Days after the arrest of Anandabazar Patrika (ABP) reporter Debmalya Bagchi in Kharagpur, West Bengal, multiple questions are being raised about the nature of police action against the well-known journalist and the timing and credibility of the complaint against him.
Interestingly, the recording of a telephonic conversation reportedly between the complainant and a journalist has surfaced, where the former admits that the allegations brought by her against the ABP reporter are fictitious and that she acted ‘out of anger’.
Bagchi was arrested on September 6, 2023, after an FIR was filed against him and Basanti Das at Kharagpur Town police station based on the complaint of a woman lodged on August 28. He was booked under Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 354B (assault or use of criminal force with intent to disrobe), 509 (uttering any word or making any gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman), and under non-bailable provisions of the Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Bagchi, an ABP reporter for 12 years and at present the paper’s Kharagpur correspondent, recently wrote two reports highlighting illegal hooch trade in the Patnapara area of Sanjoal in Kharagpur’s Ward No 24. The first of these appeared on August 26 and the second on August 29. None of the reports carried his byline.
The August 26 report (headlined রমরমিয়ে চোলাই ব্যবসা, নির্বিকার প্রশাসন/ Hooch trade flourishes, no action from administration), stated that some women from the above-mentioned locality had filed a written complaint with Kharagpur Town police about the flourishing illegal liquor trade in a residential area. One of them was Basanti Das. The report talked about their demands and the responses from the local councillor and the municipality chairman. It also described in detail how the hooch trade was going on from shanties and even boys and girls as young as 12 or 13 were involved in it. The area was thronged by drunkards round the clock and this had vitiated the atmosphere of the locality, women told the reporter. They also said that the hooch sellers would boast that they had been in this business for 30 years and no one could do anything to stop them. The local councillor expressed his helplessness and said that he had repeatedly informed the police about the menace.
On August 29, a follow-up story was published in ABP (headlined অভিযোগকারীদের বাড়ি ঘেরাও চোলাই কারবারিদের, হুমকিও/ Hooch traders gherao and threaten complainants). This report stated that on the night of Sunday, August 27, police raided the area and detained some drunkards. According to the report, police stated that the hooch sellers were ‘alert’ and hence no one of them could be arrested during the raid on Sunday. Following this, the illegal hooch sellers raided the houses of complainants Basanti Das and Bandana Patra in the evening, kicked their doors and threatened them of dire consequences if the complaint was not withdrawn. The women alleged that they had made repeated calls to police during the incident, but they turned up about an hour later.
Alt News accessed videos of one such spurious liquor outlet from the area. A woman can be seen bringing a plastic bottle with a colourless liquid in it from inside a shanty and serving a man who drinks from a glass. A plastic sheet has been placed apparently in a way that this is hidden from the public eye. Another man can be seen standing and drinking, while another man gets up and leaves.
Things took an unexpected turn when a written complaint by a certain Saraswati Singh dated August 28 surfaced, in which she accused Bagchi and anti-hooch activist Basanti Das of verbally abusing them with casteist slurs. She also accused Bagchi of pulling at and tearing her clothes and physically assaulting her. According to her, the incident took place at 7.30pm on August 27, around the same time as the hooch sellers had raided the houses of Das and Patra. At the beginning of the complaint she identified herself as belonging to the scheduled tribe. An FIR was lodged based on the complaint.
A little before 4 am on September 6, police from Kharagpur Town PS led by sub-inspector Purushottam Pandey reached Bagchi’s house, where he lived with his wife, one-year-old daughter and aged parents, and shouted at him to come out. Around 5, he posted a video on Facebook expressing his dismay at the turn of events.
The readers should note that being a journalist, Bagchi was in regular contact with local and district-level police officials. The manner in which his house was raided in the dead of night, has, therefore, raised many eyebrows. One of Bagchi’s family members, still in shock, told Alt News, “Police could have just called him up and asked him to meet them at the station. Such midnight raids are carried out in the dens of history-sheeters or wanted criminals. We are yet to understand why such action was necessary against an honest, well-meaning journalist.”
Bagchi’s family members said he then called up his superiors at ABP and reporters and colleagues in Kharagpur and Midnapore town. Most of them suggested him to stay put. He also made repeated calls to the Kharagpur Town IC and West Midnapore SP, but there was no response from them. The policemen waited in front of his house till 8 am. The ABP office in Kolkata advised Bagchi to go to the PS in the morning and meet the IC. This was corroborated to Alt News by a senior ABP journalist based in Kolkata.
At 10.15 am, Bagchi left his home on another reporter’s bike for the police station. He was arrested at 11.30 am. Basanti Das, too, was arrested from her home earlier on the same day. Both of them were produced in West Midnapore district court and sent to judicial custody till September 15.
The readers should note in August 2022, the Supreme Court had pulled up the Jharkhand government for arresting a journalist from his home at midnight. Refusing to interfere with the Jharkhand High Court’s order granting interim bail to journalist Arup Chatterjee, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hima Kohli took note of the disregard for the code of conduct. “See, how the state of Jharkhand is harassing a journalist. This is an excess of state power,” Chandrachud said. “You go to his house at 12 o’clock at night, pull him out of his bedroom…This is no way to treat a journalist. This is complete lawlessness,” he observed.
West Midnapore SP Dhritiman Sarkar did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from Alt News. Town IC Rajib Pal said he was on leave. Investigating officer and deputy SP Shaymal Mondal’s phone was found switched off. This story will be updated if there is a response.
A news portal named Sambad Titumeer uploaded a bulletin on its YouTube channel on September 8 under the headline সাজানো কেস দিয়ে পুলিশ জেলে নিল আনন্দবাজার পত্রিকার সাংবাদিককে,ব্লু-প্রিন্ট ফাঁস হল অন্তর্তদন্তে (Police sends ABP journalist to jail in fake case. Investigation reveals blue-print).
The bulletin plays out a telephonic conversation between a male voice and a female voice. The presenter identifies them as a correspondent of the outlet named Briti Sundar Roy and the complainant, Saraswati Singh. In the conversation, the woman admits that she does not know Deblamya Bagchi. She says she filed the complaint against him because she found out that his reports caused all the police action. She also admits that no incident of ‘assault’ or ‘outraging her modesty’ had taken place and she had named Bagchi in the complaint because she was ‘angry with him’.
She also says that she is an unlettered woman, and the complaint was written by a relative. Through out the conversation, she also insisted on having no involvement in hooch trade.
We got the recorded conversation from the journalist, Briti Sundar Roy, who spoke to her.
Roy confirmed to us that it was indeed him speaking to Singh and she admitted that no such incident as alleged in the complaint had taken place. “The audio clip is completely authentic. I spoke to her. As you can hear, she admitted without any coercion from me that the allegations were made up,” Roy told Alt News.
We also asked Roy to send a screenshot of his call log. We verified that he had called the complainant and had a conversation for 18 minutes 36 seconds, and the same conversation was played out in the YouTube bulletin.
called up Saraswati Singh, she told us she would only speak in court. When asked if she told a journalist over phone that she had made up the allegations, she disconnected the call.
Besides, according to the complaint on the basis of which Bagchi and Das were arrested, they had assaulted Saraswati Singh at 7.30 pm on the night of Sunday, August 27. According to Bagchi’s second report, it was the same time when a group of hooch sellers raided the houses of Das and others, who had protested against hooch trade. “Saraswati Singh is a hooch seller. Basanti Das told us SIngh was among the women who raided their homes. The complaints against Bagchi are made up by Singh. We don’t know if she was acting at the behest of anyone. But the matter is totally false. She was upset at the trouble Bagchi’s reports caused to her business. That’s why she acted out of vengeance,” a local journalist told Alt News on condition of anonymity.
Journalists condemn police action
Bagchi’s lawyer Sourav Ghosh told Alt News, “The entire allegation against Bagchi is false. Police did not seek custody because they know there is no merit in the complaint. A journalist is duty bound to expose any illegality. Debmalya did his job. The environment of the whole locality was being spoilt by hooch trade. It had become a den of anti-socials. Illegal liquor trade is a social ill. Hence, Debmalya wrote on it.”
Asked about the nature of police action against his client, Ghosh said, “Personally, I feel that a journalist like Bagchi could have been treated better. They could have informed him of the FIR and asked him to report to the PS. In stead, they raided his house past midnight.”
Dhrubojyoti Pramanik, a senior editor at News18 condemned the police action against Bagchi on Facebook. He wrote, “…. Debmalya has repeatedly written on several issues including sand mafia, hooch cycle, Kharagpur railway mafia in West Midnapore district fearlessly and in public interest. I believe court will look into whether his reporting on these issues have anything to do with his arrest.”
The Kolkata Press Club president met chief minister Mamata Banerjee at her Vidhan Sabha office on September 7 and apprised her of the matter. According to a statement released by the press club, she spoke to the local police administration and gave necessary instructions. She also promised that the case would be handled with sensitivity.
The ABP top brass (chief editor and publisher Atideb Sarkar, editor Ishani Dutta Ray and senior editors Debanjana Bhattacharya and Debasish Choudhury) met Bagchi at Midnapore central jail on September 11. Several rallies and protest marches were taken out across the state on September 13 condemning his arrest.
In December 2011, 172 people had lost their lives consuming spurious liquor in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. In 2018, the main accused, Noor Ahmed Fakir, was sentenced to imprisonment until natural death.