“Why did they have to burn me? If the Minister and his people had something against me, they could have hit me and beaten me, instead of pouring kerosene over me and burning me.”
Jagendra Singh's dying declaration in a video is perhaps the most damning of the allegations against a minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, who is now accused of abetting an attack on the journalist that resulted in his death. Singh suffered 60 percent burn injuries on 1 June and died on 8 June in the Civil Hospital in Lucknow.
“Prakash Rai (the police inspector) was there and along with him were present four-five police personnel. The police team, led by Prakash Rai, barged into the house and started assaulting me. They could have as well arrested me,” Singh is reportedly heard saying in the video.
Singh and his family's version is that the police doused him in kerosene before setting him on fire. However, the police officials accused have claimed that when chased to the terrace of his house, Singh chose to douse himself with fuel and set himself of fire.
The Shahjahanpur-based journalist who kept a Facebook page that was updated with reports written by him had several posts on the state's dairy development minister Ram Murti Verma. In one, he alleged that Verma didn't want another leader to become an MLC and was making political moves to prevent it, and in other posts alleged that Verma and his accomplices were guilty of gangraping an anganwadi worker. He also accused Verma's men of planning to attack the gangrape victim's home and even questioned how Verma had accumulated so much wealth.
After the posts, Singh was attacked by men allegedly close to the minister on 28 April. Then came the incident on 1 June.
The journalist's family has accused the Samajwadi Party of attempting to pay them off in the case.
"We were told take the money and you will get a government job," Rahul, Singh's son told CNN-IBN.
He said that right after his father sustained burn injuries on day one a police official tasked with protecting Singh had told him that his father would be incapable of working every again. Rahul said the police official had said he would arrange a meeting with Samajwadi Party workers.
"I was told 'They are good people and they will give you 8-10 lakh. Use that money for the treatment of your father and we'll ensure you and your brother get government jobs'," he said.
But if the Samajwadi Party had made made covert overtures towards Singh's son, its leaders firmly stood by its minister. MLA Bhukal Nawab had the flimsiest defence possible: that the outrage over the incident wasn't justified because Singh wasn't part of a recognised media outlet.
"He was not in the electronic media or the print media," Nawab told CNN-IBN.
"Social media toh ghar ghar mein chalta hai. Humara beta jo hai social media pe message idhar se udhar..sab yahi karte hain. (Social media is in every home. Even my son sends messages here and there...everyone does that) You will get 30 crore such people. I don't understand how you can call someone like this a reporter," the MLA said.
The MLA also said that the minister, who hasn't reacted to the incident, wasn't hiding from anyone except the media. Nawab also said that the party wasn't afraid of a CBI inquiry.
For now there's an FIR registered against the minister Verma, Inspector Sri Prakash Rai, Gufran, Akash Gupta, Amit Pratap Singh and one Bhure. The five police officials named in the case have also reportedly been suspended. But the minister remains in the cabinet for now, allegedly because the Samajwadi Party is still weighing how it will impact them electorally and whether it will cost them the votes of the Kurmi community. Verma, incidentally, when he was elected as an MLA had a spotless criminal record.
The Akhilesh Yadav government's record on handling ministers with criminal records has been less than stellar so far, with the government having shown little regard for public opinion or its ministers' antecedents in the past. There are enough ministers who have criminal records, specifically at least 26 out of 48 at last count. However, in this case the gruesome nature of the incident means that the state government has even less time to manoeuvre as it tries to protect a vote bank over the pursuit of justice.
Singh may not have belonged to a formal media outlet, but even if it was only a Facebook page and if there were doubts over the veracity of his reports, he did not deserve to be targeted due to it. Singh's accusations, if true, point is a very dangerous twist to political leaders and parties being unable to stomach allegations and criticism made in social media. Samajwadi Party's Azam Khan allegedly got a youth arrested and jailed for days because of a critical Facebook post, and in this case, Verma is accused of something far more heinous. Hopefully the Yadav government will choose the path of prudence and sack the minister until the inquiry is completed to deliver justice to the slain journalist. A failure to do could prove costly for it. And deservedly so.
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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2015 10:59:21 IST