: Recommends probe by a Supreme Court judge Calls for a more sensitive political executive : New Delhi, January 30, 2015 : A three-member committee of the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA) conducted an enquiry into the allegations of lathi-charge by the police on media persons on November 18, 2014 to ascertain the reasons and culpability, and suggest methods to ensure that such incidents do not take place in future. The committee recorded statements of dozens of the victims of the police lathi-charge. It also met the senior police officers as also some constables besides the Chief Minister of Haryana to apprise itself of their versions. The committee also visited the spot and talked to the local villagers.
After delving deep into the facts, averments, opinions and also after a recount of concatenation of the events that led to such sordid assault by the police, the committee submitted its report. The committee found that not only the victim journalists including camera persons but also the police officers were categorical in their assertions that there was no provocation from or causing of functional impediment from the side of media persons with regard to police operation . Some senior officers who were monitoring the police actions did admit that the lathi-charge on the media persons was an unfortunate incident. Local villagers too said that the media persons positioned themselves where the police wanted them to be.
That being the case, the committee had to embark on three issues: (a) the mens rea behind the illegal police action, (b) the level at which this wanton act was carried out and (c) at whose behest. On the fateful day ie November 18, 2014, there was an initial reluctance in allowing the media persons to cover the two –day-old high voltage drama at the ashram wherein Rampal’s men equipped with weapons and using women and kids as human shields continued to obstruct police force from entering the premises in order to arrest Rampal as per the direction of the court. Across the country it turned out to be a major news event. It was the job of the media to cover the event. Two concerns form the basis of media duty towards the society. These concerns were (1) How can a few hundred socalled “Bhaktas” of Baba Rampal in a public show of their scant regard to the rule of law and subsequent operation of court order render the law enforcing agencies stultified ; And (2) Whether the State agencies in carrying out the task transgress the limits and assails the parameters of human rights. The basic principles of administrations are loud and clear. Rationality and concomitant adherence to doctrine of minimum use of force with application of modern methods need to be taken recourse to in such serious situation. Media cannot leave this aspect uncovered giving a free run to either side.
Hence the media persons who were held up some one-and-a-half kilometer away from the place of occurrence insisted on covering the event. After much deliberations among the top police brass (may be the political executives were also taken in the loop), the media persons were asked to give a list of those supposed to cover the event. It was complied with. The total names were 86 but only 77 were present. A police officer of the Dy SP rank escorted them through a “safe” corridor and asked them not to come close to the place of action. The police had deployed ambulance and bulldozers with an obvious plan to demolish the structure and use force.
Even the police officers admitted that there was no barricading of the area and police had not cordoned off the place. Media persons deployed the cameramen in a radius of 100-200 meters from the front and left side of the ashram. The distance between two farthest points where media persons had positioned themselves was a little over 500 meters.
But hardly had the operation begun by the policemen assisted by the para-military forces , when medias persons were subjected to lathi-charge. This attack was not confined to one place but all over the area ie in sprawl of over half-a-kilometer . The policemen started beating the hapless reporters, cameramen and other scribes mercilessly. The camera or I-cards shown by the media did not deter them from the sordid act. Rather it was taken by the police as a sign of identification for hitting. Almost all cameramen said that there target was media persons, camera and footage.
One reporter Vikas Chandra who had sustained a head injury had had to remain in hospital for nearly 10 days. He was subjected to continuous beating with a blunt object and when he fell unconscious , the policemen dragged him to a vehicle and even inside the moving vehicle, the policemen continued beating him. Finally instead of taking him to hospital, the policemen dropped him by wayside. Many other reporters have suffered broken arms and had come to depose before the committee with plasters on their hands.
The incident was not an isolated case. In an area of 500 meters wherever the media persons were spotted flashing their camera or the I-cards, the police beat them with the sole purpose of scaring them away and for blocking the coverage . Since it was not confined to a small area manned by a section of police men, the obvious conclusion that can be drawn is: (1) it was not a small section of angry policemen fuming over the coverage but the entire police force deployed in the outer ring and (2) that the assault was pre-meditated. The third logical corollary is that this could not have been possible without an instruction from the police officer in-charge of the operation.
What buttresses this conclusion is that even after the incident, there was no trace of remorse at the level of senior police officers or the political masters as they did not bother to take the injured media persons to the hospital. Ironically the state police chief at the press conference sought to dismiss the event as a non-event. Besides a ruling party leader pooh-poohed it by saying “it was not an India-Pakistan cricket match. Why should the media show such event live?”.
The insensitivity was so glaringly inhuman that the police officers , for the following two days, were reluctant to lodge FIRs by the victim media persons against their own men. Even the chief Minister faulted the media while talking to the committee. In his opinion in such a situation the media should not have got close to the place where operation was underway. When his attention was drawn to the fact that the police lathi-charge was not in the operational area but in the fields spread over half a kilometer, he said “I will try to enquire into this aspect”.
This brought the committee to the moot question: Why did a large number of police force resort to a well-orchestrated lathi-charge on the media persons a few minutes after the operation to enter the premise. The committee recalled that ambulances were positioned with obvious motive to press them in service after the use of force. The senior police officers did not want the use of force against women and kids to be recorded by the media for showing it on channels. In the absence of media, the policemen could have got a free run and injured could have whisked away without any trace. The absence of media could have also allowed them a functional leeway to manipulate evidences of wanton use of force by claiming that victims were injured by Rampal’s own men.
And thus they worked to a plan. By resorting to a large-scale unprovoked lathi-charge the police ensured that not a single medias camera remained in the vicinity. Till date the questions that remained unanswered were: what was the nature of use of force and what was the number of injured persons inside the Ashram and how the victims of use of force by the police were removed from the scene?
The committee recommends
(1) Institution of a high level judicial enquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge
(2) The political executive should be sensitive to such incidents
(3) The cost of cameras damaged by the police be paid by the Government
(4) Footages be handed over to the channels.
Qamar Waheed Naqvi
N K Singh
Broadcast Editors’ Association is the apex body of Editors of National & Regional TV News channels of India