On Monday, the Nashik Police, acting on a complaint filed by the Indian Army, booked a journalist for spying, criminal trespass, defamation and abetting the suicide of a soldier. The first information report against Poonam Agarwal was in connection with a sting operation she had conducted at the Deolali Cantonment in Maharashtra that allegedly showed soldiers performing humiliating tasks, such as household chores, under the Army’s sahayak or orderly system – which assigns a jawan to a senior officer to provide “essential support”. The sting was published in the news website The Quint on February 24.

A day later, on February 25, Lance Naik Roy Mathew, one of the soldiers filmed in the sting video, went missing. His decomposed body was found hanging in an abandoned barrack on March 2. The very next day, The Quint took the article off its website “in the interest of the investigation and to ensure that the other jawans who appeared in the video were not harassed and driven to the same fate by officers whose misconduct was exposed”.

The Army’s decision to take action against the journalist comes five days after the government defended the sahayak system, telling Parliament that it enhanced “spirit and team work” in the military.

While the Army has blamed Agarwal for filming the soldiers without their permission and asking leading questions, The Quint has raised doubts about the manner in which the military responded to Mathew’s disappearance.

On Tuesday, Agarwal filed a police complaint of her own, alleging that some elements in the Army had harassed the soldier for speaking against senior officers on camera, which could have driven him to take his own life.

Serious charges

According to a press release issued by the Nashik Police on Tuesday, Agarwal was booked under Sections 3 and 7 of the Official Secrets Act, a law that came into force under British rule in 1923.

Section 3 of the law pertains to spying in prohibited areas by “any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State”. It carries a minimum sentence of three years imprisonment.

Section 7 punishes a person for “interfering with officers of the police or members of the Armed Forces of the Union”, punishable by a maximum of three years in jail.

In addition, a case of abetment to suicide was registered against the journalist. In a press release on March 3, the Army had said:

“Preliminary investigations have now revealed the suicide may be a result of a series of events which were triggered by media personnel managing to video-graph the deceased by asking leading questions on his duties as a ‘buddy’ [to a colonel] without his knowledge. It is very likely the guilt factor of letting down his superiors or conveying a false impression to an unknown individual, led him to take the extreme step.”  

The Quint has not denied the fact that the video recording was made without the soldiers’ knowledge. However, the current controversy seems to be over whether Mathew took his life solely because of the sting operation.

In an interview to India Today on March 3, Mathew’s uncle, Thomas Kutti, had alleged that his nephew was afraid his superiors may take action against him for interacting with the journalist. A Ministry of Defence press release the same day mentioned a note in Mathew’s diary in which he had expressed fear of being court-martialled.

In her police complaint, Agarwal named Mathew’s immediate supervisor and said the officer had asked the soldier’s family not to file a missing persons report after his disappearance. She claimed there was enough evidence to suggest Mathew and the other jawans featured in the video were harassed by senior officers for speaking to the media.

The Army, on the other hand, has maintained that since the video did not reveal the identity of the jawans, there was no question of any of them being targeted.

Agarwal also questioned how a hanging body could have gone unnoticed for four days when the cantonment was on high alert in the wake of terrorist attacks on military installations in the country, such as the strike on the Air Force base in Pathankot, Punjab, in January 2016:

“You have seemed to buy lock stock and barrel the explanation to dress up the suicide set up by rogue officers that the dead body of Mathew could lie unnoticed in a barrack right in the camp, just across 18 feet road, when the entire Cantonment is supposed to be under highest alert and surveillence when recently such barracks were used by terrorists to mount attacks in Pathankot, triggering a response of surgical strike by army.” 

The journalist demanded a thorough investigation against Army officers “for a possible murder dressed as suicide or forcing Mathew to commit suicide by causing his harassment and installing false fear of court martial in his mind”.

Scroll.in sent email requests to both the Ministry of Defence and the Army for their comments, but received none. This article will be updated when they respond.