Recounting police brutality, UP journalist Asad Rizvi says state trying to dictate stories

Asad Rizvi, a Lucknow-based freelance journalist, was attacked by the Uttar Pradesh police while reporting on Gandhi Jayanthi about the police crackdown on protests in the state. A Hussain
05 October, 2020

On 2 October, Asad Rizvi, a Lucknow-based freelance journalist, filed a police complaint stating that policemen beat him up that day, unprovoked and while he was on an assignment. Rizvi said he was reporting from an important protest site in Lucknow, which features a prominent statue of MK Gandhi, when policemen asked him to stop, assaulted him. He said the police then confiscated his memory card with footage of the violence. Eighteen days earlier, reports emerged that a 19-year-old Dalit woman had been raped in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district by four dominant-caste Thakur youth. Following her death on 29 September, widespread protests broke out across Uttar Pradesh, many of which were heavily restricted by the police. Rizvi was reporting about how the police had sealed central protest sites in Lucknow, including the Gandhi statue.

Rizvi has fifteen years of experience in journalism and has covered a range of issues from Uttar Pradesh. His work has been published in several media outlets, including The Wire, NewsClick and The Caravan. In a conversation with Amrita Singh, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, he recounted the attack and spoke about what it means to be a journalist under the administration of Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, popularly known as Adityanath. “What would they do to a journalist in Bahraich, in Unnao, in Jaunpur?” Rizvi asked. “They would shoot him, and say, ‘He was a criminal.’”

On 2 October, which is the birth anniversary of Gandhi, my camera-person and I went to the statue to shoot a video story. We wanted to report about how the prime areas of Lucknow, including the Gandhi statue—a place where protests commonly occur—had been sealed by the police to stop protests about the Hathras case and groups who wanted to pay their respects at the statue.

When we reached the statue, I saw nearly one hundred or two hundred police officials. The statue is in a huge public premises and we walked past several policemen and policewomen to reach it. The police officials deployed there were eating snacks like channa and mufli, and playing games on their mobile phones. I had politely told a young policewoman, “I am about to switch on the camera, please wear your masks.” Then she put it on. We began shooting and talking about how the police and the government order were stopping ordinary citizens from coming there on Gandhi Jayanti.

A woman sub-inspector came to me and said I was not supposed to report from there. When asked why, she said, “You don’t have permission.” I replied, “I don’t think any such permission is needed.” Even Section 144, if imposed, can only restrict more than four people congregating in a location, individual journalists have no restrictions on reporting from a public place. She said, “Acha, neeche aaiye aur sahib se baat kijiye”—Come down and speak to the officer. The officer, who was of an inspector rank, rather than speaking to me, began kicking me when I approached him.

I was at the bottom-most step when he and a few other policemen dragged me and the cameraman out of the premises. They were saying, “You abuse the police? You all create a ruckus? You misbehaved with a woman?” Around seven or eight people began beating me up while the rest watched. Some of the men who were hitting me were plain-clothed. I couldn’t see the name cards on those who wore uniforms, but I will be able to identify them if I see them again. From my experience, I am guessing that they weren’t PAC—Provincial Armed Constabulary wing of the Uttar Pradesh Police—or additional forces. They were the policemen who sit in thanas. 

They didn’t use lathis but kicked and punched me instead. I suffer from hypertension—I have been taking medication—so my blood pressure keeps fluctuating. I have previously been operated for hernia. A policeman had kicked me there, and I still feel a heaviness in my body. More complications could have happened.

I am not sure why they hit me. They hadn’t stopped me when I was climbing up the stairs or switching on my camera. I don’t think this was rooted in communalism or casteism. I felt they just did not want anyone to report this. While hitting me, they said several things about the media, like, “It is people like you who spread rumours and fake news.”

I told them I was a journalist and listed out the various prominent media houses I had reported for. But the inspector replied, “I don’t know these publications.” All this must have happened at around 4.15 pm in Hazratganj, hardly three hundred metres away from the chief minister’s office and the Vidhan Sabha. I managed to call up a senior journalist and informed him of all of this. Someone quickly tweeted about it.

The officers slammed my phone against the pavement twice, though it didn’t crack. Then, they forced me to sit in the backseat of a police car and took my cameraman aside. They took the memory card of his camera, which would have had proof of what happened. The cameraman had kept his helmet aside while reporting. The policemen took that too and didn’t return it.

Then, suddenly one of them asked us to go from there and said, “Chalo niklo yahan se, warna aur laate padengi tumko.”—Get out from here or you will get kicked even more. I thought, “This is a deserted place, there is no eyewitness here.”

Sharat Pradhan, a senior journalist, told me that the current director general of police had created a group on WhatsApp named “Police media communication,” to issue press statements to senor journalists. On the evening of the attack, Pradhan told me that the Uttar Pradesh Police Media Cell had put up a press release on the group saying that the station in-charge of Hazratganj police station had informed him that “Asad Rizvi and his colleague climbed the site of the Mahatma Gandhi statue despite being stopped by the PAC present there.” The statement went on to allege that, “On being stopped by the woman sub-inspector on duty and women police, they behaved indecently and issued threats.” This is a lie. If I had done this, why would they let me go?

[The Caravan reached out to the DGP and the media cell about this press release. Both offices directed the queries to the UP Police’s public-relations office commissionerate. The PRO commissionerate denied any knowledge of the press release. At the time of publication, the assistant commissioner of police, Abhay Mishra, and the station house officer of Hazratganj police station, Anjani Kumar Pandey, had not responded to our queries about the release.]

I have heard—though I have never seen it myself—that previous state administrations would take stringent action against officials who misbehaved with journalists. Now, there is nothing. On 2 October, I filed a complaint to the police. A man who identified himself as the assistant commissioner of police in Hazratganj, called me and asked how I was. I replied, “How is anyone after such a beating? My arms, legs hurt. What else?” He asked to meet me. But this was after the false police statement against me that I misbehaved with a woman official, so I did not meet him.

The police attack on me is part of a broader crackdown on journalists by the police and administration in Uttar Pradesh. As a journalist, my biggest problem currently is that there is a communication gap. Officers do not talk. Earlier, on major issues, government officials or senior ministers would often just say, “no comments.” Officials such as the superintendents of police or district magistrates would save the phone numbers of journalists. They would at least take calls from journalists, even if they did not comment. Now, you see a trend where the police and administration do not maintain even that little communication with journalists. The gap is being widened.

In 2019, the police had lodged a case against me. When a police official brought the summon for me in that case, he inadvertently let it slip that “you had written some sort of a story.” I had filed an objection in the case, asking for it to be quashed. Nothing happened in the case. What happened to me, or what has happened to other journalists, shows there is a crackdown on media.

The police are trying to exert force wherever they can to get journalists to print the administration’s view on events. On 30 September, the CBI court in Lucknow was issuing its judgment in the Ram Mandir case—on the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992—and I was there to cover it. The police had barricaded the area so that journalists don’t talk to the accused, and hear them raise slogans like “Ayodhya toh jhaanki hai, Kashi Mathura Baaki hai,”—Ayodhya is a peek, Kashi and Mathura are yet to come. A victory procession was going on, but they were not stopped. Instead, the media was stopped. After not letting us report, the police were trying to dictate what we should do. Then what is the meaning of independent media?

Things are more difficult for people who have to work with visuals—photo and video journalists, and those who need to broadcast. For print journalists, it is relatively better but they, too, can get police notices, like I received in 2019. The government is very concerned that the media is ruining its image, which is why they recently changed the principal secretary for information. This was done to create an image makeover.

The policemen who hit me on 2 October would not have dared to do so if they did not have permission from senior administration. This is an administration that follows the command, “Deal with journalists how you must, but a video report cannot be taken.” The current political dispensation’s attitude benefits the police, who are not held accountable anymore. This also suits media houses who are willing to manipulate facts. But media houses and journalists who are determined to report factually are a victim of this. Fact-based journalism does not suit this government.

Apart from stories by a rare few organisations, it is visible that stories from here are regularly diluted. The fact that the Allahabad High Court took suo motu cognisance of the rape and murder in Hathras was diluted a lot by the media. Instead, a lot of reporting from here prominently placed the police’s comment that the girl was not raped. No one can say if this happened due to pressure from the police, but it was still done.

Today it is me, tomorrow it can be someone else. India Today reported that the police tapped the phone of a journalist who spoke to the family of the Hathras victim. Journalists need to speak to both criminals and commissioners. The police can now say a journalist was in touch with a criminal and then lock him up. They were kicking me; suppose you kicked someone at a sensitive point and they die. The police would probably just say, “This person was misbehaving with the police, so we killed him.” We are now at a stage where nothing is off limits.

This happened right in the heart of the capital city, directly in front of a rolling camera. If this is how violent the police are here, then it is hard to imagine what they would do to a stringer who is doing a story unfavourable to the administration in a village. What would they do to a journalist in predominantly rural districts like Bahraich, Unnao or Jaunpur? They would probably shoot him, and say, “He was a criminal.” What would anyone be able to do then? How much will his family be able to fight?

On an individual level, my friends are ready to provide support and raise their voice. But the collective protest that should have risen for this slow death of journalistic freedom is entirely absent. It is a very grim situation that there is no journalists’ union active in Uttar Pradesh right now. I won’t say they are disbanded or defunct, just that they are inactive. This will have grave consequences for the media space here. The representatives of our current unions only have one job—to work as sycophants of the government. They do not work for the rights of journalists, or raise their voice about how these rights are being curtailed. There were so many tweets on the police attack on me, but not one such organisation called me, only my friends and well-wishers in the media did.

I had formed a WhatsApp group called Protect Journalists, when this crackdown on journalists began escalating Uttar Pradesh. It had several people from other states across India too. Even there, no one registers their protest. Slowly, people keep quitting it. It is sad.

On 2 October, I tweeted to the Editors Guild, but they did not respond immediately. Is Shekhar Gupta, its president, not hearing about all this? What is the Editors Guild’s job if it cannot even condemn such specific incidents? Even when The Caravan’s journalists were attacked in northeast Delhi, the Editors Guild’s statement was filled with a constant stream of “allegedly, allegedly, allegedly.” If we do not speak collectively, we will be repressed.

As told to Amrita Singh.