attacks on journalists

Was Tripura reporter murdered over story accusing paramilitary force officer of corruption?

Sudip Datta Bhaumik was shot dead on Tuesday in the office of the Tripura State Rifles commandant he had implicated in his report.

On Tuesday, 51-year old crime reporter Sudip Datta Bhaumik was shot dead at the Tripura State Rifles’ 2nd battalion headquarters in RK Nagar on the outskirts of Agartala. The police have arrested battalion commandant Tapan Debbarma and his personal security guard Nanda Reang, who allegedly fired the shots at the journalist.

Bhaumik is the second journalist to be killed in Tripura in the past two months. On September 20, Santanu Bhowmik, a reporter with an Agartala-based television news channel, was hacked to death by a mob in Mandai district while covering a clash between political parties. Sudip Datta Bhaumik’s killing is also the 73rd murderous assault on an Indian journalist since 1992, according to the United States-based non-profit Committee for Protection of Journalists. In recent months, journalists across the country have condemned attacks on mediapersons and alleged that they are coming increasingly under threat of violence.

While the police have remained silent on the events that led to Bhaumik’s death, his colleagues link it to a story he had recently written for the Syandan Patrika, the Bengali language newspaper he worked for. The story was published on November 2 and “exposed corruption worth Rs 10 crore on the part of Debbarma”, said the newspaper’s editor Subal Dey.

A corruption story

According to Dey, Bhaumik received a call on his mobile phone from Debbarma on Tuesday morning. Debbarma asked Bhaumik to meet him at his office later in the day so that he could present his side of the story, the editor said.

“Basically, Debbarma showed bills amounting to Rs 10 crore for non-existent official purchases,” said Dey.

He added, “He [Bhaumik] called me at around 10 in the morning to ask what he should do. I told him, ‘Go, but take a recorder with you’.”

Dey said that Bhaumik had written about corruption allegations against Debbarma earlier too: “He had done two stories a few months back, and they had also upset Debbarma.”

Journalists protest the killing of reporter Santanu Bhowmick in front of the chief minister's residence in Agartala in September. (Credit: Arindam Dey / AFP)
Journalists protest the killing of reporter Santanu Bhowmick in front of the chief minister's residence in Agartala in September. (Credit: Arindam Dey / AFP)

The murder

Dey said he received a call at around 12 pm from a “source in the TSR [Tripura State Rifles]” who told him that Bhaumik had been shot at. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “So, I called up the DG [director general of the Tripura Police], who said he had heard no such thing and asked me not to worry.”

The editor said he then sent Bhaumik’s deputy, Tipu Sultan, to check on him. Sultan reportedly found Bhaumik’s motorbike parked outside the gates of the battalion headquarters but was told by security guards that he was not inside the facility. Dey added, “However, the visitors’ entry book, which we checked later, has him making an entry at 11 am.”

Unverified reports that something had gone amiss in a security facility on the outskirts of Agartala spread among journalists. But an official confirmation came much later. At 2.30 pm, Bhaumik was brought to the GB Pant Hospital in the capital where he was declared dead, the police said. An officer said he had two gunshot wounds, one in his abdomen and the other in his back.

Soon, over 60 journalists reportedly forced their way into the 2nd battalion headquarters. Among them was Sebak Bhattacharya, editor of News Vanguard, a news channel Bhaumik reported for in addition to his job at the Syandan Patrika. Bhattacharya claimed that when they entered the security facility, they found Debbbarma’s office sealed with tape. “The pots and small shrubs in the garden right outside his office were all scattered,” he said. “It seemed there was some sort of scuffle.”

The defence

A theory doing the rounds in the media is that a scuffle broke out when Bhaumik refused to undergo a body search after Debbarma accused him of trying to steal documents and money from his office. However, West Tripura Superintendent of Police Abhijit Saptarshi said this was the “version of the accused and not yet verified”.

Bhaumik’s colleagues dismiss the story. “After killing a journalist for doing his duty, they are now accusing him of stealing,” said Dey. He claimed that no phone or note book was found on Bhaumik’s body, adding, “He always carried two pens, even they were not there.”

The Left government has transferred the case from the district police to the Crime Investigation Department of the state police.

Journalists allege the state police often manhandle mediapersons. Bhattacharya said police officials had in 2011 baton-charged 11 journalists covering an agitation against alleged discrimination by the Left Front government in the reservation of seats at the Tripura Medical College.

The Tripura State Rifles was set up by the state government in 1984 to combat armed insurgency. Organised along the lines of the Central armed paramilitary forces, it has 12 battalions and is headed by an officer of the rank of inspector general, who reports to the state’s home minister.

‘Very brave reporter’

Bhaumik was a part of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s student wing, the Students’ Federation of India, in his youth. Friends and colleagues say he got disillusioned with the party and left the organisation after a few years.

Bhaumik was not always a full-time journalist. Bhattacharya said that although he had been reporting for various dailies for almost two decades, he became a full-time employee only in 2010 when he joined the news channel Halla Bol. Before that, he had also traded in domestic appliances, the editor added.

Bhaumik joined the Syandan Patrika four years ago. “He was a good, bold journalist who worked as a senior crime and investigation reporter in my paper,” said Dey. The editor said he had never received any complaints about Bhaumik’s professional conduct.

Bhattacharya agreed, calling Bhaumik a “very brave reporter”. Senior Agartala-based journalist Manas Paul said he had known Bhaumik for almost two decades and “there were no reasons to cast aspersions on his professionalism”.

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