her husband several times, but Singh refused.
I spoke with Verma by phone. Though he is under investigation, Verma has been allowed to maintain his ministry postings. He told me he had nothing to do with Singh’s death or with the attempted murder case Bhadauria filed. And he said a political rival, Devendra Pal Singh, was responsible for feeding the journalist false reports.
“I have not encroached even on an inch of public land. Nor have I mined even a cart of sand from the river bed. Devendra Pal Singh used Jagendra Singh against me. Action should be taken against him,” Verma said.
Devendra Pal Singh had challenged Verma in elections for the state assembly in 2012, but Verma won the race. Devendra Pal Singh has since been expelled from the Samajwadi Party. By phone, he told me Verma is pushing his name into the controversy to divert attention from himself.
But Sharma, Singh’s former newspaper editor, said he believes Devendra Pal Singh used the journalist against Verma. Sharma also doubts whether police really did kill Singh. “He would often tell me, ‘Either I will die or kill the police.’”
On May 22, Singh wrote on his Facebook page: “Ram Murti Singh Verma can have me killed. At this time, politicians, thugs and the police are all after me. Writing truth is weighing heavily on my life.”
Yet over the next few days, he published his most startling reports. He wrote that his friend, the child health worker Mohini, had been abducted by police Inspector Sri Prakash Rai, taken to a government guesthouse and gangraped by Verma and others on May 5.
Mohini, a widow, worked in a children’s shelter called an anganwadi, where parents can bring their kids for health care and proper meals. She submitted an affidavit to the court testifying against Verma. In the days that followed, Mohini began to feel threatened. She arranged a meeting with a member of Indian Parliament and told her that men had been harassing her two daughters while they walked to school. Some had even broken into her house and brandished a pistol at her, she said.
Reprisals against Singh, however, seemed to become less overt.
On May 31, Singh was at his home in Khutar when he received a phone call from Anil Verma, the minister’s nephew, at 9:24 p.m., according to the Press Council of India, which organized an investigation of Singh’s death. Anil Verma told Singh to report to his uncle’s home. Suman Lata told her husband not to leave so late, that he could go to Verma’s office in the morning. The same night, Singh received another call from a mobile number saved as “MLA,” which may stand for “member of legislative assembly.”
(The Press Council of India spent two days in Shahjahanpur. They wrote a report blasting the Shahjahanpur police for failing to investigate the two calls.)
The next morning, June 1, Singh left for his other home in Shahjahanpur, a shabby one-room house where he slept on weekdays after working in the city. His younger son, Rahul, was riding on the back of his rundown motorbike. The two spent a little while at the house. Singh was taking a bath when Rahul left to attend a funeral for a relative in a nearby town. Later, Mohini arrived at the house to talk about her rape allegations.
Rajan, the older son, was in Shahjahanpur to meet with some friends and stopped by his father’s house around 2 p.m. He found a police jeep parked outside the residence. A few policemen, including Rai, were trying to jump over the fence around the property.
“Why are you climbing the wall?” Rajan asked. They told him they were there to arrest Singh in connection to the attempted murder case. Then they pried apart the gate and rushed inside.
Rajan didn’t see his father until he was already burned. When I spoke with him in early July, he was adamant that Rai had poured petrol on his father from a Pepsi bottle he brought with him. According to the story his father told him, sprinkles of the petrol fell on Mohini’s back, but Singh pushed her aside before fire engulfed his torso. Singh ran frantically around the room before policemen threw a blanket on him to put out the flames.
A neighbor told me that Singh crawled out of the house on his knees, screaming at the police officers. “His skin had peeled,” said the neighbor, who asked me not to publish his name. “He was abusing policemen and shouting, ‘Look, neighbors! The cops have burned me!’”
The police rushed Jagendra to Shahjahanpur Civil Hospital in their jeep. There a magistrate recorded his statement, which Mohini endorsed. The police, however, charged them both with attempted suicide, obstructing the police and criminal conspiracy.
The same day, doctors transferred Singh to the larger Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civil Hospital in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, where forensic scientists analyzed Singh’s burns. They concluded that Singh immolated himself, reasoning that Singh likely poured the kerosene with his right hand because he had fewer burns there.
After Singh died, his family refused to cremate him until the police registered a case against Verma, Rai and the police officers. After pressure on social media, police filed a criminal complaint against the officials. But Singh’s family continued to demand an independent investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s version of the FBI.
“He got killed for speaking truth,” Suman Lata told me in early July when I met her at her home. She said she told her husband in the hospital what the police were saying, that he lit himself on fire. When she asked whether it was true, Singh told her he couldn’t possibly have inflicted himself with so much pain. “Let them burn even a finger of theirs,” he said.
Everybody in Shahjahanpur — from journalists to rickshaw pullers to eatery owners to pharmacists — has heard about the incident and has an opinion. They are divided on whether Verma had Singh killed but are unanimous that the police played a dubious role.
Over the past two months, however, interest in the case has died down, ever since those closest to Singh began reversing their statements. On July 21, Suman Lata and her son Rajan went before a judicial magistrate and said Singh committed suicide. They also withdrew their criminal complaint and were in the process of withdrawing their court petitions for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The next day, Mohini also went before the court and reversed her statement, saying she saw Singh commit suicide. A few days later, she dropped her gangrape case against Verma. She gave no explanations.
I called Rajan to find out what was happening. “My father told my mother before death that he had immolated himself,” he said. “My mother was under shock and has remembered it only now.”
But Virendra Pal Singh Chouhan, a Shahjahanpur lawyer who has represented Singh and Mohini, attributes the retraction to a different reason: “They have bought a Swift Dzire car and are reconstructing their house,” he said.
The Singhs have collected about $45,000 from the government and $7,500 in private donations, including from Chouhan. But Chouhan believes the family has taken money from Verma, too. Singh’s father earlier told me that Verma’s public relations officer approached him on June 20 offering about $31,000 and a job for his grandson.
Chouhan said “action should be initiated” against Singh’s family for lying to police and for accepting bribes.
The Shahjahanpur police, which are investigating Singh’s death, say they are trying to corroborate Mohini’s statements to determine which is correct. “We have so far not concluded,” said Police Superintendent Bablu Kumar. “But the only eyewitness of the incident says Jagendra committed suicide.”
Singh’s friend, the journalist Narendra Yadav, said he believes Mohini’s first statement was the correct one. But even if Singh lit the fire, it was the police who drove him to pick up the match. “For a moment, even if I presume that he committed suicide, who compelled him to do so?” Yadav said.
Yadav understands the pressure Singh felt. After the assailant tried to kill him, Yadav’s newspaper transferred him from Shahjahanpur to a city 80 kilometers away. He’s been given a revolver and an armed guard who stands posted outside his house 24 hours while he types on his laptop.
Singh “was as real a journalist as possible,” Yadav said. “That’s the kind of journalism I too have practiced and almost lost my life for.” He added, “I am a caged bird now.”
A storyteller by nature and journalist by profession, Narendra Kaushik has been in journalism for over two decades. He has worked with almost all genres of print media but still loves traveling and unraveling the unknown.
Edited by Ben Wolford.