reportage

Death Of A Newsman

The murder of Rajdeo Ranjan and the sordid reality of small-town journalism in India

By PRIYANKA DUBEY | 1 December 2016

RAJDEO RANJAN WAS A MAN OF HABIT. He liked to go on a long walk every morning, before meeting a few friends at a popular chai stall behind Siwan’s city council building, at about half past eight. He would stay there for the next two hours or so, reading the papers and talking news and politics. Then he would head home to bathe and have lunch, before leaving for work on his motorcycle. He normally reached his office, at the Babuniya Modh square in the central part of the city, by noon, and spent the afternoon and early evening putting together news dispatches and handling paperwork for Hindustan, the Hindi national daily where he served as Siwan district’s bureau chief. By half past seven, he would send the day’s stories to the paper’s regional office in Patna, about 150 kilometres to the south-east, and start on a leisurely evening ride around town, stopping here and there to meet friends and contacts. He would pick up snacks for his two children along the way, and get home no later than ten.

On the evening of 13 May, the 46-year-old Ranjan had made it barely a kilometre from his office when five assailants on motorcycles gunned him down at point-blank range. Drenched in blood, he was taken to the nearest hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. A post-mortem found three bullets inside Ranjan’s body—one was found in his liver, another had pierced his neck, and one had hit him right between his eyebrows.

RANJAN’S MURDER GRABBED national headlines. The next day, most major English dailies, including the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle, ran stories on it, and so did the Hindi ones. Some Hindi news channels were quick to pronounce that Ranjan had been murdered for his journalism. His employer, Hindustan, one of the largest-selling dailies in India, released its front page in black and white in protest, and said the killing was a direct attack on freedom of expression and the independence of the media.

Ranjan’s murder is the latest in a long string of crimes against journalists in India. A 2015 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group, put the number of journalists murdered in India “in direct relation to their work” over the preceding decade at 11, and complained that not a single conviction had been upheld in any of these cases. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked India as the third most dangerous country for journalists in 2015, with nine killings of journalists in the country that year, behind only war-torn Syria and Iraq. It noted that “Indian journalists daring to cover organized crime and its links with politicians have been exposed to a surge in violence, especially violence of criminal origin.”

That observation seems to fit Ranjan’s case exactly. Siwan is home to Mohammad Shahabuddin, one of the most notorious figures in the wide overlap between Indian politics and crime. His criminal record stretches back for decades, and he is suspected to be behind many unsolved political killings. In 2004, while in prison, he fought for and won a fourth consecutive term as Siwan’s representative in the Lok Sabha. He was released, but was arrested again in 2005, and in 2007, was sentenced to life imprisonment for a kidnapping “with intent to murder.” At the time of Ranjan’s death, he was serving the eleventh year of his sentence in a Bihar prison. Speculations on Shahabuddin’s involvement in the murder started doing rounds in national and local newsrooms. On 15 May, the Indian Express used a quote from Ranjan’s brother as the headline for its article on the case: “Everyone can guess who the killer is, but who can name him?”

Early developments in the investigation of the murder seemed to bolster this version of events. A day after Ranjan’s killing, police arrested Upendra Singh, an old aide of Shahabuddin’s who allegedly arranged shooters for him during the early 2000s, on suspicion that he had organised the crime. Singh had previously been a suspect in the murder of Shrikant Bharti, a Bharatiya Janata Party member who was gunned down by motorcycle-borne assailants in Siwan in November 2014. Bharti was a close associate of the BJP leader Om Prakash Yadav, a political rival to Shahabuddin who was elected to the Lok Sabha from Siwan earlier that year. Singh was charged with plotting Bharti’s murder, but managed to get bail. Now, under interrogation in Ranjan’s case, he pointed police to five men—Rohit Kumar, Vijay Kumar, Rajesh Kumar, Vishu Kumar and Sonu Kumar Gupta—who were all arrested in Siwan on charges of carrying out the killing.

The five men confessed to killing Ranjan at the behest of Azharuddim Beg, better known as Laddan Mian, also a known aide of Shahabuddin’s. Laddan Mian surrendered to authorities in early June, claiming that he had been framed. In early August, the superintendent of police for Siwan, Saurabh Kumar Sah, told me that police wanted to submit Laddan Mian to a lie-detector test, but the suspect had refused, as he is permitted to by law. Even though the five men “have all confessed to killing Ranjan on the instructions of Laddan,” Sah said, Laddan was not accepting the accusation or saying anything about the case.

Without any more leads, the investigation stalled. Sah told me, Since both Laddan and the first suspect, Upendra Singh, are known as close aides of Shahabuddin, we are not ruling out the possibility of his involvement in Rajdeo’s murder.” But, he added, “We don’t have any direct evidence against him now. We are working on all possible personal and political reasons behind his murder.” Pressure mounted for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and in mid September, it was. The CBI has not announced any breakthroughs so far.

It is impossible at this stage to say who—or, for that matter, what—got Ranjan killed. Speaking to his friends, relatives, colleagues, cops and Siwan insiders, I heard numerous hypotheses, but no strong evidence to make any one of them more convincing than the rest. Speculation that Shahabuddin had a hand in the crime was widespread, but nobody could offer a clear reason why he would have wanted Ranjan put away, particularly at the time that the murder took place. Furthermore, several people who knew Ranjan well were not convinced that Shahabuddin played a role in the journalist’s death. Having talked to Ranjan’s fellow journalists about his work in his last few months, I found no revelations that seemed explosive enough to spark such extreme action against him, by Shahabuddin or anyone else. If the killing was punishment for any of Ranjan’s earlier work—I read as much of this as I could find, but since Hindustan does not archive, I had to rely mostly on his family’s collections—it is puzzling that the punishment was postponed for so long.

It is certain that Ranjan was a talented journalist, and did some brave work that made powerful people in Siwan uncomfortable. But, looking closely at his life and death, there is a possibility that what got him killed was not his journalism—at least not in the sense that journalism is understood in India’s major metropolises, and among much of the country’s elite, English-speaking press. Rajdeo Ranjan was not, and could not have been, a journalist in the purest sense, insulated from commercial and political pressures that impede the reporting of truth. While leading Hindustan’s coverage of Siwan, he was also required, as part of an unspoken deal, to work as an advertising salesman, with a minimum monthly sales target, and a commission on his sales to supplement a meagre salary.

This practice is quite widespread among regional newspapers and television channels, especially in the Hindi belt. Rajendra Tiwari, who works as the state editorial head of Prabhat Khabar, another important Hindi daily of the region, told me during an interview at his residence in Patna that, in the late 1990s, Dainik Jagran became the first Hindi newspaper to give advertising targets to stringers, “and then everyone else followed.”

Since politicians and big businessmen are the two biggest sources of ad revenue for such publications, the journalists often need to make close alliances with those they are supposed to report on. The rampant criminalisation of both politics and business in small-town India means that violence is always just around the corner. Like Ranjan, thousands of other local reporters in the hinterland are in similar high-risk positions. Just last month, on 12 November, Dharmendra Singh, a reporter for the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, was shot dead in Bihar’s Rohtas district. Later that same day, Ramchandra Yadav, a panchayat leader who worked as a reporter until last year, was shot and killed by unidentified men in Darbhanga district, also in Bihar.

Ranjan’s story, like those of many small-town journalists, does not fit into a simple narrative—say, that of a journalist killed for speaking truth to power, which the media initially embraced, or that of a murder mystery reeking of personal vendetta. Instead, it reveals complexities and dangers that regional reporters often find themselves caught up in. It is likely that Ranjan fell victim to the institutionalised corruption in small-town media that he couldn’t help being a part of.

RANJAN STARTED IN JOURNALISM in the late 1990s, under the tutelage of Ravindra Prasad Verma, at the time a professor at a Siwan college and a stringer for Hindustan, a sister concern of the English daily Hindustan Times, published by HT Media. Ranjan, then pursuing a bachelor’s degree in arts at the same college, got in touch with Verma to express an interest in journalism, and started doing small jobs for the older man—taking dictation, sending mail, picking up packages. In return, Verma taught the youngster the basics of reporting and writing copy.

In September 1998, Verma was shot by two men on a motorbike while having tea in the front room of his house. Ranjan was with him during the attack, but was unharmed. Ashok Priyamvad, a veteran Siwan journalist who was a friend and mentor to Ranjan for two decades, and who now teaches Hindi at a college in Siwan, described this as one of the first major attacks on a journalist in the area. Verma survived and fled Siwan. “I was the one who gave him blood,” Priyamvad told me at his home. Verma let Ranjan take over the work he was doing as a stringer for Hindustan.

This gave Ranjan his official start in journalism. By now, he had also acquired a degree in law from a college in the Muzaffarpur district. In those days, he practised as a lawyer in the mornings and worked as a reporter by evening.

“Then, in 2002, Hindustan launched its edition from Siwan,” Priyamvad said. The newspaper was still being edited and printed in Patna. Hindustan sent in Durga Kant Thakur as the bureau chief to oversee reporting. But according to Priyamvad, Ranjan made Thakur believe that Siwan was an unsafe place and convinced him to leave. But Thakur, who still works for Hindustan, in a phone interview, described Ranjan as an ambitious, hardworking journalist, who “played an important role in increasing the paper’s circulation in Siwan.” He also said that Ranjan would always fulfill the “management’s demands for advertisements and revenue generation.” Thakur left Siwan in 2005, and Ranjan took on his responsibilities, though he was still  only a stringer. He was officially made the district’s bureau chief in 2010.

This put Ranjan on Hindustan’s payroll, Priyamvad said, “and he started drawing a salary of a little under Rs20,000, along with a 15-percent commission on advertisements he brought in for the paper.”

Ranjan’s reporting paints a terrifying portrait of Siwan through the years that followed. (I read nearly 70 of Ranjan’s pieces, provided to me by his family, from between 2004 and early 2016, all published in Hindustan’s Siwan edition. Some risky stories among these were published under other datelines. Several reporters in Siwan told me this is a tactic they commonly use for protection.) During the early 2000s, crime was rampant in Bihar, and Siwan saw utter lawlessness. The violence of those times is reflected in Ranjan’s stories: on political killings, including that of a village head; on kidnappings and killings of businessmen in Siwan; and on a caste-based massacre in 2004.

In many of these stories, Ranjan describes circumstances and connections that cast suspicion on Shahabuddin and his associates, whom Ranjan identifies by name. Shahabuddin was at the peak of his powers during those years. The first FIR against him was filed in 1986, and more followed steadily ever since. Shahabuddin’s political reputation grew out of his brutal opposition to the growing influence of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in Siwan in the 1980s. In 1990, he was voted into the Bihar state assembly as an independent representative for a constituency in the district. He won that same seat again in 1995, this time on a Janata Dal ticket.

As that party fractured, in 1996, he joined the Rashtriya Janata Dal—which then ruled the state under Lalu Prasad Yadav—and was voted into the Lok Sabha for the first time. Bihar was notoriously lawless under Lalu, whom Shahabuddin was close to, and his power in Siwan grew unchecked. Few dared to oppose him, and many of those who did disappeared or ended up dead. In 2001, Shahabuddin and his associates fought an infamous gun battle with the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh police who had been sent to arrest the strongman. Ten people, including two policemen, were killed. Shahabuddin escaped and remained at large.

After Shahabuddin was imprisoned in 2007—and during his stint in jail in the lead-up to the 2004 general election—he still held enormous power in Siwan, though law and order improved after the Janata Dal (United) defeated the RJD in state elections in late 2005. Ranjan continued to write about crime and politics in Siwan, and Shahabuddin’s name kept cropping up.

In 2015, Ranjan reported extensively on the Bihar state election, which pitted the BJP, in power at the centre, against a “grand alliance” led by the Janata Dal (United), incumbent in the state and headed by Nitish Kumar, and the RJD. His coverage included pieces on the sociopolitical history of Siwan, the use of social media by rival camps, and the emergence of independent, women and minority candidates. He also wrote special pieces on Siwan’s eight state-assembly constituencies, analysing likely candidates and their chances in each.

The two most politically influential communities in Siwan are Muslims and Yadavs. Shahabuddin’s influence ensures that the Muslims, the larger group of the two, vote for the RJD. Due to antagonism between the two communities, the Yadavs often go with the rival BJP, even though they are considered a vote bank of the RJD in other parts of the state. Ranjan was a Yadav, and in the political atmosphere, had no option but to align with the BJP. But in the reports that I was provided, I could not make out any apparent bias towards the Hindu-nationalist party.

Almost every second story Ranjan did during the election refers to Shahabuddin and his influence. Ranjan published detailed reports of the strongman meeting various politicians and power brokers in his prison cell, and pieces headlined “Vidhan Sabha ke chunaav me Mahagathbandhan ke umeedwar jail se Mohammad Shahabudin hi tay karenege” (Mohammad Shahabuddin will decide on the Grand Alliance’s candidates for the state-assembly election from jail) and “Siwan mein parde ke peeche se bahubali ladwate hain chunav” (Strongmen control the election battle in Siwan behind the scenes). In one piece, he reported that one RJD leader, Awadh Bihari Chaudhary, was denied a ticket because “the biggest leader of Siwan disapproved of it.”

AS BUSY AS RANJAN WAS REPORTING the election, he was just as busy raising advertising revenue at the time. I spoke to an old friend and a fellow journalist of Ranjan’s. Like most other associates of Ranjan’s I interviewed in the stringer world, he did not wish to be named because he feared for his safety. He told me, “During the 2015 state elections, Ranjan generated revenue of over Rs57 lakh for Hindustan”—over $80,000.

Siwan is a small place, with a population of 3.3 million people as of 2011, in one of India’s poorest states. It has no large industries or real-estate development, and what business there is focusses mostly on bringing in and retailing consumer goods. For local journalists trying to meet their advertising targets, this leaves only two significant sources of sales—the private schools and institutes sprouting in and around Siwan town, and, more importantly, political patronage.

“For Rajdeo, the sitting BJP MLA, Om Prakash Yadav, was the biggest source of revenue,” Ranjan’s friend told me. “Yadav is of the same caste as Rajdeo, and was his old friend.” After winning the Lok Sabha seat from Siwan in 2014, Yadav “would generously help Ranjan with both political-party as well as government ads.” Priyamvad confirmed that Ranjan was close to Om Prakash Yadav, but also said that Ranjan did not hesitate to go to politicians from other parties as well for advertising.

“Either you buy a full-page ad for Rs50,000 or we will not cover you at all during elections. This is how it works here,” a local stringer for another national Hindi daily told me. “Plus, we arrange extra money by covering inaugurations and small photo-opportunity events for would-be and wannabe politicians. Panchayat and block-level leaders need our space to be in limelight, and they form our biggest source of revenue. All journalists in Siwan do this, and Rajdeo was no exception.”

Priyamvad described another way that the dual role expected of journalists leads to censorship. “For example, you are running around for ads to around 20 businessmen of your town,” he said. “They give you ads, you meet your revenue target and get the 15-percent cut. After this, if a news story crops up against one of those businessmen, what will you do as a local reporter? Of course you will compromise on the news. You will bury that news item and will simply not send it to your head office that evening. This happens here all the time. Rajdeo also used to do this.”

Every stringer I spoke to in Siwan had stories of how selling ads while doing journalistic work had put them in trouble. A stringer who works with a local Hindi news agency related one such incident. A few months ago, while he was working for a Hindi daily in the region, he got wind of a scam involving a state-government scheme, in which “science kits” were to be supplied to students in middle schools by prominent pharma companies of Siwan. “I had proof of corruption in lakhs of rupees under this scheme,” he told me. “The companies were tipped off that I was doing a story. They contacted me and offered Rs25,000 cash, plus advertisements to bury the story.”

The stringer told me that he turned the money down and sent the story to the daily’s desk in Patna. When the story didn’t come out for three days, he called up the editors. “One of them told me that the Patna office had taken Rs35,000 to bury the story,” he said. “He made fun of me for missing the Rs25,000 offer.”

According to the stringer, there is no room for an honest journalist in a place like Siwan. “Those who refuse money to bury a story come to the notice of powerful criminals and their lives are in danger from then on,” he said. “On top of that, our ad revenues are hit and we get lambasted by the newspaper management.”

In August, I spoke to Trigvijaya Singh, Hindustan’s editorial head in Bihar, at the paper’s offices in a large complex in central Patna. Singh started our conversation with news of one of the daily’s stringers being beaten up in the town of Hajipur, just across the Ganga River from the state’s capital. “What should I do?” he asked. “While Nitish Kumar ruled the state at the head of a JD(U) government, he tried to control crime to an extent.” But under the new Grand Alliance administration, he complained, things were reverting to how they were in the 1990s.

“Ranjan was a very valued colleague,” Singh told me. “It was because of him that Hindustan retained the number-one position in Siwan for so many years. We sell around 28,000 copies in Siwan. Our closest rivals, Prabhat Khabar and Dainik Jagran, have circulations of around 12,000 or 13,000 copies only.”

Even when I asked him about how he saw Ranjan as a journalist, Singh continued to harp on about Ranjan’s entrepreneurship skills. He said that Ranjan “helped us in raising the ad revenue from Siwan.”

Singh was quite concerned with portraying Hindustan’s response to the murder in a good light. “We are the first newsroom in the state to own the death of a staffer,” he said. “Normally, most newspapers disown their reporters if something like this happens. But we took a stand to back Ranjan.” Two days after Ranjan’s death, the newspaper carried an editorial by Shashi Shekhar, its editor-in-chief, condemning the murder and quoting the Punjabi poet Pash’s “Hum ladenge sathi” (We will fight, comrade).

Hindustan gave Rs10 lakh to Ranjan’s family as aid, and is also funding the education of both his children. Ranjan’s friends and colleagues at the paper also collected Rs5 lakh, which they also gave to his family. “We want the investigative agencies to find Ranjan’s killers as quickly as possible,” Singh said, “so that he and his family can get justice.”

Singh denied that requiring journalists to sell advertising risked compromising their work. “I agree there is a lot of pressure on local stringers and reporters to generate revenues and bring in advertisements,” he told me. “Mostly, local reporters have a target of bringing in advertisements worth Rs1 lakh every month, and they get 15-percent commission in this process. But we do not compromise the credibility of the newspaper. Because if the credibility goes, no one will read the paper, and ads will also eventually stop coming.”

But Priyamvad, with his decades of experience reporting in Bihar, disagreed. He cited an example from Hasua, a village in Siwan district. In 2012, the sarpanch of the local gram panchayat, Chandan Kumar, was awarded the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, administered by the central ministry of drinking water and sanitation, for improving infrastructure in his village and maintaining high standards of cleanliness. “The whole thing was a sham,” Priyamvad said.

Kumar was known for appeasing reporters and buying expensive advertisements, and “local journalists flooded newspapers with positive stories on the sarpanch and his work.” This coverage was crucial in getting Kumar recommended and approved for the prize. In reality, Hasua continued to have dismal road, water, electricity, health and education facilities. Kumar was exposed after some of his political rivals complained to the authorities. The award has been withdrawn, and the case is being investigated by an official commission.

“It starts from the pressure of achieving the monthly target of Rs1 lakh of advertising revenue, but then, slowly, reporters start enjoying making money,” Priyamvad said. “And they feel no moral dilemma or that there might be a conflict of interest.”

ONE AFTERNOON IN EARLY AUGUST, I crossed a short stretch of farmland and a muddy ditch just outside Siwan town to reach the village of Hakkam. After walking down a long dirt lane through ripening fields, I got to a small, whitewashed brick house with a tile roof, where Ranjan grew up and where his parents still stay. Two policemen, appointed for the family’s safety after the murder, stood guard at the entrance.

Ranjan’s father, 70-year-old Radhe Chowdhry, was standing before the house in a battered white kurta and worn-out lungi, with a red gamcha around his neck. We settled down to talk under the shade of a lush neem tree in front of the house, and Ranjan’s mother, 65-year-old Sankesia Devi, joined us.
“I was born and raised here, and so were all my five children,” Chowdhry said. “Rajdeo was my second son, and he was born in the front room of this house,” in 1970. Chowdhry made a living running a small watch-repair shop, and the family cultivated a two-acre plot of land. “We have always struggled to make ends meet,” he continued. “But even in this difficult situation, Rajdeo studied.”

Sankesia Devi began quietly weeping. “I am illiterate, so I wanted my children to read,” Chowdhry added. “Most of my children started learning watch-repairing … but Rajdeo was different. He would cycle for kilometres to attend school, and was good at his studies.” When his son became a journalist, he continued, he “didn’t know what journalism was all about.” But when he started hearing talk about his work at the local market, he realised “Rajdeo had grown up to be an important person.”

Ranjan got married in 1998 and gradually built a small house in town. “He lived there with his family, but he used to come to us often and help us in running the house,” Devi told me. “I never thought that he would be killed like this.”

Like the rest of the family, Ranjan’s brother, Kalicharan Prasad, who shares the house with his parents, has no doubt who killed him. Prasad told me that Ranjan had been getting threats for a long time, but that they intensified in late 2014, after he reported on the murder of Shrikant Bharti. “He investigated and covered that murder very well,” Prasad told me. “He wrote several reports indicating Shahabuddin’s possible involvement in Bharti’s murder.”

Prasad said Ranjan never told him about the threats. He said that his brother rarely talked about himself—many who knew Ranjan well confirmed this. “But I found out because there was a buzz in the Siwan market that his life was in danger. Later on last year, a hit list was released from jail. It had the names of people who would be killed by Shahabuddin and his aides in the coming days. At number 12, it just said ‘patrakaar’”—journalist. Prasad told me that stories about this list were published in local newspapers, but under Muzaffarpur datelines.
“I got him educated, got him married, and then I had to do his last rites with my own hands,” Prasad said. He listed numerous political leaders who visited the family after Ranjan’s murder—Om Prakash Yadav and the senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi among them. “But not a single important person came from the JD(U) or RJD,” he said. “If those in power are themselves scared of Shahabuddin, how can they ensure justice for us?”

Priyamvad, however, did not think Ranjan’s death was linked to Bharti’s murder. “See, it was a sensational political murder that made for a very sellable story,” he said. “BJP supporters came out on streets and there was vocal protest against the murder. So almost all the newspapers covered it well, and everyone wrote about the possible involvement of Shahabuddin in the case. Rajdeo also filed regular stories, follow-ups, covered the case properly. But there was no life-threatening scoop as such.”

He did not believe that the hit list Prasad mentioned was real. In the past, he said, there had been a few hit lists, and some murders of people named in them, but nowadays Shahabuddin’s aides often spread false rumours about hit lists to create fear, and people believe them.

After Ranjan’s murder, a bunch of media houses reported that Ranjan had put out a picture of a meeting in jail between Shahabuddin and the state minority affairs minister Abdul Gafoor and the RJD MLA Harishankar Yadav. The meeting was a violation of jail regulations, and the picture went viral on social media. The jail’s superintendant was fired in the aftermath. But most of Ranjan’s friends told me that he had nothing to do with the picture, and that it had been uploaded online by one of Shahabuddin’s aides.

Priyamvad told me he did not understand why Ranjan was being portrayed as a “revolutionary warrior of the pen” in the media. Ranjan, he said, never had any intention of defying Shahabuddin, and he couldn’t think of any recent story by Ranjan that could have provoked his murder. “I believe that Rajdeo did not have the qualities required to be a good journalist,” he said. “Like many others, Rajdeo also started enjoying the 15-percent commission. Local reporters are poorly paid by their news organisations, so they make money through this 15-percent cut, and in the whole process news is always compromised.” To Priyamvad, Ranjan “was just another local journalist, trapped in all the institutional malaise” that comes with working for a newspaper in a place like Siwan. And even if Shahabuddin did have a vendetta against Ranjan, Priyamvad added, “if he had to do anything like getting him killed, he would have done it earlier.”

The timing of the murder certainly raises doubts about Shahabuddin’s alleged involvement. A close friend of Ranjan’s, who runs a small business and was familiar with the work Ranjan did in his last few months, told me, “I don’t think that Shahabuddin would have gotten him killed.”

After his first conviction in 2007, Shahabuddin faced numerous other trials and received several more convictions, and was in and out of court with cases and appeals. In March 2016, he was granted bail by the Patna High Court in a case of murder of two brothers in Siwan in 2004. That paved the way for his release, and after the Patna High Court granted him bail in early September in a related case—the murder of the brother of the two men whose deaths he was being tried for earlier, who was the sole witness to their deaths—Shahabuddin walked free to a hero’s welcome from his supporters. The time between these two rulings would have been particularly sensitive for the strongman, and ordering Ranjan’s murder in the interim would have been a huge risk.

“Rajdeo’s death is a big blow to Shahabuddin, the prospects of his release and his political career,” the businessman said. In any case, the Supreme Court quickly quashed the Patna High Court’s bail order given in September, and three weeks after his release, Shahabuddin was back in prison.

The businessman offered another theory for Ranjan’s death. “Siwan does not have any real-estate scene,” he said, but Siwan has a big racket of “gangs of criminals who forge papers to illegally occupy land belonging to others.” The two biggest rivals in this business, he told me, are Laddan Mian and Mohammad Kaif—a wanted criminal, who has been absconding in an extortion case. “Rajdeo was seen hanging around with Kaif a lot during the last months of his life,” the businessman told me. “He also went to attend Kaif’s sister’s marriage in Siwan. He was said to be involved in mediating these dicey land deals.” According to the businessman, this meant that “Laddan Mian had strong reasons to finish Rajdeo off.” In fact, on 18 November, Shahabuddin wrote a letter to the CBI, asking the agency to investigate the relationship between Ranjan and Kaif.

Prasad, however, dismissed this explanation of his brother’s death. “I know that talk about him being involved in some kind of land dealing are doing the rounds, but those are all rumours,” he said.

Another of Ranjan’s friends and fellow journalists, Arvind Pandey, also believes it was Shahabuddin. “Everyone knows who got this done,” he told me in Siwan. But, to complicate matters further, Pandey also told me that Ranjan “was harbouring political ambitions for quite some time.”

Pandey was particularly close to Ranjan, and used to meet him every morning at his preferred chai stall. “He was a Yadav by caste, and he told me once that he wanted to contest elections from the nearby Raghunathpur constituency, which has a large population of Yadavs,” Pandey said. “He was quite close to the sitting BJP MP, Om Prakash Yadav, and he wrote critically about the Shrikant Bharti murder. This seems to me the strongest reason behind eliminating him.”

According to Priyamvad, Ranjan’s friendship with Yadav dated back many years, to the early 2000s. “He stood by Yadav since his days as a candidate in Siwan’s local zila parishad committee elections,” Priyamvad said. “Hindustan is the highest-selling newspaper in Siwan, and Rajdeo’s stories really helped keep Yadav in news. In turn, as Yadav scaled the heights, he kept Rajdeo in the loop and helped with political ads for the paper. It was a warm and mutually beneficial friendship.”

Priyamvad said that he was not aware whether Ranjan had political ambitions. I spoke to over a dozen people who had known Ranjan at various points in his life, and, except for Pandey, they all told me the same thing.

I spoke to Om Prakash Yadav over the phone in November. “He was a dear friend and a brave journalist,” Yadav said of Ranjan. He also insisted that Ranjan was an unbiased reporter. “I am sure that Shahabuddin killed Rajdeo,” he said. “Shahabuddin tried to kill me also when I dared to contest elections against him, and got my spokesperson Shrikant Bharti murdered.”

Yadav said that Shahabuddin had already killed 40 Yadavs over the past two decades, and that “Ranjan was the forty-first.” He told me that Ranjan wasn’t interested in politics. “He was killed because he did his reporting fearlessly,” Yadav said.

According to Yadav, the CBI investigation would soon make everything clear. “I am going to do everything possible to ensure that he gets justice,” he said.

ASHA, RANJAN’S WIDOW, teaches at a government primary school in Siwan. She did not want to meet me at her home, and asked that I come see her at the school instead. We spoke on an afternoon in early August, seated on the school building’s porch, as noise poured out of the classrooms.

“He was getting threats for some time, and he told me about this,” Asha told me. On the morning of the day he died, they were both running late for work, and Ranjan had driven her to the school. Both were nervous after Shahabuddin was granted bail in March, she said, and on the way she had asked Ranjan what would happen if Shahabuddin went free. “He reassured me in his usual style, and said that Shahabuddin will do his work and he will do his own work. I remember he said, ‘We should never live like cowards.’”

Ranjan was killed just one day before their eighteenth anniversary. Asha recounted that she and Ranjan were married in a modest ceremony, on 14 May 1998. They had a son in 2000, and a daughter in 2007. “My son was very close to him,” she said. “He is still in deep shock. He has kept all the pictures of his father he took on his phone, right from the spot where he was killed to the hospital to when he was being carried for his last rites. I have told him so many times to delete those pictures, but he refuses. He says, ‘Mumma, I cannot delete these pictures till my father gets justice.’”

Ranjan had faced danger before. In 2005, Asha said, three people barged into his office and beat him up, badly injuring one of his hands. “But he didn’t tell any of us about this. When I asked him, he said that he got injured while starting the generator.” She later learnt of the details from his colleagues. “He never wanted us to worry, so he would carry every stress in himself,” she said. Threats were common, but they picked up after Shrikant Bharti’s death. “He wrote about Shahabuddin’s possible involvement in Bharti’s murder and see what happened.”

I met Asha again a month later, at the Western Court parliamentary guest house in Delhi, where she had been allowed to stay with her daughter at Om Prakash Yadav’s recommendation. “I have come to Delhi with one thing in mind, and that is to move the CBI,” she said. The Bihar government had sent a request for the CBI to take over the investigation, but the agency had not yet taken up the case. When she got to the capital, Asha said, she learnt that the Bihar government’s letter had not yet reached the CBI office. “This time will give the accused an edge, and they will comfortably destroy all evidence, whatever was left,” she said. “This delay will destroy my husband’s case.”

Asha had met Rajnath Singh, the union home minister, just a couple of days earlier, on 7 September, and he had assured her, she said, “that the case will move fast and that CBI will start investigating the matter soon.” The meeting, too, had been arranged by Yadav. That same evening, she heard the news that Shahabuddin had been granted bail in the second case, and would soon be released. “It will be a face-to-face fight now,” she told me. “I am not scared anymore because I have nothing to lose. I have already lost my husband.”

Asha was disappointed with the coverage of the case. “Media in Delhi is also different,” she said. “Something that happens in Siwan does not affect people here in Delhi. Look at the newspaper that my husband worked for, Hindustan. They have carried the news of Shahabuddin’s bail in eight columns as a lead story, but there is not a single line about my meeting with Rajnath Singh.” Ranjan, she said, “was one of them. He died while working, and this is what they are doing to me. I needed their support, and they have no space for the person who filled their paper with his stories for so many years.”

I last heard from Asha in mid November, when she called me to ask if I had the number of the chairperson of HT Media. “I want to ask her if she has any place for a woman correspondent in Siwan,” Asha said. “I want to carry forward my husband’s work here and work as a local journalist.”

I told her how, when I spoke to Om Prakash Yadav, he had praised her courage and said that a woman like her should join politics. Asha said that neither she nor her husband had ever contemplated entering politics, but she was beginning to understand its importance. Without political power, even a simple task like making case files of her husband’s murder move from one table to another was a struggle. Therefore, she said, “I might consider joining a political party if given a good opportunity.” She added, “My journey to seek justice for my husband has taught me that power is very important.”

A photo caption in an earlier version of this story did not specify that the image showed a reconstruction of the crime scene by the Central Bureau of Investigation, and not the crime scene. The Caravan regrets the error.

RAJDEO RANJAN WAS A MAN OF HABIT. He liked to go on a long walk every morning, before meeting a few friends at a popular chai stall behind Siwan’s city council building, at about half past eight. He would stay there for the next two hours or so, reading the papers and talking news and politics. Then he would head home to bathe and have lunch, before leaving for work on his motorcycle. He normally reached his office, at the Babuniya Modh square in the central part of the city, by noon, and spent the afternoon and early evening putting together news dispatches and handling paperwork for Hindustan, the Hindi national daily where he served as Siwan district’s bureau chief. By half past seven, he would send the day’s stories to the paper’s regional office in Patna, about 150 kilometres to the south-east, and start on a leisurely evening ride around town, stopping here and there to meet friends and contacts. He would pick up snacks for his two children along the way, and get home no later than ten.

On the evening of 13 May, the 46-year-old Ranjan had made it barely a kilometre from his office when five assailants on motorcycles gunned him down at point-blank range. Drenched in blood, he was taken to the nearest hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. A post-mortem found three bullets inside Ranjan’s body—one was found in his liver, another had pierced his neck, and one had hit him right between his eyebrows.

RANJAN’S MURDER GRABBED national headlines. The next day, most major English dailies, including the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle, ran stories on it, and so did the Hindi ones. Some Hindi news channels were quick to pronounce that Ranjan had been murdered for his journalism. His employer, Hindustan, one of the largest-selling dailies in India, released its front page in black and white in protest, and said the killing was a direct attack on freedom of expression and the independence of the media.

Ranjan’s murder is the latest in a long string of crimes against journalists in India. A 2015 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group, put the number of journalists murdered in India “in direct relation to their work” over the preceding decade at 11, and complained that not a single conviction had been upheld in any of these cases. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked India as the third most dangerous country for journalists in 2015, with nine killings of journalists in the country that year, behind only war-torn Syria and Iraq. It noted that “Indian journalists daring to cover organized crime and its links with politicians have been exposed to a surge in violence, especially violence of criminal origin.”

That observation seems to fit Ranjan’s case exactly. Siwan is home to Mohammad Shahabuddin, one of the most notorious figures in the wide overlap between Indian politics and crime. His criminal record stretches back for decades, and he is suspected to be behind many unsolved political killings. In 2004, while in prison, he fought for and won a fourth consecutive term as Siwan’s representative in the Lok Sabha. He was released, but was arrested again in 2005, and in 2007, was sentenced to life imprisonment for a kidnapping “with intent to murder.” At the time of Ranjan’s death, he was serving the eleventh year of his sentence in a Bihar prison. Speculations on Shahabuddin’s involvement in the murder started doing rounds in national and local newsrooms. On 15 May, the Indian Express used a quote from Ranjan’s brother as the headline for its article on the case: “Everyone can guess who the killer is, but who can name him?”

Early developments in the investigation of the murder seemed to bolster this version of events. A day after Ranjan’s killing, police arrested Upendra Singh, an old aide of Shahabuddin’s who allegedly arranged shooters for him during the early 2000s, on suspicion that he had organised the crime. Singh had previously been a suspect in the murder of Shrikant Bharti, a Bharatiya Janata Party member who was gunned down by motorcycle-borne assailants in Siwan in November 2014. Bharti was a close associate of the BJP leader Om Prakash Yadav, a political rival to Shahabuddin who was elected to the Lok Sabha from Siwan earlier that year. Singh was charged with plotting Bharti’s murder, but managed to get bail. Now, under interrogation in Ranjan’s case, he pointed police to five men—Rohit Kumar, Vijay Kumar, Rajesh Kumar, Vishu Kumar and Sonu Kumar Gupta—who were all arrested in Siwan on charges of carrying out the killing.

The five men confessed to killing Ranjan at the behest of Azharuddim Beg, better known as Laddan Mian, also a known aide of Shahabuddin’s. Laddan Mian surrendered to authorities in early June, claiming that he had been framed. In early August, the superintendent of police for Siwan, Saurabh Kumar Sah, told me that police wanted to submit Laddan Mian to a lie-detector test, but the suspect had refused, as he is permitted to by law. Even though the five men “have all confessed to killing Ranjan on the instructions of Laddan,” Sah said, Laddan was not accepting the accusation or saying anything about the case.

Without any more leads, the investigation stalled. Sah told me, Since both Laddan and the first suspect, Upendra Singh, are known as close aides of Shahabuddin, we are not ruling out the possibility of his involvement in Rajdeo’s murder.” But, he added, “We don’t have any direct evidence against him now. We are working on all possible personal and political reasons behind his murder.” Pressure mounted for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and in mid September, it was. The CBI has not announced any breakthroughs so far.

It is impossible at this stage to say who—or, for that matter, what—got Ranjan killed. Speaking to his friends, relatives, colleagues, cops and Siwan insiders, I heard numerous hypotheses, but no strong evidence to make any one of them more convincing than the rest. Speculation that Shahabuddin had a hand in the crime was widespread, but nobody could offer a clear reason why he would have wanted Ranjan put away, particularly at the time that the murder took place. Furthermore, several people who knew Ranjan well were not convinced that Shahabuddin played a role in the journalist’s death. Having talked to Ranjan’s fellow journalists about his work in his last few months, I found no revelations that seemed explosive enough to spark such extreme action against him, by Shahabuddin or anyone else. If the killing was punishment for any of Ranjan’s earlier work—I read as much of this as I could find, but since Hindustan does not archive, I had to rely mostly on his family’s collections—it is puzzling that the punishment was postponed for so long.

It is certain that Ranjan was a talented journalist, and did some brave work that made powerful people in Siwan uncomfortable. But, looking closely at his life and death, there is a possibility that what got him killed was not his journalism—at least not in the sense that journalism is understood in India’s major metropolises, and among much of the country’s elite, English-speaking press. Rajdeo Ranjan was not, and could not have been, a journalist in the purest sense, insulated from commercial and political pressures that impede the reporting of truth. While leading Hindustan’s coverage of Siwan, he was also required, as part of an unspoken deal, to work as an advertising salesman, with a minimum monthly sales target, and a commission on his sales to supplement a meagre salary.

This practice is quite widespread among regional newspapers and television channels, especially in the Hindi belt. Rajendra Tiwari, who works as the state editorial head of Prabhat Khabar, another important Hindi daily of the region, told me during an interview at his residence in Patna that, in the late 1990s, Dainik Jagran became the first Hindi newspaper to give advertising targets to stringers, “and then everyone else followed.”

Since politicians and big businessmen are the two biggest sources of ad revenue for such publications, the journalists often need to make close alliances with those they are supposed to report on. The rampant criminalisation of both politics and business in small-town India means that violence is always just around the corner. Like Ranjan, thousands of other local reporters in the hinterland are in similar high-risk positions. Just last month, on 12 November, Dharmendra Singh, a reporter for the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, was shot dead in Bihar’s Rohtas district. Later that same day, Ramchandra Yadav, a panchayat leader who worked as a reporter until last year, was shot and killed by unidentified men in Darbhanga district, also in Bihar.

Ranjan’s story, like those of many small-town journalists, does not fit into a simple narrative—say, that of a journalist killed for speaking truth to power, which the media initially embraced, or that of a murder mystery reeking of personal vendetta. Instead, it reveals complexities and dangers that regional reporters often find themselves caught up in. It is likely that Ranjan fell victim to the institutionalised corruption in small-town media that he couldn’t help being a part of.

RANJAN STARTED IN JOURNALISM in the late 1990s, under the tutelage of Ravindra Prasad Verma, at the time a professor at a Siwan college and a stringer for Hindustan, a sister concern of the English daily Hindustan Times, published by HT Media. Ranjan, then pursuing a bachelor’s degree in arts at the same college, got in touch with Verma to express an interest in journalism, and started doing small jobs for the older man—taking dictation, sending mail, picking up packages. In return, Verma taught the youngster the basics of reporting and writing copy.

In September 1998, Verma was shot by two men on a motorbike while having tea in the front room of his house. Ranjan was with him during the attack, but was unharmed. Ashok Priyamvad, a veteran Siwan journalist who was a friend and mentor to Ranjan for two decades, and who now teaches Hindi at a college in Siwan, described this as one of the first major attacks on a journalist in the area. Verma survived and fled Siwan. “I was the one who gave him blood,” Priyamvad told me at his home. Verma let Ranjan take over the work he was doing as a stringer for Hindustan.

This gave Ranjan his official start in journalism. By now, he had also acquired a degree in law from a college in the Muzaffarpur district. In those days, he practised as a lawyer in the mornings and worked as a reporter by evening.

“Then, in 2002, Hindustan launched its edition from Siwan,” Priyamvad said. The newspaper was still being edited and printed in Patna. Hindustan sent in Durga Kant Thakur as the bureau chief to oversee reporting. But according to Priyamvad, Ranjan made Thakur believe that Siwan was an unsafe place and convinced him to leave. But Thakur, who still works for Hindustan, in a phone interview, described Ranjan as an ambitious, hardworking journalist, who “played an important role in increasing the paper’s circulation in Siwan.” He also said that Ranjan would always fulfill the “management’s demands for advertisements and revenue generation.” Thakur left Siwan in 2005, and Ranjan took on his responsibilities, though he was still  only a stringer. He was officially made the district’s bureau chief in 2010.

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Priyanka Dubey is a staff writer at The Caravan. 

READER'S COMMENTS

3 thoughts on “Death Of A Newsman”

It was really shocking and frightening all journalist fraternity. but it was neither the first nor the last murder. A number of journalists have been killed in India and specially in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. All these killing shows the dark days of journalism and media freedom in the country.

It is not unnatural that murder of all those who take a stand for what is right in the interest of nation will be be hurt and hurt very badly, what is worst is that the media itself is so sold out to the power that be that it is taking sides with the murderers. Media had not not taken the issue at the national level by so called journalists who claim to be upholding the ethics and principles of journalism. Except for Ravish Kumar and his reporting on NDTV india no other media man has taken up the issue with details. Many have taken up the issue like touch and go so that people may not blame them of taking side with political party in power. It is media that that is playing into the hands of politicians and corrupt officials and capitalist.

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