Dharminder Kumar | Updated on January 24, 2018

Voices of concern: Congress members in Lucknow demand a CBI probe into the murder of Singh. -- PTI   -  PTI

Idol talk: Shahjahanpur’s Hanuman statue is the online icon of the town, thanks to its photos on countless Facebook pages and websites. -- Amit Saxena

Face-off: File photos of JagendraSingh (left), the Shahjahanpur-based journalist who wasallegedly burnt alive on June 1. -- Special arrangement   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The grieving sister and wife of Singh at Khutar, Singh’s hometownin Shahjahanpur district. -- Special arrangement   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Fine print: Local journalists estimate that Shahjahanpur district has nearly 100 periodicals big and small, and local as well as those published from Bareilly, Lucknow and other nearby towns

Action zone: Prem Shankar of Sahara TV operates from a damp, old room in Shahjahanpur, together with a few other TV reporters. -- Amit Saxena

Fine print: Local journalists estimate that Shahjahanpur district has nearly 100 periodicals big and small, and local as well as those published from Bareilly, Lucknow and other nearby towns.

A newspaper agency for ₹5,000 is often what it takes to become a reporter in a town where journalism is largely a racket. With the arrival of news pages on social media, independent reporters like Jagendra Singh, who was burned alive this month, are scripting a new story

A newspaper agency for ₹5,000 is often what it takes to become a reporter in a town where journalism is largely a racket. With the arrival of news pages on social media, independent reporters like Jagendra Singh, who was burned alive this month, are scripting a new story

Khutar in Shahjahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh goes about its daily routine unperturbed. The hometown of journalist Jagendra Singh, whose gruesome murder on June 1 shook the nation, is not the centre of the storm you’d expect it to be. In Mohalla Kot, under a sprawling peepal tree, barely a dozen people sit with Singh’s family on a dharna to demand a CBI probe into his death. In his dying declaration, Singh alleged that policemen had set him on fire at the behest of state minister Ram Murti Verma, whose scams he exposed in his popular Facebook page Shahjahanpur Samachar. Death, a reporter friend of Singh says, could easily be the price of journalism at Shahjahanpur. He lists names of those who have disappeared or were murdered — at least five in the last 10 years. Dozens were seriously wounded or beaten up. A few months ago, a journalist’s throat was slit right outside his office. A TV journalist was beaten up by policemen this week in nearby Tilhar.

Singh’s friend reels off the names of a bewildering number of journalists and their papers or channels, making the district of Shahjahanpur sound like the Fleet Street of Uttar Pradesh. From his account, it appears that Shahjahanpur is home to more than 200 journalists. But there are fewer than 10 at the dharna under the peepal tree, where they could do with as many as possible. Where are the screaming, shouting press hordes of Shahjahanpur when they are needed the most?

“They must be at their shops,” says a local journalist. “Most of them are petty shopkeepers who have not studied beyond matriculation. And you can well imagine the kind of newspapers that would employ them as reporters.” He tells of a hawker who became a distributor of a Lucknow-based newspaper as well as its Shahjahanpur bureau chief. “He has not studied beyond class VIII and cannot even correctly write his name in English.”

It’s easy to become a journalist in Shahjahanpur. This is how it works: You are a school dropout and a shopkeeper in a small town. You want to associate with a newspaper. You pay ₹5,000 to buy its agency. It means you will pick up, say, 50 copies every day. An agent’s job does not require any educational qualification. But the deal has an attractive clause in fine print — you also get to send news to the paper. And that makes you a ‘journalist’. “Many of these people become journalists to escape the law. They have some case or the other against them and being a journalist helps. The rich businessmen even start their own small newspapers, as protection for their illegal mining, encroachment on government land, or other wrongdoings,” the journalist explains. “They can also be proxies of politicians. In any case, being a journalist in a small town brings you easy money and gets you access to the thana, which can get you more easy money when you connive with corrupt cops to snare the wrongdoers who will pay anything to escape.”

Agents of change?

Prem Shankar, the acting president of the local Working Journalists Union, says it’s the journalists who court trouble in most cases. “You rarely run into danger by merely doing your job. If you keep hounding someone unnecessarily, or with an ulterior motive, only then they come after you,” says Shankar, a Sahara TV correspondent, who sits with a few other TV reporters in a dark den at the end of a narrow lane. The high-ceilinged room has peeling plaster, damp walls and no ventilation. Mikes with names of TV channels are piled in a corner. It’s a distant world from the glitzy TV studios. When the voltage is low and the fan turns lazy, the standard operating procedure is to turn off the fan, take off your shirt and hang it on the backrest of the chair. Still, this den is respectable considering that most other journalists here have no fixed address. “There must be nearly 100 small and big publications and more than 200 journalists in Shahjahanpur district. Most of them are ‘agency journalists’,” Shankar says.

But how do you write news when you haven’t even completed school? Shankar says you can either dictate it to the newsdesk on phone, or filch from somewhere. Rohit Yadav, who runs another Facebook news page, Shahjahanpur Khabar, has posted a warning for the ‘news thieves’: “I request the news thieves not to steal stories from my Facebook page and publish it in your newspapers. Otherwise I will highlight the theft by pasting the clippings of the news here. Write your own stories. This is the first and last warning!”

Yadav started his Facebook page in 2012, a year after Singh began the first news page in town. This was around the time the town had begun exploring the internet. In 2011, local youth Salman Akhtar hit the headlines for finding an American match on Facebook. Dana Gravell of the US came to live with him at Shahjahanpur for six months. Akhtar often borrowed money from friends to surf in a cyber-cafe. In those days, a Facebook news page would have been a hit for novelty, if nothing else. But Singh had a lot more to offer. He was brimming with ideas that found little favour at the newspapers he worked with. He was both quick and sharp, with a yen for the sensational; Facebook suited him the most. At Khutar, after getting a diploma from an ITI he had tried his hand at a flour mill, a sweet shop and a general store. He was a good writer and that helped him shift to Shahjahanpur. After he turned independent, his stories were bought by several newspapers in Lucknow and that kept him afloat.

Blunt weapon

Yadav remembers Singh’s story on the mafia that had grabbed the land of a widow in a neighbouring village. Many newspapers had done stories but the police acted only after Singh reported it on his Facebook page. “He did not use words such as ‘allege’ or ‘accuse’. He did not beat about the bush like newspaper reporters. He said it straight, and it hit hard.” Yadav, who was Singh’s close associate, says the anodyne language of news writing had no use on Facebook. His own news page has several handles and connects with more than 15,000 people, nearly as many as Singh’s page.

At Khutar, a neighbour of Singh says politicians and the district officials are now more afraid of Facebook than newspapers. Someone annoyed with Singh’s unafraid reporting even put up hoardings across town to portray him as an extortionist. He probably reasoned that only a hoarding could match Singh’s Facebook posts. “Facebook is available on mobile phones, which everyone carries around. If there is something sensational, people show it to one another and the news spreads like wildfire. In the close-knit society of a small town, Facebook works faster than newspapers,” says Singh’s neighbour Shyam Prakash, a clerk at the local Kakori Saheed Inter College. Shahjahanpur is known as shaheedon ki nagri (city of martyrs) — the hometown of revolutionary freedom fighters Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Roshan Singh and Premkishan Khanna. Today, you could as easily call it patrakaron ki nagri (city of journalists). After Singh’s success on social media, many locals have taken to it.

“Already, there was a scramble for the power and pelf that being a journalist brings. Now Facebook has made the job easier for such people. You can quickly post something, and when the affected party reads it and offers a deal, you can as quickly take it down,” says another neighbour.

The story within

A veteran journalist explains why so many people masquerading as journalists operate extortion rackets. Part of Shahjahanpur lies in the Katri area of dense shrubs, which once harboured Robin Hood-type bandits and rebels. Kattas, the country-made guns not entirely safe to operate, were their weapons of choice. “Now these journalists wield blogs and Facebook pages just as kattas,” he jokes.

So was Singh wielding a katta which ultimately backfired in his hand? A few journalists claim that he was honest but had lately become a proxy in the battles of local politicians — minister Verma and his opponent, the ex-MLA Devendra Pal. Close friend Amit Tyagi maintains that Singh was upright till the end. A columnist and carpet dealer, with an MBA and LLM degrees, Tyagi met Singh on Facebook. Tyagi, a Shahjahanpur boy who had moved to greener pastures, re-established his ties with the town through Singh’s page. This association led to the setting up of Aman Pasand, another Facebook page, when trouble brewed in parts of Shahjahanpur after the riots in Muzaffarnagar last year.

“Whenever I visited Shahjahanpur from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, I would find Singh working from a new place. It was natural for a blunt person like him to end up quarrelling with everyone,” Tyagi says. Singh became active on Facebook when the anti-corruption movement was spreading all over the country. “And that’s why he got such a good response from people. His stories made an impact within hours, if not minutes. He had such a large network of informers that most newspapers picked up stories from his page,” says Tyagi.

Another quality that endeared Singh to many people was his dedication to stories on the poor and the helpless. “Once, an injured woman lay near a police vehicle asking for help. Singh took a photo. When the vehicle left without paying any heed to the woman, he took another photo. He uploaded both the images with a crisp caption. Action followed within minutes,” Tyagi recalls.

Social exposé

The fragmentation of politics in Uttar Pradesh and the rise in business activity after the economic growth that began in early 2000s made journalism attractive in Shahjahanpur. Politicians find in it a potent tool to settle scores with rivals and businesses get protection from illegal activities. Even an independent journalist has a wide scope. “Today, a journalist in Shahjahanpur has ways to make money. He can confront wealthy farmers who cultivate forestland on the sly, take pictures of those who steal electricity for their tubewells, or act as a tout for local cops once he gets access to the thana. If nothing else, he can extort money from a petty government official who has gone absent without leave for a week,” says another journalist. “And if he agrees to be used by a politician, he can even get regular payment.” With social media, all you need is a free online account, not even a newspaper agency.

Social media does not connect the local with the global as much as it galvanises groups and communities. In Shahjahanpur, more than bringing people together it offers the already close-knit community a new and accessible platform to enact its struggles and power plays. Vernacular social media in India has its own world where many Jagendra Singhs have launched local fights unknown to the English-speaking people in bigger cities.

In many ways, social media is bringing the powerless closer to the powerful in small towns, where the ruling elite never faced the masses. Although he may collude with the powerful, the semi-literate agency journalist too is a sign of how social media empowers individuals in towns and villages. Earlier notorious for making themselves scarce after coming to power, politicians now have no escape. They have to face people, even if it’s routine chatter on Facebook. Recently, an elderly man buttonholed a gregarious MLA from the Shahjahanpur area on his Facebook account: “Son, your father used to be my friend. You talk to so many people here, why not send a message to me too once in a while?” The reply: “Will do, chacha.”

(Dharminder Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist.)

(This article was published on June 25, 2015)

Published on June 26, 2015

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