Head of a family in a village, fearing a murderous attack, calls

What many of you may not know or realise is that the people I report about, call me often. Most atrocity cases I cover involve poor villagers. They call to inform me of a development in the police case or, simply, to share their fears.

At times, they also call me to invite me to a wedding in their family. I never make any false promises that I would come. Once, I gave some shagun through online bank transfer to such a family. It felt very nice.

These days, a person who calls me routinely is Birju, who is elder brother of deceased Loten Nishad. Loten was just 25. He was killed by some people from his own village after a man from his Nishad community made a comment that Tablighi Jamaat was responsible for the spread of Coronavirus in India. Loten was married.

(My reports on the case can be read here and here.)

Whenever Birju calls, his opening line is – “I was just sitting and thought of asking about your well-being”. He is a very sweet person to talk to. Poor guy, he is the eldest in the large family and thus responsible for everything.

On 14 May, he called around 8 pm in a bit of panic. He was feeling scared for his life because a bunch of policemen who have been constantly guarding his house since the murder, were not there anymore. They left the village around 5 pm citing work, but had not returned, he said.

In most of the calls by Birju so far, he has expressed fear for his and his family’s lives to me. Many of the 10-11 men accused for his brother’s murder are history-sheeters. Four days ago, Birju shared a printout with me, which he said was criminal record of one of the accused. It showed a total of 27 FIRs filed against that man. (I have not reported about it yet as the in-charge of Kareli police station has not confirmed its authenticity to me. He said he needs time).

Birju was frightened. He was speaking faster than usual but in a lower voice: It had been three hours and there was no sight of the cops. Everyone in the village knew by now that his house was unguarded. Why had the cops disappeared? Was it a conspiracy hatched by the accused’s kin? Was police hand-in-glove?

I told him wait, let me call up the police station. He said it’s of no use as SHO isn’t answering his calls either. It’s become dark, he said.

I advised him to stay up all night and assured him I would keep trying the police as well. It was clear that he did not want to disconnect the call. I told him to reach out to his immediate neighbours as well. Maybe they could also stay up?

He did not say anything. We continued to be on the line. Just then, there was a spark in his voice. The cops had arrived. Thank god.

I was curious to know what had happened. I requested him to go talk to cops while I would be on the line.

Birju returned in a minute. Four members of a family had been murdered in the area (this case). The cops had been temporarily sent there. They were now back.

A father, shamed by his daughter’s elopement, calls

Phone rings. I answer the call. The man on the other side is father of a minor (under 18) girl who recently went missing and was rescued after intervention of top government agencies. I reported the case (please don’t ask me which case exactly). The girl is staying in a government shelter and is yet to reach her native state. If a minor girl elopes with a man, the law treats it as kidnapping and a sexual crime.

‘नमस्ते xxxx जी. सब ठीक?

‘जी. आप बुरा मत मानिएगा पर हम बहुत परेशान थे तो फ़ोन घुमा दिए’

‘हाँ जी, बताइए ना’

‘बेटी मिल गयी है पर मन में आ रहा है मिलने पर उसका गला घोंट दें’

‘अरे बाप रे. कैसी बात कर रहे हैं. ऐसा सोचिए भी मत. ये ख़याल दिमाग़ से बिलकुल निकाल दीजिए. सब पहले जैसा हो जाएगा. कुछ नहीं बिगाड़ है.’

‘…….’

‘आप सुन रहे हैं ना? कुछ नहीं करेंगे आप ऐसा. हम मिलकर लड़की को पढ़ाएँगे, कुछ बनाएँगे. वैसे पढ़ने में कैसी है वो?’
‘पढ़ाई में मन नहीं है’

‘कोई बात नहीं. कुछ सिखा देंगे. सिलाई बुनाई. वापस आएगी तो उससे डाँटना मत. समझाना. बच्ची ही तो है’

‘जी. ठीक है’

Phone disconnects.

Why I set up a crowdfund for Arjun Singh – the uncle of Khyala triple murder survivors

I reported about the Khyala triple murder case when it happened in January 2019. A video of the actual murder – of maniacal stabbing and blood and screams – had gone viral on social media. It’s one of the most horrific crime videos I have seen. And I have seen many.

I am copy-pasting the first four paragraphs of my report for a quick recap of the case:

“In a residential colony in west Delhi, a man brutally stabbed three members of a neighbouring family in full public view on Wednesday evening (January 16).

Veerpal (41), wife Sunita (35) and the couple’s 18-year-old son Aakash have succumbed to the injuries. The couple is survived by three children; one of them — 20-year-old Khushbu — got married six months ago while the other two are still minors.

The killer, a father of two, has been arrested by the police.

Neighbours say they found out his name, Mohammad Azad, only through the media. They do not know the name of Azad’s wife either. “We had nothing to do with them. We don’t even know what they did for a living,” said a resident, requesting not to be named.”

It was while covering the case that I met Arjun Singh – one of the mamas (maternal uncles) of the surviving children. He had come from Agra. I learnt that he was the only relative living out of Delhi who had come to the city to be with what remained of the family.

I remember that a man – a Gupta whose first name I don’t remember and who, hesitatingly, introduced himself as a Swayamsewak – raised around Rs 55000 from the local market and gave it to Arjun. Contributors to this fund included members of a caste group. It was a revelation to me that a little-known sub-caste has its own outfit. The head of the outfit told me it was a Delhi-based ‘sangathan’. When I, while taking notes, requested the man to spell out the caste, he looked offended and dropped a few names who he said were famous and were from that caste. I have forgotten the names, and can’t find the notes.

That time, Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee President Manjinder Singh Sirsa publicised the minor children’s newly opened bank accounts on Twitter and appealed to donate.

A few days later, I was relieved to know that more than Rs 15 lakh had been put into those accounts.

In May, I wrote a report titled ‘Fear Of The Butcher’s Knife In New Delhi’ for which I went to the same Khyala colony again. I learnt that of the three surviving children, the eldest – Khushboo, who was married – had died the previous week during childbirth. The neighbours said they did not have any contact from the family. I did not have Gupta’s number either. I wrote whatever the neighbours told me.

In August, I got a call from Arjun. He said he had taken my number from Gupta. He said that of all the reporters, he somehow felt he could reach me.

Arjun is very hesitant in asking for help – something I have learnt after talking to him several times. He kept talking about the children, the police case, his own family, and his village. After a while, I told him he must be clear in what he is saying and say it without fear. He said that although people think that the family got lakhs after the murders, it wasn’t true. “The money went in the bank accounts of the children. Nobody can use it. The children can’t use it before they turn 18, either. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend to take even a penny…”

I had to struggle to coax it out of him that he needed money to be able to travel to Delhi to see the children and attend court hearings.

He said he had attended four or five hearings since the crime and, each time, he makes it a point to meet the children who stay in a Don Bosco residential school where the Delhi government got them admitted. When I insisted he must not be vague about how much money he wants, he said around Rs 2,500. “Didi, I have to pay the train fare and hotel fare, and take something for the children. I also lose out on the dehaadi,” he said.

“That’s all? Give me your account number. I will transfer it right away. But you must meet the kids,” I said.

I told him I will pay the fare for the next few visits as well. Once, in January, he asked for some more money. However, as usual, he was very hesitant and vague, and so I transferred Rs 5,000.

Just as lockdown began, I received a Whatsapp message from him. It was screenshot of a hand-written letter. I routinely receive screenshots of hand-written letters by family members of atrocity victims, but those are typically addressed to their local police station in-charge or district police chief and contain details of the cases, requesting “harshest punishment”.

Arjun’s letter was different, and very moving. It said that he was in such a crisis this time that he did not have money to even call me. He asked for some money, and wrote that if I would help him this time, I may treat it as “bheek”. The message made me very sad, but I was glad he had mentioned the amount clearly – Rs 8000. I transferred the money the same night.

He called me after three-four days, and said he had been too hesitant to call. “I call you sister but all I do is ask money from you,” he said. I told him he should not think this way and not use words like “bheek” ever again.

When he called, I happened to be too busy and too exhausted to even accept thanks. I winded up the call soon, and realised that I had forgotten to ask how he was doing.

I later left him a text message – “sab theek, Arjun ji”?

In reply, he sent me a picture of his daughter who looked terribly sick. I called him up the next day, asking what had happened. He said she was constantly fainting, but he was unable to take her to doctors because of lockdown. I asked him if I could put out an appeal on Twitter tagging police. He said no, but I could help him with the police helpline number. I googled and told him it was 1076. Two days later, he said his daughter was better, but his wife was very ill. He texted me saying it was not a request for money. I left it at that.

There was little communication with him until the beginning of May when he called me, sobbing and asking me if I could get him a job. Arjun is a daily wager. He said he does “palledaari”. It’s a Hindi word, but I don’t know exactly what it means. In terms of earning, it’s like a daily-wager job.

This time, I told him to tell me all his problems clearly, and how much money he really needs to be able to have a more peaceful life. He did not talk about money at all. Instead, he sent me pictures of a lump that he said doctors had taken out of his wife’s chest through surgery, and pictures of his very thin daughter. He said he had sold his wife’s jewellery to pay for her surgery, and that another surgery is due. He told me that because of an old “dushmani” between his family and another family in his native village near Agra, he has been unable to go to his village for 10 years and is doomed to live a poor migrant’s life in a city (Agra).

When people talk about their village, they describe it as a place that won’t let them go hungry, and where neighbours collectively share a problem. I don’t know how true is that, but that’s how people talk about their paternal villages.

I had to really push him to give me a figure. I told him that this could be the last time I was helping him, and he must tell me how much he needs to settle down. He began sobbing loudly, and told me it was around 1.25 lakh. “Sava laakh”. Though he said it like it was an impossible figure, I said “I will try”, and that for the time being, he should make do with Rs 10000 that I would send him in some minutes.

Just then, I had a fleeting thought that I could be spoiling him.

So I told him whatever came to my mind – “This money wouldn’t exactly be a loan, but you may be required to do some work for us for free in coming months. You must promise to educate your daughter properly, in which we would help you. You must promise you won’t drink (he protested saying he doesn’t drink at all)…”

At this point, I also felt a little mean for expecting too much for a small help. I stopped.

He profusely thanked me and said he agreed to any and every condition.

I set up the fundraiser for him – my first such campaign – on 13 May. The same day, with generous help from kind donors, Rs 1.5 lakh was raised.

Arjun should get the amount in two-three days. I doubt he is expecting this amount despite my promise of “I will try”. You can however imagine what it would mean to him.

Thank you, dear donors.

A class in ‘sensitivity’

Before our internship with a state edition of The Times of India, the Times group gave us – a bunch of around 20 aspiring journalists – six months of classroom training. Many senior TOI hands, including experienced reporters and editors, gave us lessons and tips. One class had a huge impact on me.

It was a class in ‘sensitivity’.

Our teacher (I don’t remember his name but he had retired from TOI as a crime reporting head) narrated to us a story which he asked us to reproduce as a print news report.

The story went like this: A 10-year-old girl in a village in Maharashtra delivered a child. She had had a bloating stomach for months, but no one in the family or village had really bothered. No one took her to a doctor or a hospital in her months of pregnancy. No one even thought it could be pregnancy. It was only when she complained of unbearable pain that she was taken to a doctor when, much to everyone’s surprise, she delivered a baby. Experts say she could be the youngest mother in the country.

The teacher gave us ten minutes and asked us to give a headline as well. The headline, we had learnt by then, carries the ‘peg’ of the story. He offered to provide more information about the case in case we needed it for our reports.

Some of us asked for details such as her name (which was denied, as she was a minor), her village’s name, her mother’s name, and a “quote” by a family member.

I was the first to hand over my written report. We were all done in ten minutes. The teacher read them all in the next few minutes. I thought he would praise me for writing it faster than everyone and with all the required details in place. My ‘what, why, where, when, how’ were all accurate, I was confident.

Instead, he called all of us ‘insensitive’. “Particularly you women,” he said.

My headline was – ‘10-year-old girl becomes the youngest mother in India’.

Other headlines were on the same line. ‘Maharashtra girl become youngest mother in India at 10’, said one. ‘10-year-old delivers baby, becomes youngest mother in India’, said another. Our “intros” too began with the information that the girl was possibly the youngest mother in India.

The teacher asked us if anyone of us knew how painful child delivery is, or if any of us imagined how tormenting it would have been for a child.

We were blank.

He asked us if a 10-year-old delivering a baby should be celebrated as a feat or, if we, even for a moment while writing the report, think of the girl at all.

We all sat in pin-drop silence.

I was ashamed. And choked. I had joined the Times’ journalism school with a singular aim of seeing my name printed in the TOI and flaunt it to be schoolmates and relatives. Until fifteen minutes ago, all I had cared for was getting the girl’s age and native place, and other details of the story, right.

For the first time, I thought about the girl. I imagined a little girl in a frock lying in bed, her eyes coldly staring at the ceiling, her shell-shocked mother around her, probably keeping the mediapersons at bay.

It wasn’t a picture of a happy child-birth at all. No, it was nothing like when my sister delivered a baby boy the previous year.

It was not just a lesson in ‘sensitivity’. For me, it was a lesson in how not to be a jerk.

After the class, I went to the teacher and asked him if he knew how the girl got pregnant and no one came to know about it. “It must have been rape. The girl was too young to understand anything,” he said as a matter-of-fact, as if it was obvious.

I was numb. If only I could sit beside the girl caressing her. If any villager dared to say anything against her or her family, I would slap that villager hard, I thought.

I was reminded of this class when I saw a recent tweet by well-known journalist Shekhar Gupta, in which he plugged a report on post-mortem details of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma was brutally murdered by a mob during Delhi riots in February.

“Post-mortem report shows IB staffer Ankit Sharma, killed in Delhi riots, was stabbed 12 times and not 400 times,” Gupta’s tweet said. The information in Gupta’s tweet fact-checks an earlier claim made by a journalist that Sharma was stabbed 400 times. The claim showed the attackers to be maniacal monsters.

Indeed, 12 stab wounds are not any less horrific. In any case, Sharma has died, and died a brutal death following torture. But facts are sacred, and the number of stab wounds, if cited, should be accurate.

Gupta’s tweet, in my opinion, was insensitive. How would Sharma’s family feel if they read it?