The Karnataka Police arrested journalist Imtiyaz Shah Tumbay in Dakshina Kannada district on September 7, five days after he reported on alleged police excesses during a raid on the house of a person accused of murder.

Tumbay, 24, is the Bantwal taluk reporter of Vartha Bharati, a multi-edition Kannada newspaper published from Mangaluru, Shimoga and Bengaluru. In his report on the raid on the house of Kalandar Shafi – who stands accused of murdering a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker in July, and is on the run – Tumbay reported that Shafi’s family alleged that the policemen had desecrated the Quran, the central religious text for Muslims. Along with Tumbay’s report, the newspaper published a photograph the family shared as evidence.

The police took suo moto (on its own) cognisance against the report and booked Tumbay under sections of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to giving provocation with intent to cause a riot and statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes. The charge sheet mentioned “Chief of Vartha Bharati” as a co-accused, but no further arrests have been made so far.

On Friday, the court of the Judicial First Class Magistrate in Bantwal rejected Tumbay’s bail application and remanded him in judicial custody for 15 days. His regular bail application will be heard on Monday.

Tumbay’s arrest, which came a day after senior journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in Bengaluru, has deepened anxieties over the erosion of press freedom in the state. Three prominent journalists’ associations – Dakshina Kannada Working Journalists’ Union, Karnataka Journalists’ Union and Working Journalists’ Union of Bantwal – have condemned Tumbay’s arrest. They submitted memorandums to the police officials to drop all charges against him.

District Superintendent of Police, Sudheer Kumar Reddy, said that the police has evidence to prove Tumbay’s involvement in what he termed was a conspiracy to create trouble in the area. Tumbay has been accused of writing a false report and circulating the photograph of the alleged desecration, which the police claims was staged.

The news report

Kalandar Shafi, an activist of the Social Democratic Party of India, is one of several people accused in the murder of RSS worker Sharath Madivala, who was stabbed on July 4 and succumbed to his injuries a few days later. At least 10 people have been arrested in connection for the murder.

A report that Tumbay wrote on a police raid on Shafi’s home on September 2 was published the following day. For the report, Tumbay spoke to Shafi’s wife and father-in-law who accused the police of being disrespectful to the Quran during the raid. They handed the reporter a photograph as evidence of the alleged desecration.

On September 3, Reddy issued a statement denouncing the newspaper report as false.

“We published his statement [in the paper] prominently on September 4,” said Vartha Bharati editor-in-chief Abdussalam Puthige. “But Tumbay’s arrest came as a shocker.”

Reddy denied that the police disrespected the Quran during the raid. “A search team went to Kalandar’s house with a warrant,” he said. “During the raid, the team saw the Quran and it was duly handed over to a family member.”

Reddy added: “After the police team left someone threw the Quran down, photographed it and circulated it with an aim to create communal tension. It was circulated widely on social media. Vartha Bharati published it.”

However, Shafi’s wife, Sauda Banu, 21, said that the police was lying. She said that the police personnel who were part of the raid team treated the Quran and other religious texts in her home with contempt and threw them down on the floor during the search, which lasted from 7 am to 11 am.

“No Muslim will ever throw down the Holy Quran,” she said. “They treated us like criminals. They threw our clothes and cooking utensils. Our house looked like a war zone after they left.”

A screen grab of the report by Imtiyaz Shah Tumbay in Vartha Bharati's September 3 edition.

Reporting on police excesses

Dakshina Kannada is a sensitive district, which has seen incidents of communal violence over the past two decades at least. There has been an escalation in violence in recent months, which has been attributed to the upcoming Assembly elections in the state next year.

Puthige has denied the police claim that the newspaper report was written with an intent to create trouble. He accused the police of wanting to muzzle the paper as it has been exposing the police’s inability to maintain law and order in the district.

“We have been criticising the police and B Ramanath Rai, the minister in charge of the district, through our columns for their inability to rein in Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist organisations here,” said Puthige. “Tumbay’s arrest is nothing but an attempt to take revenge on us. But no one can muzzle our voice. We stand by our reporter. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He has just reported facts.”

Rai, who is the minister for forests in the Congress-led state government, said he did not play any role in the arrest. “He was arrested based on a case registered by the police,” he said.

Asked about Vartha Bharati’s criticism against him and the government, he said: “I am against both Hindu and Muslim communal forces.”

Puthige said that Tumbay, who joined the newspaper as a sub-editor in 2012 and moved to Bantwal taluk bureau as a reporter in 2016, had reported on excesses by the Karnataka police in the past too.

“He had written about the midnight police raids in Bantwal after clashes between members of two communities in June,” he said. “The police used to harass innocents during the raids. The chief minister’s office took notice of the report that was published on June 6 and asked the Bantwal Circle Inspector to submit a detailed report. It made our newspaper their [the police’s] enemy.”

Reddy said he was unaware of any order demanding an explanation from the chief minister’s office. “I took charge on June 20,” he said. “I don’t know about things that happened before I assumed office.”

‘Independent probe’

Puthige alleged that the police timed Tumbay’s production in court in order to keep him in custody over the weekend. Tumbay was arrested at 7 pm on September 7. The police produced him before the Judicial First Class Magistrate in Bantwal at 4 pm on September 8, a Friday. “They kept him in custody till 4 pm, and produced him in court a few minutes before it was closed for the day,” said Puthige.

Reddy said: “We took 21 hours to question the accused and collect evidence. There is nothing illegal in it.”

Social activist Harsh Mander demanded an independent probe into the case. “In this case, the police have acted as judge, witness and inquiry officer,” he said. “This case should be independently probed. Till then the reporter should be released without any charges.”