When Pushp Comes To RTI Shove

A sting-happy journalist faces police intimidation for a story that embarrass­ed the government
When Pushp Comes To RTI Shove
On The Mat
PM Modi shows his yoga skills on World Yoga Day in Delhi
Photo by Tribhuvan Tiwari
When Pushp Comes To RTI Shove
outlookindia.com
2016-03-25T12:20:54+0530

Real Or Forged?

  • Was the document part of the RTI reply received by the journalist?
  • If the Ayush document is forged, who did it and why?
  • Could the document have been unwit­tingly mailed to the journalist?
  • Why did the ministry not seek Milli Gazette’s retraction or apology?
  • Why was the journalist picked up by the police without a formal summons?
  • Exactly how many Muslims have been recruited by Ayush?
  • Why is the government silent on others inciting communal hatred?

***

Stung by a report that the AYUSH ministry had responded to an RTI application by stating that Government policy was not to recruit Muslim candidates as Yoga teachers or trainers, a red-faced minister Sripad Naik reacted by calling the report false and fabricated. The ministry lodged a complaint with the Delhi police and for three successive days this week the writer, an independent writer Pushp Sharma, was interrogated by the police, IB and AYUSH officials at a police station in the national capital.

The said news report titled “We don’t recruit Muslims: AYUSH ministry” was published in the fortnightly newspaper’s edition dated 16-31 March 2016. As per the story, Sharma had filed three Right to Information (RTI) applications, with 20 questions, that sought information on the Yoga Day functions from the union ministry for AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). One of the questions was on whether Muslim yoga teachers had been hired as Yoga trainers and sent abroad ahead of the Yoga Day function last year and how many had applied.

As part of the function, the Indian government had decided that its diplomatic missions abroad would also host similar functions parallel to the main one held in New Delhi, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There had been reports about expenses incurred for the International Day of Yoga so this is the question that I decided to ask,” says Pushp Sharma, the journalist who filed the RTI application. “It is something we know – that Muslims are excluded from being hired as Muslim teachers – but nobody talks about it.”

Sharma claimed he was being repeatedly asked about people who fund him and about people in the ministry who may have ‘leaked’ detains. Essentially he was being quizzed about the source although he maintained that his report was based on replies mailed to him by post by the ministry. As proof he uploaded all the 42 pages he had received from the ministry along with the envelopes with post marks.

But that did not help resolve the mystery of the annexure which the ministry claimed was forged. It contained a list of 26 names of people, all of them Hindus, who were ostensibly sent abroad on short assignment on the occasion of the World Yoga Day last year. It then went on to mention that 711 Muslim candidates had applied for the assignment but “as per government policy no Muslim candidate was invited, selected or sent abroad”. It also went on to claim that “ 3841 Muslim candidates applied till date for the post of Yoga trainer/teacher”.

Sharma claims he too was surprised to receive 42 pages from the ministry while only two or three of them carried the information he had sought. But he is unable to explain why he filed the report in March this year when the information had been received by him in October last year.

The Government’s reaction, he insisted, amounted to intimidation. The editor of Milli Gazette confirmed to Outlook that even six days after the controversy broke, the magazine and the portal, which describes itself as Indian Muslims’ first English magazine, had not heard anything from the ministry or the police. No rejoinder was sent and no clarification was sought.

The magazine did, however, upload the ministry’s denial carried in a statement released by the Press Information Bureau.

Forged or not, the controversy did not throw much light on the truth. Ministry spokesmen steadfastly claimed that it did not even select the candidates, whose names were recommended by other agencies like the ICCR. The minister indignantly stated that there was no question of hiring people on the basis of their religion. But Sharma, on his return from the police station on the second day, told Outlook that he had merely reported what was indeed the unwritten and unacknowledged policy. “ I am just a messenger. Why shoot me ? The ministry first sends me the replies and when I report the information received, they are trying to discredit me”.

Efforts by Outlook to confirm if the list of 26 trainers sent abroad was genuine or not met with a wall. Asked by Outlook if the ministry could reveal the names of at least some Muslim candidates selected, officials once again denied that they had any information. Sharma on March 17 wrote an open letter to the readers on the website of Milli Gazette and claimed that his ‘sources’ in the ministry had told him that an informal decision had been taken to give in future some token representation to Muslim trainers.

The claim buttressed the belief that someone within the ministry may have slipped the damning information among the papers mailed to Sharma. Sharma acknowledged as much when he told Outlook that the police wanted him to reveal names of officials he was meeting.

On March 11, a teaser of the story had appeared on Milli Gazette’s website. Anil Kumar Ganeriwala, joint secretary, AYUSH, says that he first came across the teaser on social media but did not pay much attention. “The next day, some TV channels ran it and then we decided to issue a clarification with the RTI reply that we had sent,” says Ganeriwala.

“How can there be any such government policy that selects people based on their religion? For the same event, we hired Muslim trainers in Uttar Pradesh for Yoga Awareness prior to the World Yoga Day event,” says Ganeriwala.

The ministry lodged a FIR with the Kotla Mubaraqpur PS against Sharma on March 15 under sections 418, 468, 471 and 153A of the Indian Penal Code. The ministry has claimed that the annexure is a forged document and was used by Sharma to cheat the public. Section 153-A has been added because the ministry feels that he was trying to create communal tensions using a false document.

Sharma was not informed of the police complaint. He says that on the evening of March 15, policemen landed at his doorstep and asked them to accompany him to the police station without producing a warrant or any summons. After being questioned for four hours at the Kotla PS, he was handed a handwritten notice under section 41A CRPC and asked to come the next day with all the original documents.

On March 16, Sharma was interrogated for 10 hours and a typed notice was given to him. Officials from AYUSH ministry as well as intelligence bureau (IB) spooks were also present during the questioning.

“On the first day, I was asked who was behind me, who had funded me and other such questions instead of the police trying to investigate the case at hand. On the second day, they seemed a little less rigid because the AYUSH officials admitted that some documents which were not meant to be a part of the RTI, such as the online application form, had also been attached to the RTI reply. The police also understand that if some documents can make their way into the RTI reply by mistake, then why not this document?” Sharma told Outlook.

Sharma’s summoning appears to be in violation of guidelines that a person should be summoned by police with due process. Further, there was no communication with the editor of the Milli Gazette by the ministry. They decided to go directly after the reporter with a criminal case instead of seeking clarifications or lodging a formal protest.

The police are also playing their part and Sharma claims they are using various intimidation techniques. A Milli Gazette employee said that when he did not respond to repeated questions on his alleged backers, they would threaten to place him under arrest. The police can send the questioned document for forensic analysis to check if it was printed in the government office but it will take some time. A senior police officer said that they are careful not to make arrests in such cases till there is some evidence if a document is fake or genuine.

“This is not the first report he has written for us. In the last issue, Sharma wrote about the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s plan to eliminate Dawood Ibrahim and his gang. He approached me nearly a year ago and said he would file exclusive investigative stories for us and has supplied evidence for the stories. The job of the media is to expose what’s going on and not clap for the ruler,” sais Zafarul-Islam Khan, editor of the 16-year-old Milli Gazette.

In the report on Doval, Sharma wrote that Modi was looking for reelections through a covert operation planned by the NSA to eliminate Dawood Ibrahim and his gang. It would be done using suspended police officials and criminals to keep it off the books.

In between the interrogations, Sharma has written several posts about his interaction with police officials. “During interrogation at Kotla Mubarakpur Police Station on 15-16 March, 2016, I was repeatedly asked about a single line from my article published in The Milli Gazette: “Abki Baar Muslims pe vaar – shukriya Modi Sarkar”, wrote Sharma. The IB officials seemed interested in understanding if the documents were given to him as a leak.

Among the many AYUSH officials that Outlook spoke to, most were evasive about confirming if the document in question was fake or genuine. The standard answer was that the RTI reply shown by Sharma was wrong and that no such policy [of not hiring Muslims] existed. AYUSH officials also could not say exactly how many pages had been sent for the RTI responses and whether the number of pages had been entered in a register with the concerned officer.

Recent allegations of inciting communal hatred by BJP MPs in Agra at a memorial for a local VHP leader have not met with such perseverant interrogation.

Sharma has conducted several investigations as a freelancer and a staff reporter for various media houses. His spy camera sting operation on Sri Ram Sene exposed how the saffron organization was willing to incite mob violence for a fee. Tehelka magazine was given that year’s International Press Institute’s award for the report.

A year before that he had conducted a sting on a Delhi Police officer. He was arrested a month later on charges of extortion. “Instead of acting on my complaint against an officer, the police arrested me. But, media houses continued to trust me and hired me or ran my stories,” says Sharma.

Sharma had also reportedly conducted a sting operation on BJP leaders including BJP general secretary Ram Lal and union minister for environment and forests, Prakash Javadekar, in 2013. The BJP minister, then an MP, was reportedly willing to tamper with witnesses in the Tulsi Prajapati fake encounter case, in which BJP chief Amit Shah is an accused.

Sharma had also investigated the disappearance of Shankardev, godman Baba Ramdev’s guru and a trustee in his Divya Yog Trust.

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