On March 31, a video caught the attention of many on social media: in it, a man with neatly parted, close-cropped grey hair, surrounded by half a dozen policemen, raised his fist and bellowed slogans in a gravelly voice. “Ballia DM chor hai, Ballia SP gunda hai.” Ballia’s district magistrate is a thief, Ballia’s superintendent of police is a thug.

Ballia is the easternmost district of Uttar Pradesh, on the border with Bihar. The man in the video was Digvijay Singh, a reporter for the Hindi daily Amar Ujala, who had been arrested the previous day and was being produced in the court.

“GOOSEBUMPS! Have you ever seen a journalist showing so much spine and courage before going to jail?” one Twitter user asked in awe.

The response possibly stemmed from the reputation that Uttar Pradesh has acquired in recent years – of being a state that persecutes journalists for reporting stories about misgovernance. Since 2017, when Adityanath became chief minister, nearly 70 journalists have been booked by the government.

In Singh’s case, the stories were related to high school and secondary school exams held by the Uttar Pradesh state board. He had been arrested on charges of being complicit in the leaks of question papers for Class 10 and Class 12 board exams. Two other journalists had been named in the three FIRs related to the incident and also arrested – Manoj Gupta, Singh’s friend, who works for another daily, Rashtriya Sahara, and Ajit Ojha, Singh’s colleague at Amar Ujala. While Singh and Gupta work in Nagra, Ojha works in Ballia town.

The arrests of the three journalists defied logic – they had all worked to ensure that evidence of the leaks came to light, hardly behaviour expected of anyone who was themselves involved in the leaks.

The FIRs made no mention of the stories that had been published as a result of the journalists’ work – in fact, the FIRs did not even refer to the three as journalists.

Even more curiously, neither did Amar Ujala. On March 31, the question-paper-leak was the paper’s lead page-one story across all Uttar Pradesh editions. In the second page, the paper ran a news story about 17 people being arrested in connection with the leaks. But it did not mention that among those arrested were three journalists, two of their own, who had helped the paper break the story of the leaks just a day earlier. One of them, Singh, had been working for the paper for more than twenty years.

The next day, the daily did an even stranger thing. It ran a story with quotes by Opposition leaders from Ballia condemning the arrests of the journalists – perfunctory statements about press freedom, the media being the fourth column of democracy, and so on – but, again, completely blanked out the names and affiliations of the journalists.

These developments were revealing of the unique pressure-cooker environment of small-town journalism in India. Reporters who work in places like Ballia must constantly perform a balancing act of unearthing uncomfortable stories, while also calculating the risks that arise from angering those in power – particularly since they not only lack institutional support, but also, in most cases, don’t even earn a living wage. What this demands of reporters is great ingenuity, or, as Singh’s case showed, insouciant courage.

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

One May afternoon, in a hotel room on the outskirts of Ballia city, which rail tracks divide into two distinct halves, one colonial, the other new, Singh recounted to me the story behind the paper leak story.

On March 22, two days before high school and senior secondary exams in Uttar Pradesh were to begin, Singh and Gupta were having tea in Nagra bazar, a crush of small shops around a bust of the Rajput ruler, Maharana Pratap. They overheard that blank answer sheets for the forthcoming exams were available in the market for anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000.

According to the board’s rules, these answer sheets have to be kept in the custody of examination centres, used for exams, and returned to the board for evaluation. The leak of blank answer sheets would suggest that this system had been compromised.

“Vyavastha ho jaaye, Jhabbu, hum bhi pariksharthi ban jaaye, sutra lagaye jaaye,” Singh told Gupta, referring to him by his nickname – let’s do it, Jhabbu, time to become students and work our sources.

Gupta, a man of the streets, had his hands on a blank answer sheet before they finished their tea.

On March 23, the Varanasi edition of Amar Ujala ran a story about the “nakal mafia” selling “duplicate” blank answer sheets in Nagra and Bhimpura – a village abutting the town, where the duo had managed to find similar evidence. The story, complete with pictures of the alleged answer sheets, was published alongside a prominently displayed but boilerplate response from Brajesh Mishra, then Ballia’s district inspector of schools: “Cheating won’t be allowed at any cost. There will soon be an investigation against those who are selling these duplicate sheets.”

In March, a video of the journalist Digvijay Singh went viral online. In it, he is seen surrounded policemen, calling the district magistrate of Ballia a thief, and the superintendent of police a thug. Photos: Arunabh Saikia

But as the stories that appeared a week later made clear, the authorities did not succeed in curbing cheating.

The week after the story about the leaked blank answer sheets was published, a leaked Sanskrit question paper and corresponding answer key also made its way to Amar Ujala’s pages, also a result of conversations over tea at Nagra bazar between Singh and Gupta.

But this time, they had to break a bit more of a sweat.

It was March 28, a Monday. The exams had begun, and Singh was starting to get restless – he’d heard from too many people that certain examination centres were charging as much as Rs 30,000 in exchange for guaranteed grades in all five subjects that a student needed to pass in.

The only way to prove it – or the only way Singh knew of – was to get hold of a leaked question paper and the corresponding answer key.

He worked the phone and instructed Gupta to do the same, but there was radio silence from everyone they contacted.

Finally, they landed up at the home of an old source – the owner of a school that also served as an examination centre. The owner was an honest man who had helped Singh many times in the past with leads about leaked papers. This time, though, he refused to help: Nagra was a small town, people had started talking, and he didn’t want trouble with the other school owners.

But Singh and Gupta were equal to the task. “Ek ghanta wahi baith gaye aur do-teen baar aur pressure dala,” Singh told me – we planted ourselves there for an hour and put pressure on him.

It was a long evening, but by the end of it, Singh and Gupta had on their phones what they were seeking: a copy of the question paper that they were told would be used in the next day’s Class 10 Sanskrit exam, and its answer key.

But by then, the next day’s editions of the newspapers had already been put to bed. Nonetheless, Singh WhatsApped the material to Ojha to be published in Amar Ujala and Gupta mailed it to the Rashtriya Sahara office before the break of dawn.

Manoj Gupta, who is based in Nagra and works for the daily Rashtriya Sahara, played a key role in procuring the leaked answer sheets, and the Sanskrit question paper and answer key that were published in March.

Ojha, who received Singh’s text at around 5.30 am, said he forwarded the attachments almost immediately to the district inspector of schools, Mishra, to seek a response – but also to alert him to the problem. “The exam was supposed to begin at 8 am, so there was still time to cancel it,” said Ojha.

Two hours later, his text still not blue-ticked – meaning Mishra hadn’t read it – and time running out, Ojha decided to phone Mishra. His assistant picked up and said Mishra was busy – he had an exam to conduct in less than 15 minutes. “I told him I had sent DIOS sahab some information about the exam itself,” Ojha recalled.

Ojha failed to speak to Mishra.

But word about the leak had spread and reached the district’s top bureaucracy. At around 10.30 am, even as the exam was underway, Ojha received a call from Ballia’s district magistrate, Indra Vikram Singh, who demanded to know where he had got the question paper from. “I said I can’t tell him where I got it from,” Ojha told me. “Par kafi pressure banaya” – he put a lot of pressure on me.

Ojha spilled the beans. “I said the Nagra area reporter had sent it, but that I didn’t know where he got it from.”

The conversation ended on a “positive note”, Ojha said. “He said these are big issues, don’t go to anyone else with such information, take my personal number and inform me directly the next time.”

Ojha said he thought that was that – the exam had taken place as scheduled anyway. Later in the evening, though, he realised he needed to speak to Vikram Singh again. He had to get a formal response from the administration for the story he was writing for the next day’s paper on the alleged paper leak. He dialled him on his official number. A junior officer who received the call said that the boss wasn’t feeling too well and wouldn’t be able to speak to Ojha immediately.

Ojha then decided to try the official’s personal cell – the one he had been given that morning. Vikram Singh took the call and told Ojha that he had formed a three-member committee headed by the district inspector of schools, Mishra, to investigate the matter.

Ojha heaved a sigh of relief – he had got his quote and soon filed the story. It was finally a wrap for the day, he told himself. He would leave home as soon as his boss, the Ballia bureau in-charge of Amar Ujala, Sandeep Saurobh Singh, released the story.

Saurobh Singh, a large rotund man who is always chewing supari, sat separately from the bureau’s four reporters and one photographer, in another room, which he shared with an employee from the marketing department. He usually hollered queries and instructions from his desk as he finalised the 20 columns of news from Ballia he was responsible for. But that day, he summoned Ojha to his desk.

Another question paper had arrived, on Saurobh Singh’s phone. The reporter who had sent it to him claimed it was the next day’s Class 12 English paper. It was apparently going viral in another town in the district.

Ojha suggested caution – it was late and they were already going to be rubbing the administration the wrong way with the Sanskrit paper story.

Saurobh Singh insisted it was too big a story to let go. What if any of their competitors ran it? That would mean having to face the music from the bosses at Varanasi.

They decided upon a middle ground: sneak in a couple of lines on the English paper leak in the Sanskrit paper story itself. And they took another strategic editorial call: not to seek a response from the authorities, because that would mean another lengthy round of interrogation about the source.

On March 29, as he finalised the story about the Sanskrit paper leak, Saurobh Singh, who heads Amar Ujala's Ballia bureau, received a leaked copy of the English question paper, for an exam to be held the next day.

The next day brought chaos. Out in print, the rumour about the paper leaks was no longer a rumour. Angry students turned up at examination centres and demanded answers.

The authorities conceded that the English question paper had indeed leaked and called off the exam in 24 districts of the state. However, an official in the district school inspector’s office told me that the previous day’s Sanskrit exam hadn’t been cancelled despite similar allegations because the paper doing the rounds on WhatsApp wasn’t the same as the one that was used anywhere in the state – in keeping with protocols, several question papers are prepared ahead of an exam, before a decision is taken to use a particular one. One of the three FIRs also states that the Sanskrit paper that Amar Ujala claimed was leaked, wasn’t used anywhere for the exam.

The Ojha household, in Behlari block’s Haldi village, wasn’t free of the tumult that the Amar Ujala story had caused. Ojha’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing that morning. First, it was the district inspector of schools, Mishra, then a junior officer, then a senior police official, and then Mishra again.

Though they had known about the impending story – at least about the Sanskrit paper – now that it had been published, they were feeling the heat, and turning their attention to the journalists. They all said the same thing in different tones: WhatsApp the English paper to us, the DM is asking.

Ojha said he kept trying to buy time.

For one, he didn’t have the English paper at all – it was his boss Saurobh Singh who had received it. So he called up Saurobh Singh for counsel – Singh forwarded him the paper. “Send it, but be careful,” he told Ojha.

There was reason to be cautious – authorities in the region were known to turn against reporters who wrote about such leaks. In 2018, the district administration had filed a case against a journalist from the district, Madhusudhan Singh, after he forwarded a leaked question paper he had written about to the district inspector of schools, at the latter’s insistence.

The year before, the police had landed up at the house of Brijesh Singh, then the Hindi daily Hindustan’s Nagra reporter, after he, too, had reported on the leak of exam materials.

His subordinates having failed to deliver, Indra Vikram Singh, the district magistrate, called Ojha directly.

After the publication of the exam paper leaks story, the district magistrate phoned Ajit Ojha, demanding that he send him the leaked material. Soon after, police arrested Ojha, accusing him of involvement in the leaks.

Ojha told the official he was apprehensive about sharing the leaked question paper with him because reporters had been in trouble in the past after sending such material to authorities.

The district magistrate was insistent.

“I am not saying you have any connections with the nakal mafia, why would you publish the story if you did,” he told Ojha over a long call, a recording of which a colleague of Ojha’s shared with me. “I am saying your name will not come anywhere. This, I, Indra Vikram Singh, am assuring. Even the SP won’t get to know your name.”

He continued, “If some allegations have surfaced, we have to go to the root of the matter, so we have to begin from the source – you got it from which number, that number got from which number, you have to cooperate, that’s how we will solve the matter. When there’s an earthquake, you have to find the epicentre, right?”

Then there was a subtle threat. “Technically, when you publish a story, you should have reached out to us for your version. You didn’t inform me, in writing or orally. So we can always charge you for that.”

Ojha finally gave in, “I will send you whatever I have – you won’t have any reason to complain from now on.”

Ojha was in the same room when his colleague played the recording for me to listen to. By the time it ended, on a seemingly submissive note on Ojha’s part, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed about having acceded to the district magistrate’s demand.

“I made a mistake in my overconfidence,” he told me apologetically. “By then I knew something was wrong, the incessant calls from the police, the DIOS, it looked like they were going to implicate me.”

Indeed: the police arrived hours later at the Amar Ujala office in Ballia, a dingy two-room affair behind a line of shops in a commercial complex close to the railway station. According to Ojha, he felt “like a terrorist” as the police allegedly mishandled him. “Zabardasti ki, hathapai ki, office me tod phod ki situation aa gayi thi,” he said – they were being violent, it was mayhem in the office.

After the stories about the English exam paper leak, and alleged Sanskrit paper leak, were published, police descended on Amar Ujala's Ballia office to arrest Ojha. He claims they were violent, and manhandled him.

A formal FIR was subsequently filed against Ojha, stating that the English question paper likely leaked from his phone. Later that evening began Ojha’s 28-day prison tenure at the Azamgarh district jail. (The previous monsoon, the Ballia district jail had been flooded, after which it was closed for repairs – all inmates from the district were shifted to the Azamgarh jail.)

As this was unfolding in Ballia, Singh and Gupta were arrested in Nagra. They spent the night in the Nagra police station, before joining Ojha in Azamgarh the next day.

In all, three FIRs were filed in which the three journalists were named – one in Nagra, one in Ubhawn, a town 20 km away, and one in Ballia city. All three journalists were named in the Ubhawn and Nagra FIRs, but only Ojha was named in the Ballia city FIR. All the FIRs accused the men of cheating, under various Indian laws, including Section 420 of the IPC, as well as sections of the Information Technology Act and the UP Examination Act. The Ballia city and Nagra FIR pertained to the leak of the English question paper, while the Ubhawn FIR pertained to the leak of the Sanskrit question paper.

No one in Ballia quite remembers when cheating during the Uttar Pradesh board’s high school and senior secondary examinations began, but everyone agrees that it happens on an industrial scale.

Some say it was the 1970s, others claim it became an organised activity only in the late 2000s. One person told me he couldn’t even “move his head” when he sat for his Class 10 exam held in the middle of the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency in 1976, but that two years later, during his Class 12 exam, he remembered having cheated without a care in the world – “jam ke nakal kiya.”

This casual attitude belies the fact that more often than not, mass-scale cheating, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar high school and pre-university exams, occurs through full-blown criminal operations, involving crores of rupees, engineered by organised mafia groups.

In 1992, when the late Kalyan Singh, then the state’s chief minister, enacted a stringent law under which students caught cheating would be sent to jail, the pass percentage in both the Class 10 and 12 exams dropped dramatically. The backlash against the BJP government was so severe that educated upper caste youth deserted the party in the 1993 elections, leading to its defeat, political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot wrote in his seminal work, The Hindu Nationalist Movement. The Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, on the other hand, Jaffrelot added, “achieved some popularity among students by his campaign promise to scrap the Act”.

Under the late Kalyan Singh's chief ministership, Uttar Pradesh enacted a stringent law against cheating that is believed to a key reason for the BJP's defeat in the 1993 state elections. Photo: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

After coming to power, one of Yadav’s first executive decisions was to repeal the law. The pass percentages immediately went up the next year.

The nerve centres of organised cheating in Uttar Pradesh, insiders say, are the unaided schools – institutions recognised by the state board of education, but not funded by the government.

In Ballia, it is an open secret that such schools thrive almost entirely for a single reason: to facilitate organised cheating.

But in order to do this, a school has to first be selected as an examination centre. For that, the primary requirement is quality infrastructure. Which means a solid initial investment: if you have the land, around Rs 1 crore; if not, add another crore or two.

Many see it as a worthwhile investment. “If I have put that much money in, I have to recover it – or let’s say I have put in so much money because I know it’s a good investment,” said the owner of an unaided school in Nagra who met me after much persuasion, and didn’t want to be identified.

In 2018, a large part of the process of selecting examination centres was shifted online by the Adityanath government in response to allegations of irregularities in the process, and of a tendency by district authorities to favour unaided schools. This was part of a slew of radical steps by the BJP government to clamp down on cheating, which also included installing CCTV cameras in schools. The following year, after allegations emerged that some invigilators dictated answers from blind spots of the cameras, the government installed voice recorders in each classroom.

But human intervention remains. The selection process entails a physical inspection of all schools by the office of the district inspector of schools. The results, detailing the level of infrastructure of each school, are then uploaded online.

The board then forwards a list of schools which it deems to have adequate infrastructure – specifically, proper boundary walls, and functioning CCTVs and voice recorders – to the districts.

A committee headed by the district magistrate, with the district inspector of schools as the member secretary, then does a final check on the institutions recommended by the board – this committee has the authority to add or remove recommended schools.

This time, in Ballia, this committee had rejected 22 examination centres on the list the board had sent, replacing them with new names. One of those schools, an unaided institution, is now under the police’s scanner, said Ballia’s police chief Raj Karan Nayyar – they believe the school was part of the English paper leak racket.

Critics say it isn’t about one school, though. They argue that there is a pattern to the district authorities preferring unaided schools over government and aided schools as examination centres.

Ballia has a total of 601 schools that are recognised by the state. Of them, 32 are government schools and 91 aided schools, in which the government recruits and pays the salaries of the teachers, but nothing else. The remaining 478 are private unaided schools.

Among the 211 centres that were chosen for this year, there were only four government schools. Seventy were aided schools, but unaided schools bagged the lion’s share: 137 such institutes became exam centres.

An official from the district inspector of schools’ office insists that they are “helpless” and that the government schools simply didn’t have the level of infrastructure the board demanded. “Out of the 32 government schools, 24 have no boundary walls and only two have CCTV cameras,” said an official. “We have been sending requisitions after requisitions to the department, but they refuse to sanction funds. So we are compelled to replace government schools with unaided schools.”

Yogendra Kumar Singh, the joint director of the Azamgarh division of the education department, under which Ballia falls, gave a noncommittal response when I asked if there was, indeed, a funding problem. “So far as the funding is concerned, each and every department will complain that it’s not enough,” he said. “While it may be a reason, only the DIOS and the district magistrate will give you the real picture.”

Mishra, the DIOS at the time, was named in the FIR in Ballia city, along with Ojha. He has since been suspended and is now out on bail. He did not respond to my requests for responses.

I made several attempts to meet district magistrate Vikram Singh. When I called him to fix an appointment, he said that he was on leave and that he wasn’t sure when he would join work again. But a few basic enquiries revealed that he was, in fact, attending office, so I landed up there. I waited outside for over an hour, but was told he was busy.

Later in the day, I went to his official residence and called him to let him know I was outside his door. He said, “That issue is stale now, I won’t give you any interview on it.”

He wouldn’t pick up my calls after that day. In mid-June, he was transferred from Ballia and appointed district magistrate of Aligarh.

The owner of an unaided school, an examination centre since 2005, a year after its inception, told me in categorical terms that the selection process was rigged. The results of the physical inspections were often contingent on what one paid to the two committees, he claimed.

“The DIOS office’s inspection, you have to pay up to Rs 1 lakh,” he said. The final inspection, he added, which is carried out by the sub-divisional magistrate office, “is not too much: Rs 5-10 thousand.” The reason for the higher price for the preliminary inspection, he explained, was that the board drew up the list of examination centres on its basis.

He proceeded to answer a question I had on my mind without my having to even say it aloud: “Now you ask why I pay. Because as I said before, I know I can recover the money. The students are willing to pay.”

The Adityanath government’s interventions, he said, had however meant drastic adjustments on the schools’ part. Since the risks had exponentially increased, mass cheating was being slowly replaced by a premium service for only those who could afford it.

Earlier, it was simple – only a matter of someone with access to a question paper sneaking it out from a sealed envelope in an exam centre ahead of the exam, solving it, and making copies of the answer key that could be sold.

The students would then smuggle in the answer key – or, in some more brazen instances, typically when an entire room of students had paid some money, the invigilator would dictate the answers out loud during the exam.

The “acche ghar ke ladke” – the boys from rich families – would avail of a premium service: a full-package where a student wouldn’t have to do anything at all apart from turn up on the day of the exam and pretend to write it. (In some cases, the teacher would even mark a student’s attendance so that they wouldn’t even have to turn up.) Ahead of time, a “writer”, ideally someone with good handwriting, would copy the answers from the key onto a smuggled blank answer sheet. This way, the student wouldn’t risk losing any marks for their handwriting or wrong spellings. After the exam, the school would ensure that the pre-written answer sheet was submitted to the board for evaluation.

The Amar Ujala stories about the leaked Sanskrit and English question papers. While authorities denied the leaked Sanskrit paper was the one that was used, they cancelled the English exam in 24 districts.

Now, the heavy police presence, and the CCTV and the voice recorders, mean that students in an exam hall cannot copy from a solved key, nor can invigilators dictate answers. The only method feasible now is the higher-end one, where schools ensure that pre-written sheets are submitted for those who paid.

The scale has become smaller, the operation more streamlined and clandestine, catering only to those with deep pockets. The going rate this year, according to the school teacher: between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 for all five subjects.

Some claimed that Ballia, the birthplace of Mangal Pandey, who sparked India’s first war of independence against the British, was being unfairly tarnished, and that organised cheating thrived as much perhaps anywhere else in the state.

A school owner said, half in jest, that this was the doing of the district’s journalists. “Badnam karke rakha hai” – they have brought a bad name to the district, he said. “Isse badhiya nakal to Ghazipur aur Mau me hoti hai” – cheating in the neighbouring districts of Ghazipur and Mau is even more rampant. “Just that no one goes to town writing about it.”

A teacher at another school who had accompanied the school owner quipped: “They don’t have a Digvijay Singh there, do they?”

While it is tempting to see Singh in black-and-white terms, as a moral crusader, his own telling of his life and work has many shades of grey. He recounted, for instance, that several years ago, when his elder son was appearing for his board exams, he wanted Singh to “go meet” the examination centre in-charge. In other words, he wanted his father to put in a word so that he could stretch his head around a bit in the exam hall.

Singh went and spoke to the man. But when he returned home, he said, he was consumed by guilt. “I told my son to prepare better for the next papers,” he told me as we sat on the veranda of his house, in a village called Abdulpur Madari, about an hour’s drive from Ballia town.

“I am opposed to the idea of nakal,” he said. “I don’t think it is right, even more so because now it only serves the rich students. Earlier at least, everyone got an equal chance once the paper leaked.”

Outside, a dust storm raged and the Dussehri tree in the courtyard shook violently, swinging its slender, yet-to-ripen mangoes like pendulums.

By then, I had spent hours speaking to Singh over several meetings, but this was the only time he had said anything remotely connected to his beliefs.

Unlike Ojha, who seemed very keen to impress upon me that he was a principled man and an honest journalist, Singh had offered no such self-assessments till then.

He spoke openly about what had led to the story, and did not shy away from revealing details that were somewhat unsavoury.

For instance, he said that his interest in the story this year had been rekindled after an acquaintance requested him to put in a word for a discount with a school owner who had demanded Rs 25,000 to help his son pass. Such requests, he admitted, were not unusual, and there had been times when he would pass the message on – especially when they were made on behalf of students with fewer means.

Yet, it was pretty evident that Singh’s anti-establishment streak ran deep. He had been part of the Jayaprakash Narayan-led student organisation, Chhatra Yuva Sangarsh Vahini, and actively participated in the anti-Emergency movement, burning effigies of Indira Gandhi. He had gone to jail several times.

In his journalist avatar, the cheating story was his fixation.

Singh recounted that in 2007, days after he reported a similar story, the district inspector of schools raided a public phone and fax shop that belonged to Gupta’s family. Singh claimed that it was the story that prompted the raid – back then, he’d use the fax machine at Gupta’s store to send stories. “They wanted to send a message by arresting Jhabbu, so that no one else would let me use their fax machine.”

The official had claimed to have found in the shop a blank answer sheet meant to be used in the ongoing high school and senior secondary examinations. He then dragged Gupta to the local police station to file a complaint against him. Even as Gupta pleaded with the police that the answer sheets had been planted, likely during the commotion of the official’s “raid”, Singh arrived at the station and raised a storm.

“Both you and I,” Singh recounted telling the schools’ inspector, “happen to be Hindus, and coincidentally it is the first day of Navratri. Do you think you’re doing the right thing?”

The official ignored Singh and continued to furiously pen his complaint. A persistent Singh kept asking the same question, his throaty voice getting louder by the moment.

Then came an explosion: a series of colourful expletives and then, in one smooth motion, Singh transferred his sandal from his left foot to his right hand. “You won’t catch the people who are actually behind it, despite us leading you to them. Have you no shame, filing false cases against innocent people?’ Singh thundered.

The rumour flew around that “DIOS pit gaya” – the district inspector of schools had been roughed up. But when I spoke to him, Singh insisted, “I had taken off my sandal, but I didn’t hit him” – as if waving a slipper at a senior government official was a routine practice.

Nagra police station’s records show that no complaint was lodged against Gupta that day. It was only later in the day that a subordinate official in the district inspector’s office filed a complaint in the Ballia city police station. The case has since been disposed of, since the complainant failed to testify in the court.

Unlike Singh, Gupta, a slight man with a full beard, is not much of a talker. His relationship with Singh, more than two decades senior to him, intrigued me initially – the two were worlds apart in terms of personality.

But it slowly started to make sense that they hunted in a pack. Gupta could get lost in the crowd, he knew the street code – the perfect foil to Singh’s “krantikari” image. No wonder, then, that it was Gupta who seemed to get his hands dirty most of the time – for the March 22 story, it was ultimately he who obtained a copy of the blank answer sheet, which he shared with Singh.

But I didn’t quite understand his motivations for his journalistic work. Singh’s journalism was clearly an extension of his personality: confrontational and adversarial. Gupta, who now helps his family manage a printing business, did not outwardly appear to me to carry any such convictions. This impression only deepened when I learnt that he didn’t bother filing a story on the answer sheet that he had sourced on March 22, though Singh did.

“Why didn’t you?” I asked.

“Bas aise hi” – just like that.

The struggles of journalists in the state’s smaller cities and towns are exacerbated by big media organisations’ treatment of them – most refuse to recognise them as employees. On paper, neither Singh nor Ojha, and for that matter, even Saurobh Singh, who heads the Ballia bureau, are Amar Ujala journalists. Their identity cards say they work for Samvad News Agency, a private limited company registered in Bareilly, under whose name the stories of the leaks were published. This company provides news to Amar Ujala, which decides what to print. The stories of the leaks were published under the byline of “Samvad News Agency”.

None of the arrested journalists, Digvijay Singh, Manoj Gupta or Ajit Ojha, nor Ballia's bureau chief, Saurobh Singh, are Amar Ujala employees. They work for Samvad News Agency, which supplied news to the paper.

According to those who follow the media landscape in the state, such arrangements help companies bypass the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board, which mandates salary slabs for employees in media organisations, in accordance with the annual turnover of the company.

This argument appears to be borne out by the payments made to many journalists like Singh. He was employed with Amar Ujala from 1999 to 2020, when he was shifted to Samvad.

His monthly salary is Rs 450 – around the same as he got when he was with the newspaper. Under the Majithia recommendations, he would have to be paid at least Rs 12,000, with a minimum increment of 3% each year.

Singh sustains himself by farming a plot of land that he owns, a little less than half an acre, and with a small fishery. The money he earns from journalism is so ridiculous that Singh laughs about it. “It doesn’t even pay my phone bill,” he said with his characteristic throaty laugh.

Gupta gets a cheque of Rs 500 at the end of every month from Rashtriya Sahara.

Singh, Gupta and Ojha are far from the only journalists in the district who are not recognised as employees by the organisations that publish their work.

Brijesh Singh, the journalist who worked as Hindustan’s Nagra reporter for nearly a decade, and at whose house the police landed up in 2017 after he published a story about a paper leak, was never given an identity card by the organisation. In the 2017 incident, it was, in fact, a local constable who vouched to other police that he was indeed a working journalist.

In 2017, police had arrived at Brijesh Singh's house after he reported on the leak of exam materials. Despite working for the daily Hindustan for nearly a decade, he was never given an identity card.

Madhusudhan Singh worked for a year and a half at Jansatta, the Indian Express group’s Hindi daily, as its Ballia correspondent – he was never issued an identity card. “One is expected to not just file news stories, but also help sell the newspaper, but they wouldn’t give an identity card for our security,” complained Singh. “So I quit – I said I can’t work without an identity card.”

But it was probably Ojha, Singh and Gupta who have had to face the worst consequences of their organisation’s apathy.

When I spoke to Ballia’s police chief, Raj Karan Nayyar, and said that their arrests had raised concerns about press freedom, he responded that they were not journalists at all. “They are not recognised by any newspaper,” he said. “They work for some private agency called Samvad or something.”

Madhusudhan Singh, who now runs a weekly newspaper out of Ballia and was an active organiser of protests demanding the trio’s release, told me this was a common refrain by the administration following their arrest. “They kept saying, if they were Amar Ujala journalists, why don’t they have identity cards?”

Madhusudhan Singh was a key organiser of the protest demanding the three journalists' release. Singh, who has worked for Jansatta, said he was not only expected to report stories, but also help sell the newspaper.

The argument that Digvijay Singh, Saurobh Singh and Ojha are not Amar Ujala employees elides the links between the two companies.

Samvad News Agency, according to the ministry of corporate affairs’ records, was incorporated on October 15, 2018. One of its directors is Prabhat Kumar Singh, who has served as editor at many of Amar Ujala’s editions. The other director is his wife, Shweta Singh. The company was incorporated just over a year after the Supreme Court asked all newspapers to implement the Majithia Wage Board’s recommendations on salaries for both journalists and non-journalist employees. Amar Ujala would have had to comply with this direction from the court for all its employees.

But gradually, a large number of the paper’s journalists began to be shifted to Samvad.

While Digvijay Singh was shifted to Samvad in 2020, Saurobh Singh was shifted when he took over the reins of the Ballia bureau in June 2021.

According to several people associated with the paper, currently, all journalists across the paper’s bureaus in eastern Uttar Pradesh, with the sole exception of Sonbhadra district, are employees of Samvad.

The transfers were not always voluntary. Akhilanand Tiwari had been with the daily for 16 years, and was heading the Ghazipur bureau in February 2021, when he was asked to put in his papers and sign a new contract with Samvad, with a significant salary cut. The choice was his, he was told: either accept the offer or face a “punishment posting” – which meant a district far away from his home in Ballia.

Tiwari chose to quit. “Well, that was the gift I got after serving what I thought was my paper for more than 15 years,” said Tiwari, who always has a gamcha wrapped around his head, like a bandana.

He now runs a news portal by the name of Apnashahar.com. “Bas apna bharas nikal lete hai” – it’s just an outlet for my frustration, he said. “What job do I look for at this age?”

After working for Amar Ujala for 16 years, in February 2021, Akhilanand Tiwari, who headed the Ghazipur bureau, was asked to resign and join Samvad News Agency. He quit and started his own portal.

After a brief pause, he then awkwardly asked if any of the “new news websites” were looking for contributors for Ballia. “Hum Nirala nahi hai” – I am not Nirala, he said. Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, perhaps the greatest Hindi poet, lived a life of utter penury.

I didn’t quite know what to say.

I had had a similar conversation with Digvijay Singh the previous day. I had promised him leads, well aware that I really couldn’t be of any help.

He, too, along with Brijesh Singh had started a news website last August. “There we publish what Amar Ujala wouldn’t,” he said. “The kind of journalism the papers do these days, it doesn’t give me any satisfaction anymore.”

In Ojha’s case, the questions about his status as a journalist were complicated by the fact that he is enlisted as a teacher in one of the district’s unaided schools. The school was an exam centre this year. In fact, the FIR against Ojha refers to him as “teacher Ajit Ojha”. “Initially, there were strong inputs that the source of the leak was the school itself,” said Nayyar.

But subsequent investigation, Nayyar said, had revealed that was not the case.

Ojha insists that his association with the school was just a convenient pretext to go after him. “Yes, my name is enlisted, but I don’t even go to that school, I draw no salary from there,” he said. “And if you ask why I have my name there – it is in the hope that the school will someday in the future become an aided school, and I can get some extra cash, because everyone knows my job doesn’t pay me enough for me to take care of my family.”

I called up the owner of the school, a man called Kanhaiya Upadhyay Haripuri, to ask what the arrangement with Ojha was. He said Ojha visited “twice or thrice a month” to teach the kids physical education. He confirmed Ojha’s claim that he didn’t draw any salary from the school.

A press conference in Ballia. Many journalists in the state’s smaller cities and towns are not recognised by publications as employees, and are paid as little as Rs 500 a month by the agencies that employ them.

Ojha wasn’t the only journalist I encountered in Ballia who straddles more than one profession. But while journalism is his primary occupation, one to which he is dedicated, some in the city see it more as a useful activity in which to be seen to be involved.

A day before I was leaving town, Bharat Bhushan Pandey, who runs the travel agency I had hired a vehicle from, landed at my hotel to collect his payment.

An affable man, he seemed keen to chat. “I thought we should meet, after all I am a small soldier in the same profession as you,” he said, offering me what looked like an identity card. “PRESS,” the card screamed in bright red letters.

Pandey, according to the card, was a “city reporter” at a Ballia-based weekly.

“I have kept it for my safety,” he explained.

Did the press card grant any real privileges, I asked him.

“Of course! When the police stop my drivers, they call me and I tell the police that I am from the media, and they let my boys go almost all the time.”

Pandey, though, was not keen on being city reporter forever.

“I am bringing Dainik Bhaskar to Ballia and I will become the bureau chief,” he said, referring to the widely-read Hindi newspaper.

“But you’ve never been a journalist,” I couldn’t stop myself from remarking.

“Arey, what are brothers like you for? Do bureau chiefs report themselves? They are there to help, coordinate things and solve problems.”

“But you have a real business to run!”

“I will make some time. In these times, you need two kinds of people in your family – a journalist and a lawyer.”

After failing to acknowledge that Ojha and Digvijay Singh were journalists that worked for their publication, around a week after the stories of the alleged leaks were published, the Amar Ujala group partially made amends – it employed a lawyer to defend the imprisoned journalists.

The most strident support, however, came from Ballia’s journalistic fraternity, which ensured a busy protest schedule till their three colleagues were released.

They organised rallies, candlelight marches and relay hunger strikes. For the entire period of 28 days that the three were imprisoned, Ballia’s journalists took turns to squat in front of the district magistrate’s office. The journalists even made sure the show wasn’t just limited to members of the press: they convinced the district’s business association, for instance, to shut down commercial operations for half a day, on April 16.

Rajni Kant Singh, who heads a trader’s association in the district, told me they didn’t really need much convincing. They put their weight behind the protests because it felt like the right thing to do.

“If tomorrow there’s some injustice with us, who will speak for us if we don’t speak for them,” he said. “If they can put journalists in jail, they can do anything.”

But there was more to it. Mass cheating, he said, “affected everyone”. “Finally, it is our kids’ futures that are getting affected, isn’t it?” said Kant Singh, a landscape architect who now runs a computer hardware business.

Ojha, Singh and Gupta were granted bail by the court on April 25.

The same day, the police withdrew the charges of cheating, fraud and forgery against them. “Once we were able to identify the mastermind, it seemed there were no direct connections between them,” said Nayyar, the district’s police chief.

But charges under the Uttar Pradesh Examination Act and the IT Act remain in place.

The trio’s lawyer, Akhilendra Kumar Chaubey, argued that those charges hadn’t been removed yet because the police didn’t want it to appear as if they had jailed three journalists for nearly a month without any evidence. “They clearly have no evidence, that’s why they were forced to withdraw the other charges,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ojha continues to follow the story closely. One May afternoon I went to meet him in the office. He seemed excited: another official in the district school inspector’s office had been suspended.

“Do you still care?” I asked him.

“As long as I am in the profession, I will.”

This reporting has been supported by the International Press Institute’s project on fighting attacks on journalists in South Asia.