New Delhi: At around 2:30 pm on Tuesday (August 11), Shahid Tantray, assistant photo editor at Caravan magazine, Prabhjit Singh, a contributor to the magazine and a third staffer, a woman, found themselves surrounded by a group of about 100 people in North East Delhi. According to them, the mob demanded that they delete the footage they had so far recorded while reporting in the area.
The three were looking into communal tensions that had broken out in the area on August 5, following the ‘bhoomi pujan‘ ceremony in Ayodhya for the Ram temple. Saffron flags had allegedly been placed outside a mosque in Subhash Mohalla, and anti-Muslim slogans that night. The reporters say they were almost done with their work, and were shooting B-rolls when somebody came up to them and objected to their videography.
The female Caravan staffer alleged that she was both sexually and physically assaulted by the group on Tuesday, and a middle-aged man flashed his genitals at her.
“After we had shot the Muslim side of the story, we entered this lane in which there is a Hindu population. When we entered the lane [no. 2], we saw saffron flags on the entry gates,” says Tantray. After seeing a few women standing nearby, the three reporters decided to interview them. After this, they started shooting B-roll and close-up shots of a house where a saffron flag was placed.
“Suddenly, two men approached us. One of them introduced himself as a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] worker. I asked him what the problem was. He objected our videography and said, ‘What’s the problem with putting up saffron flags?’” Tantray then offered to hear the men out and take their interviews, in case they wanted to voice their opinions. “His response was, ‘Main tucche patrakaron se baat nahin karta…mai unko peetta rehta hoon (I don’t talk to lowly reporters, I only beat them up)’.”
Tantray claims to have this recorded on his phone as an audio file. The two men, according to Tantray, then blocked the exit from both sides of the lane and told them that they couldn’t leave. The two gates on both ends of the lane have appeared after the February Delhi riots that killed 53 people.
“He then dialled a few numbers and asked us to wait till those people come. From two, the mob slowly increased to about 100 people.” The group, according to Tantray, was abusive and demanded that he delete the footage from his camera completely. “I asked them, why should I delete it? If you have any privacy issues, you can always sue us. And whatever you have to say, I am still open to listening to it – on camera.”
They refused to talk to him on the record and repeated the previous statement about the reporters being “lowly journalists”, threatening to beat them up. Slowly, as the crowd swelled, the exit gates of the lane were locked from both sides.
“They themselves then called the police,” Tantray says. “For more than one hour, we kept requesting to them to speak to us on the record, whatever they had to say, they could say it on video. In response, they kept kicking and punching me and my colleague.”
Another man, wearing a saffron-coloured kurta, according to Tantray, was instigating women in the crowd to grab the camera from him. “I had kept my camera around my neck – one of the women tried to suffocate me with the strap.”
Ultimately, the footage was completely deleted from the camera, as the mob wanted. “There were some photographs, a Hindu women’s interview, seven interviews of Muslim families, all of them lost. I felt so trapped that I thought the only way to get out of this was to reformat my camera. I was completely gheraoed and people were constantly beating me,” Tantray says.
Attack on Muslim identity
However, the crowd still would not let them go. They demanded that the reporters show them ID cards. According to Tantray, when they realised that he was Muslim, the crowd was charged up once again, calling him a “katua (derogatory words used for Muslims) Musalman”.
The group, after this, lost control. “Then they had decided that it is best to beat me up. Even after the police came, they didn’t listen.” Initially, two police officers from the Bhajanpura police station had come and tried to calm down the group, but to no avail. “They were beating us in front of the police,” Tantray says. According to him, the police’s attempts to pacify the violent crowd were half-hearted. “My neck and shoulders still hurt. Thankfully, I was wearing a helmet. If it weren’t there, I would have suffered severe head injuries.”
Singh, who was standing next to Tantray, deliberately started calling him “Sagar”, a Hindu name, to escape the violence. However, the crowd was adamant on checking the ID cards and forced Tantray to show his. Singh says, “The moment Shahid showed them his ID card, he started getting beaten up even more. And let me be very clear on this – it was because of his Muslim identity. The crowd became especially aggressive after seeing his Muslim name.”
The woman journalist has filed a separate statement at the Bhajanpura police station in the presence of a lawyer as well as a colleague.
The Caravan described the attacks on its journalists in a series of tweets late on Tuesday night.
Yesterday, in the Subhash Mohalla locality in north-east Delhi, a group of men and women assaulted three staffers of @thecaravanindia—@Prabhtalks, @shahidtantray and a third staff member—to stop them from reporting.
A thread of their coverage of the #DelhiViolence:
— The Caravan (@thecaravanindia) August 11, 2020
Describing the experience of the woman staffer, Caravan said, “Young men surrounded her and took her pictures and videos without her consent, and verbally harassed her. A middle-aged man exposed his genitals to her, shook his penis and made lewd facial expressions at her.”
The statement further added, “As the woman staffer ran and attempted to reach the Bhajanpura station, the mob attacked her again. The attackers beat her on her head, arms, hips and chest. The man in the saffron kurta was among them, as were two women.” After the mob began attacking her, Tantray and Singh, she managed to extricate herself and escape to a neighbouring gully, Caravan said.
Hartosh Singh Bal, the magazine’s political editor, tweeted saying that despite detailed complaints filed in the Bhajanpura police station, no FIR has been registered by the police so far.
the police thana supposed to act on the complaints of of the reporters is the same thana that figured in this two-day-old report by 2 of these very reportershttps://t.co/I0s60EAP92
— Hartosh Singh Bal (@HartoshSinghBal) August 11, 2020
“These kinds of incidents are professional hazards for the media,” Prabhjit Singh says. “It is high time the entire media fraternity do more ground reportage now. The media should rather further strengthen itself by doing more and more ground reporting. The message that gets out should not be that the miscreants had been able to chase away or scare the media, it should be the other way around. The media should now emerge stronger, if we want to save democracy.”
Replying to this correspondent’s tweet, the DCP North East Delhi, Ved Prakash Surya wrote, “Today afternoon some journalists were taking photographs and interviews in the communally sensitive area to which local people objected. Police acted swiftly to pacify the situation. Complaints filed by both sides and being enquired into.”
Another tweet said, “The allegations of saffron flag on mosque on 5th August is false, mischievous and malicious with an intent to disturb peace in the area. There has been a trend of spreading misinformation to create distrust among communities.”
The allegations of saffron flag on mosque on 5th August is false, mischievous and malicious with an intent to disturb peace in the area. There has been a trend of spreading misinformation to create distrust among communities.
— DCP North East Delhi (@DCPNEastDelhi) August 11, 2020
Earlier, when The Wire had spoken to Ashok Sharma, SHO of Bhajanpura police station, he had confirmed that the August 5 incident had taken place. However, he added that there was no crime in lighting crackers or putting up saffron flags.
He had said, “On August 5, the day of the bhoomi pujan, some people put up saffron flags in their lanes. Hindus and Muslims both live in this locality. They also burst crackers. Now they are asking us to take action against those people. This was a non-issue. When everybody in the nation is celebrating, lighting diyas and bursting crackers, what’s the issue?”