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Gorakhpur: “I’ll forget the 27-day jail ordeal as a horrific nightmare provided that the spirit of unity and struggle that our arrest kindled among journalists remains intact. The passion with which Ballia journalists led the movement, held demonstrations in the scorching heat and garnered support from all over the country is the reason the three of us (journalists) are out of jail today and the government has been forced to withdraw grave criminal allegations levelled against us,” says Ajit Ojha, the Amar Ujala correspondent arrested for breaking the board exam paper leak news in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district.
Released after nearly a month from Azamgarh jail, journalists Ajit Ojha and Digvijay Singh spoke to The Wire and shared detailed information about their ordeal and the arrest of fellow journalist Manoj Gupta by the Ballia district administration in the paper leak scandal. The administration allegedly got the scribes arrested on fake charges to save its neck and harass them.
Ojha and Singh are upset because no action has been taken against the officials who conspired to have them arrested.
Ojha started his journalistic career in 2004 and worked with several leading as well as local newspapers, including Hindustan and Amar Ujala. He was posted in Ghazipur and Mau, and returned to Ballia in March 2020 and has been associated with Amar Ujala ever since. Before joining journalism, he was the president of the student union in Ballia’s SC College in 2002.
Ojha said that when he was arrested from his office at noon on March 30, a peon and another colleague from the advertising department were present in the office. “My bureau chief was not present,” he said. “I told the Ballia police officer who came to arrest me to wait for our bureau chief as he would be there in 15 minutes. I asked him if an FIR had been registered against me. The officer replied that I would have to accompany him to the police station for interrogation. I insisted upon waiting for the bureau chief and told him to ask whatever he needed to ask in the office only. At this point, the officer used force and grabbed me like a criminal and forcibly took me to the police station.”
“Later, I came to know that the police force had earlier raided my house but when they found out that I had left for office, they left. Meanwhile, the SHO from Haldi police station called me on my mobile several times but since I was driving, I did not receive the call. When I called him back after reaching the office, the SHO asked me where I was. I told him that I was at the office. Soon after, the Ballia police officer reached my office and arrested me.”
“At the police station, the SHO asked me for my mobile which I handed over to him. I informed him that I got a call from the district school inspector followed by a call from the district magistrate that morning. Both of them asked me for a copy of the English question paper that had leaked. I refused at first but when both the officers insisted that they wanted to reach the culprits behind the paper leak through it, I sent the paper to both of them via WhatsApp. I also told the SHO that the DIOS and DM had called me the previous day as well and asked me about the leaked Sanskrit paper of Class 12.”
“The DM then told me that he had a lot of respect for me because I was doing good journalism. The same day, the ASP and the district information officer also called me. The DM also told me that it was a serious matter and that if anything comes up, I should inform him on his personal number. I told him that we include the version of the concerned department or officer in the news and that the district administration’s version was also included in the report.”
“We had also published the DM’s comments about the Sanskrit paper leak. He had said that an inquiry committee has been formed in this regard and it is investigating whether the paper leaked from Ballia or some other district. Though I did share the leaked paper with the DM, I told him that I was afraid action might be taken against me because a few years ago FIRs were registered against journalists for reporting on paper leaks.”
“The DM assured me that no action will be taken against me.”
Ojha added that he believes it was a mistake to trust the DM’s words.
He said that before the DM’s call, the district information officer also called him up and told him that the DM appreciated his work. “We spoke for about 16 minutes and he was all praise for me throughout the conversation,” he said.
“I told the SHO that I have not sent the viral question paper to anyone other than the DIOS and the DM and that they could simply check my mobile to find out. The SHO returned my phone after a while. I suspected that he might have tampered with my mobile or planted fake evidence. All the conversations I had with the officers are recorded in my mobile. Meanwhile, fellow journalists reached the police station and started protesting against my arrest. They brought me out of the SHO’s chamber and made me sit with them in a sit-in protest. I asked some of my colleagues to take a backup of all call records from my mobile as I believed there was a conspiracy against me. Several of them took backup of all call records and other data from my mobile.”
“I was arrested at 12 PM from my office but the FIR was registered at 4:30 PM and the place of arrest is stated as a city intersection at 6:30 PM. It also said that I was on the run when I was caught.”
“I was detained at the police station till 7:30 pm and then taken for a medical examination. After being arrested, I was not allowed to meet anyone, nor was I allowed to buy clothes and essential items before being sent to jail. The police officers kept giving false information about my location to relatives and fellow journalists.”
“I was taken to police lines, then to Gadwar, to Phephna and Chitbara village police stations and finally brought to Azamgarh jail late at night. The DIOS was also brought to jail with me. As soon as I reached the barracks after completing the formalities in jail, a team of SOG Azamgarh arrived at 12 AM. I thought that they would pick me up from there and take me to some other place. I feared being killed in a fake encounter. The prison guards opposed my interrogation late at night and asked the team to come in the morning for questioning. Despite this, the SOG team questioned me for some time. The prison guards were present there during the interrogation. After the questioning was over, the SOG team members as well as the prison guards sympathised with me and said that they were victims of the system too.”
Ojha said that the first 72 hours inside the prison were very tough. He had no clothes to wear. Another prisoner gave him jaggery and water. There were about 150 people in the small barrack.
“On the second day, 15 more people including journalists Digvijay Singh and Manoj Gupta were arrested in the same case and were brought to Azamgarh jail. Digvijay Singh brought clothes for me. On the third day, the STF reached the jail and interrogated me in private for an hour. Then, Digvijay Singh and I were interrogated together. After interrogation, the STF officer spoke to someone on the phone and said that the officers have trapped the journalists to save their neck. An STF official said that they were sent for questioning us on the orders of the chief minister. Journalist Digvijay Singh’s brave act at the time of his arrest had gone viral and they had been asked to interrogate us to find out the truth. An officer also said that we had done revolutionary work, to which I had sarcastically remarked that it was why we were in jail.”
Ojha said that within four days, 44 people were arrested in the paper leak incident, many of whom had nothing to do with the scandal.
The young journalist also said that the police and administration also investigated his property and bank accounts so that a case could be built against him, but they found nothing against him.
Digvijay Singh, the 65-year-old scribe arrested in the case, has a journalistic career spanning over more than four decades. He has worked in newspapers like Janvarta and Swatantra Bharat, and has been associated with Amar Ujala for a long time. As a student, he was involved in the JP movement and was associated with the Chhatra Sangharsh Yuva Vahini. He studied at the Banaras Hindu University.
He told The Wire that he got news of the Sanskrit exam paper leak on March 28 and when he got a copy of the leaked paper on WhatsApp from his source, he informed the district headquarters. Some local portals also reported it. Soon after, the English question paper of Class 12 also got leaked and went viral on WhatsApp. The news also appeared in his newspaper.
Singh said that on the morning of March 30, he got a call from CO Rasda who asked him about the paper leak. Then, SO Nagra called and asked him to come to the police station. When he went to the police station, the SO was eating. Without waiting to finish his meal, he started asking about the paper leak and Singh’s source of information, but the journalist refused to reveal the identity of the source.
“At 2:30 pm, I got a call from the Additional SP asking me to come to Nagra Dak Bungalow. I reached Rasda police station along with Manoj Gupta. There, the ASP asked Inspector Rasda to record our statement. We were detained there till 7 pm and then sent to Rasda police station. The next day we were taken to the Nagra police station before noon. After some time, both of us were locked up for about one and a half hours. After this, we were taken to Nagra CHC. Then, both of us were sent to Ballia, along with 15 other people arrested in the same case to be presented before the magistrate.”
“There was no FIR against me. An FIR was registered against ‘certain unknown chaotic elements and education mafia’ in Nagra police station and my name was included in the investigation.”
Singh said that when he reached Ballia court, he met many journalists there. “All of them were visibly upset and were silent. I knew that our arrest has left the journalists disheartened. So, I started shouting slogans to boost their morale. Many journalists recorded it and the clip went viral in no time. From there I was sent to Azamgarh Jail.”
Singh said that the barrack where he was locked up had hardly a place to sleep. “I spent the first night sitting. On April 2, the STF team came to the jail for interrogation. We told them clearly that we were merely discharging our journalistic duties. We were implicated to cover up the rising incidents of cheating and paper leak in Ballia district.”
“The Yogi [Adityanath] government hates the truth,” he added. “The government has turned fascistic. As a result, bureaucrats have become unbridled. The DM and the SP are running a dictatorship in Ballia. Cheating during the board examination in the entire district was carried out at an organised level. Allocation of funds from the Centre was also arbitrary and involved huge amounts of bribe. When the paper leak news spread, journalists were made scapegoats as a cover up for the actual story.”
He said that the way journalists, lawyers, businessmen, the student community, the youth and several political parties came together in support of the arrested reporters was unprecedented. “It is the quality of the rebellious region of Ballia that the people here do not tolerate injustice. Our fight will continue till action is taken against the DM and the SP responsible for implicating us in false cases.”
After the release of the three scribes, the journalists had suspended their agitation for a fortnight on the assurance of BJP MP from Ballia, Virendra Singh Mast, that the government would take action in this matter, but till now no action has been taken against the responsible persons. Madhusudan Singh, a key member of the United Patrakar Sangharsh Morcha and the provincial chief general secretary of the National Journalists Association of India, said that discussions are being held regarding the second round of the movement and the final decision will be made public soon.
Manoj Singh is the editor of Gorakhpur Newsline.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.