Op-Ed

Just another day working as a freelance journalist — except for a detention and false charges 

A freelance reporter reflects on the perils of the job and the frightening ordeal she recently found herself in while covering an explosive story

A photo taken by Priyanka Borpujari at the scene of the demolition of slums in Mumbai, India, on December 26, 2017, showing a clash between police and residents.

I was still finishing my morning coffee when the call came in at 12:15 p.m.: Municipal authorities had begun to demolish the houses again. I grabbed my keys and phone and headed for the door. I’d be back in few minutes, I thought as I walked out. Little did I know that I’d return with bruises and shaking with fear over being unable to prove that I’m a freelance journalist, not to mention facing charges of inciting violence.

I had been reporting about the demolition of slums in Mumbai for a while, specifically, as it pertains to the question of inadequate housing in the space-starved metropolis. At a time when there is an abundance of luxury homes, the nobodies who live in slums and keep the city moving are considered a nuisance. Never mind that many of the city’s nearly two million slum dwellers dutifully pay their electricity and water bills. Slum dwellers are often given a notice to vacate the space they, in many cases, have made their home for years together. Often the demolitions begin with no notice at all.

And this is what had happened on December 26. I reached the narrow Hans Bhugra Road in Mumbai’s western suburbs, which leads to the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The 250 houses were lined in a long row across nearly a kilometer, and after a three-minute walk from my home, I saw homes standing naked, without roofs and walls. Utensils, books, tiny corners with idols of Hindu gods were exposed. Some furniture was destroyed, other items were left standing as the only wall between the road and the bare nudity of what makes every house different. Walking past a few of these structures, I saw a large earth-moving vehicle, and behind it were women with anxious looks on their faces. Using my smartphone, I began to record one woman screaming at a policewoman that demolition crews had come in a day early, when the deadline to vacate was the next day. “I just came home from college. I haven’t eaten anything and now you want to take away everything we have!” she pleaded.

A tall man was using his phone to record me as I recorded the desperate woman. He asked me what was I doing with my phone, and I responded that I am a journalist. I said I was with the “Times.” It was an instinctive response. As a freelance journalist, I had no time to explain to him that I did not carry a press card because the Press Information Bureau (PIB) only issues press cards to freelancers who have a minimum of 15 years of work experience, and that I would be pitching this as a story to some publication only after I receive a “yes” from an editor.

I turned around and noticed concentric circles: Aggrieved residents formed an inner circle as policewomen surrounded them, and men surrounded the circle created by the police, such that the crowd was protruding into the incoming traffic. There were other men with their phone cameras, too. This has been a usual plot with demolitions. Policewomen are sent in large numbers to contain the anger of resident women, since the men are expected to be at work (and most women who work as house-help in middle class homes nearby would have rushed back upon receiving news of demolitions). A woman sat down by the machine wailing, “Take everything I have!” Some women bent down at her side, perhaps to comfort her or to sit with her. Policewomen dragged that woman by her arm, and soon the confrontation escalated into a vortex where women were being dragged away even as they resisted, amid wails and screams.

As I continued to film this jaw-dropping scene, someone grabbed for my phone. “Get her phone!” I heard some men shout. “I told you to go behind and not step forward,” said a policewoman, as she tried to snatch the phone from my hand. I resisted, even as my arm was now stretched out. The phone fell; one of the women residents picked it up quickly and gave it to me. I stepped backward, but as the violence continued escalating — women were being pulled by their hair and were being dragged into the police vehicle — I turned on the phone camera again. This time, I was the center of attention of the police force: I kept shouting that I was just doing my job. “You do your work, I am doing mine,” I said, still not concerned what could happen to me next.

Two policewomen pulled me by the light cardigan I was wearing. I was now right amid the traffic. Vehicles screeched to a halt. I tried to slide my phone into my pants, but I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t surrender the phone. I wasn’t thinking about being violated at that point, but was only concerned about the personal data on the phone. One of them pulled me into the vehicle and the other dragged me by my hair plait and shoved me in.

The man who had been recording the events on his phone made a hand gesture to take me away alone. In that moment of mental fog, I decided to call my friend and colleague Peter Griffin, who is also the deputy editor of The Hindu in Mumbai. I had intended on telling him about the demolition and that he could send in a photographer. But I couldn’t get ahold of him and left a message. The policewoman held my wrist tight as I clutched my phone in my other hand, behind me. She demanded several times I give her the phone, and I refused each time. I was swimming between an angry tone and a kind one, realizing that I could be in a bigger mess than I had anticipated.

I requested, then demanded, that I be allowed to make one phone call, per my rights. Just then, Peter called me back and I narrated to him in a single breath that I was being taken to the Vakola police station, because I had been recording how women and children were being beaten up during demolitions. Just as I told him I was safe, the policewoman tried to snatch the phone again. I managed to convince her to allow me to make another phone call, and this time I dialed Raju Shinde, a photographer at The Mumbai Mirror, where I’d worked as a crime reporter many years ago. I told him everything in one breath, and he asked me if there were other journalists at the scene besides myself. How could I emphasize that I was the first journalist to reach the spot because of the proximity to my home and my decision to get there immediately?

Peter called again, and the cop holding down my wrist hard — there were bruises later — said that I had done enough of lying over the phone. I tried to reason with her. I write about issues of human rights, I told her, a topic that includes issues of the police constabulary, whose members are ill-treated by their seniors. I told her how policewomen have it the toughest without toilets during nakabandi (patrol hours), and how they have to stay mum when they are harassed by their male counterparts. She stayed mum.

She received a message on her walkie-talkie and then she turned to me. “One woman bit a police officer,” she said. “And you claim these people living in slums are humans?”

The vehicle took a sudden turn. “You say you write about this and you don’t even know that this area comes under the jurisdiction of the BKC police station,” she replied with a smirk. I couldn’t believe her words. The cyber crime cell was stationed at Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) police station and I feared that my phone would be cracked open.
“Get her phone,” the policewoman who was holding me ordered one of her colleagues, a large woman. I feared she might use physical force. I insisted that I need to inform my boss that I’m at BKC police station and not at Vakola. These pleas fell on deaf ears, and even as I noticed Peter calling again, my phone was taken away.

It was 1:30 p.m. by then. For the next four hours, I was stuck in a whirlpool of conversations, with the police, and with myself. I requested them to allow me to make a phone call, and they suggested I use their landline phone. “But the phone number of my boss is on my phone. I don’t remember it!” They weren’t ready to give me my phone. “What’s your hurry? Just sit and wait here.” Other more menacing remarks were made about my claim to be a journalist without a press card.

I couldn’t dare call up my mother who was in another town — she wouldn’t have known what to do next. How did we arrive in this point in life where we do not remember any phone numbers, but social media remembers everything we have said or done? I wondered.

An hour later, I remembered the phone number of a friend whom I have known since the pre-mobile phone days. I called her and gave her just a few words. “Hey, it’s me, Priyanka … your friend, Priyanka Borpujari. Listen, I’m at BKC police station. I am safe. Just find the number of Peter Griffin at The Hindu and tell him this. He thinks I am at Vakola. Just find him and tell him I’m at BKC.”

And then I waited. For something to happen, for someone to show up. Three other women from the demolition site were brought in, along with a young girl. She was the one who was accused of biting the arm of a policewoman. They sat at a distance. I wanted to get updates, but I did not want to be seen communicating with them. At about 4:30 p.m., Rachna Dhanrajani, an intern from The Hindu showed up. I now had access to a phone. Peter had begun to tweet about my detention. His colleague and legal reporter Sonam Saigal assured me a lawyer was being sent. Gautam Mengle, a crime reporter at The Hindu, was reaching out to his contacts in the police department. Peter called again on Rachna’s phone and asked, “Did you shout out slogans? The police are saying that the authorities have slapped a case against you for inciting violence.”

India-based freelance journalist Priyanka Borpujari. (Twitter)

How could I be the bad guy when I was documenting what was happening? But this news was true: there was a FIR (a first information report, prepared by the police, to be able to take cognizance of an offense) against me. I was called in to give my statement, standard procedure to document the version of events from the accused. But the police had begun to receive calls from their superiors, so now I was being addressed as “Madam.”

The same policewoman who had held my wrist tight was now wearing her name badge, and she typed my narration of the incident. She kept interrupting. “Madam, you may say all you want, but there is a case against you,” she warned, “which is very solid.”

A man then appeared stating that he was sent by Sonam and there to serve as my lawyer. He knew his way around charming the police — a smile here, a joke there. Two more journalist friends appeared and I broke down on seeing them. They assured me I wasn’t alone and that members of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) as well as the Coalition for Women in Journalism, as well as scores of people online were rallying for my release.

I heard the lawyer speak about arranging money for bail. I had been on Hans Bhugra Road, to document the demolition of the 250 houses, on my own accord, as any journalist would upon hearing of such news. And so I knew that I alone had to arrange that money. Eventually we didn’t have to pay anything yet as I was only detained, and not arrested.

By 6:30 p.m., I was told I could go home. My lawyer was called in by a police officer, who had told him that I would get my phone back if I agreed to delete everything I had recorded. I was ready to give them a copy of what I had recorded; I wasn’t even sure if what I had recorded was incriminating evidence against them. I finally got the phone back with the data untouched. The girl who had been accused of biting the policewoman was also allowed to go.

When I was about to be released, one of the policemen who was in plain clothes on Hans Bhugra Road when I was taking videos, told me, “Only if you had had a press card, we wouldn’t have bothered you.” But as a freelance journalist, I do not have a press card. Since he had been witness to everything, and had a recording of the events on his phone — including the assault on me — I asked him if he really thought that I was shouting slogans and instigating the people. He replied that instigating need not only be through slogans but that my mere presence was enough to mobilize the slum dwellers to protest vociferously.

Friends took me to a nearby hospital, to get a medical report, because of a dark bruise that appeared on my clavicle from the commotion amid my efforts to hang on to my phone. It was only when the doctor gave me an anti-anxiety pill, to calm my still-shivering body, that I finally broke down. The emotions were confusing. I had felt so alone and scared as a freelance journalist when I couldn’t get in touch with anyone. Then, after I did reach someone, people had invested their time and energy to be with me and campaign for my release. My colleagues in smaller towns across India have faced worse and have received far less support. I also worried that my job as a journalist did little to bring to light what the residents had lost in one stroke of an earthmover, and that I now have to face a legal battle — that there were more pressing issues to deal with than the assault on me.

On my way home with a friend who offered to stay with me, we passed by the razed houses. What was once a thriving community — legal or not — was now reduced to tiny sparks of candle light.

My misery, about the assault on journalism in an India where the space for free speech is shrinking, felt miniscule. When I walked that same street at 8 a.m. the next morning, I saw people were waking up slowly, looking for logs of wood that could be used again as pillars. A broken water pipe became the sport for morning ablutions. A young boy picked up a child’s bicycle, and waited patiently to cross the street, as the traffic surged. He crossed the street, and a little girl delightfully rode it, oblivious to their new location of settlement.

The demolition made it to the newspaper that day only because of my detention. I have no clue what happens next to the charges against me. Welcoming the new year with wishes of peace and prosperity, I remember the defiance of the women and men on Hans Bhugra road, and that little boy, for whom home and prosperity is an elusive idea.

Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has been reporting on issues of human rights from across India, El Salvador and Indonesia. Follow her on Twitter here.

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