Tripura journalist's brutal murder shows political violence has broken all bounds in India

TV reporter Shantanu Bhowmik was covering the clashes between IPFT and TRUGP, when he was abducted and stabbed to death.

 |  6-minute read |   21-09-2017
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India is fast deteriorating into one of the unsafest ever countries for journalists across the board. Whether working for print or television, digital media or independent publications, being a journalist in India's heartlands is one of the riskiest professions in 2017.

Barely two weeks since senior journalist and fierce critic of Hindutva fundamentalist forces, Gauri Lankesh, was gunned down at her own doorstep in Bangalore, a 28-year-old TV reporter Shantanu Bhowmik has been hacked to death in Tripura, while he was on duty. Bhowmik was covering the clashes between IPFT (Indigenous People's Front of Tripura) and TRUGP (Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad), when he was abducted and stabbed from behind on Wednesday, September 20, in Mandai, Tripura. 

Reports suggest that Bhowmik was recording the clashes on his mobile phone even as the IPFT cadres didn't want any journalist to record the ongoing violence, in which they were attacking the rival TRUGP members with iron rods and other sharp objects, injuring as many as 118 in two days. According to reports, the Tripura Police have arrested four members of IPFT in connection with Bhowmik's murder, who was discovered with multiple stab wounds and was declared brought dead when he was taken to a nearby hospital.

Reports also suggest that despite Section 144 being imposed in a number of Tripura districts, chiefly because of the violence unleashed by IPFT who are demanding a separate Tipurland, and want to secede from Tripura, there have been assemblies and political congregations at the behest of the IPFT. It must be noted that the TRUGP forms the tribal organisation affiliated with the ruling CPI(M) of Tripura, under three-time chief minister Manik Sarkar's stewardship for years now. 

Mandai, where the clashes broke out, was the site of a rally organised by the IFPT, about 25km from Agartala, the state capital of Tripura. Even amid the ensuing violence, Bhowmik managed to record some of the clashes and it's evident that he was killed for merely doing his job well.

 

Bhowmik worked for a local TV channel called Din Raat (Day Night) and his death marks the terrible and ominous times for journalists all over India. While Tripura has seen quite a few clashes and political violence in the recent days, the murder of Bhowmik proves that even journalists with no political affiliation who are merely reporting on the happenings are not safe in India.

The Agartala Press Club has organised a day-long protest for Bhowmik, while protests and demonstrations have been organised in other cities, including Delhi, on Friday, September 22. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, India ranks 13th in a particular list of countries that are unable to protest its scribes in the line of duty or from political assassinations as was the case with Gauri Lankesh.

As many as 42 journalists have been killed over the years in India, making it one of the worst countries in the world to work in. This, at a time when the mainstream media is increasingly being accused of going soft on the current regime, while its representatives are increasingly under attack from the powers that be, whether directly from the regime, or from those loosely affiliated to its ideological parent.

In the case of Tripura, Bhowmik's murder has sent shock waves across the little state, and demonstrations outside CM Manik Sarkar's residence have been going on since Wednesday night. Sarkar has assured speedy justice and the fullest cooperation from the authorities, and the arrest of the four IPFT members in connection to the murder is proof that Sarkar means well.

However, we need to ask if the vicious political climate all over the country would mean that journalists would become sitting ducks while doing their job? Conflict reporting from the heartlands is anyway ridden with enormous risks, and as several observers and reports have said, it's the vernacular, non-English, non-metropolitan journalist who's the most vulnerable to the political violence if this naked brazenness.

As in the case of Lankesh, even Bhowmik's murder is meant as a sign to journalists to cower down and retreat from the field. While we organise massive demonstrations and rallies against journalist killings - something that is occurring at an unprecedented scale and with unbelievable impunity, and resulting in very little consequences for the perpetrators - we need to ask ourselves why it has come to this.

At a time when the editor-in-chief of a self-proclaimed "nationalist" TV channel was found to be brazenly lying in public, the young, brave ones are being felled at the altar of ideological and political violence. The crumbling from within of the mainstream media and the perils of reporting from the margins have never been this obvious.

However, it's important that the fight must go on. The struggle to report accurately is the foundation on which the reflections and the intellectual, spiritual and emotional battles to recover the spirit of an inclusive, tolerant, non-violent, equal and pluralist India will be fought.

Journalists are the first line of defence against the intellectual and political atrophy of the nation. Fight we must, particularly to bring justice for those who lost their lives doing precisely this.

***

Below is the joint press statement by the Press Club of India, Indian Women's Press Club, and North East Media Forum:

"We are shocked to learn about the brutal murder of a young television journalist Santanu Bhowmik near Agartala in Tripura on Wednesday.

We strongly condemn the murderous assault on Santanu Bhowmik, 27, allegedly by the members of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT). According to news reports, the journalist was attacked with sharp cutting weapons while covering a road blockade agitation of the IPFT. 

Santanu Bhowmik's life was taken away by mindless violence when he was discharging his professional journalistic duties. It is a reckless, inhuman act to silence the voice of the free press in the country and an assault on the freedom of press. 

We demand an impartial and swift probe into the murder of the young Tripura journalist so that culprits can be booked and brought to justice. We also express our solidarity and support to the Tripura Journalists' Union in their protest against the murder. We demand that the State Government should give adequate compensation to the family of the young journalist whose life was sniffed out in the line of duty. The Chief Minister should immediately hold consultations with the Agartala Press Club and Tripura Journalists' Union for taking steps for safety and security of the journalists. 

A condolence and protest meeting will be held at the Press Club of India on Friday, Sept. 22 i the afternoon." 

(Gautam Lahiri) 

president, Press Club of India

(Vinay Kumar)

secretary-general, Press Club of India

(Aditi Tandon) 

general secretary, Indian Women's Press Corps

(Jaishankar Gupta)

president, Press Association 

(Utpal Borpujari)

president, North-East Media Forum 

Federation of Press Clubs in India  

Also read: Gauri Lankesh's murder marks the end of an era of Indian journalism

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