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Quashing of Sahayak FIR by Bombay HC is a Win for Press Freedom

Judges say journalist Poonam Agarwal & war veteran Deepchand were “wrongly implicated” in abetment of suicide case.

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Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya

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No credible material. A futile exercise. Completely inadequate. Totally uncalled for. Unwarranted. Wrongly implicated. Sheer absurdity. Abuse of process.

This is how the Bombay High Court described the FIR and investigation against The Quint's Poonam Agarwal for her groundbreaking video expose of the 'sahayak' system in the Army.

It is no surprise then, that Justices More and Dangre proceeded to quash the FIR filed against Agarwal and Kargil war veteran Deepchand, ending a two-year ordeal for them, during which time they have been smeared with unfounded accusations of spying and abetment of suicide.

The judgment of the high court, on 18 April 2019, sends a powerful message to those who think they can silence independent journalism, and to those who think they can suppress the truth when it is inconvenient.

An Important Message for Press Freedom

The importance of this message cannot be overstated.

It was not long ago that the Attorney General of India was threatening to slap criminal charges under the Official Secrets Act against journalists who revealed inconvenient truths about the government's dealings.

Poonam Agarwal has had to actually deal with being booked under that colonial era law – previously used to silence freedom fighters.

And on top of that, the distressing accusation of abetting the tragic suicide of one of the jawans who spoke to her about the way the sahayak system was misused. The court has completely exonerated Agarwal of this baseless accusation, and instead expressly said it was fear of court martial that might have led to the suicide of the jawan.

In the meantime, the matter has dragged on for two years, hindering Agarwal’s ability to do her job and leading to trolling and abuse on social media. Her story and professionalism were unfairly questioned by sections of the media. She was pressured to withdraw her petition in the Supreme Court on abolition of the sahayak system and misuse of OSA against journalists – pressure she resisted. Her petition remains pending to this date.

The accusations also took away the livelihood of Naik Deepchand, who lost both his legs and an arm while serving the nation.

And yet, as the judges point out, the complaint and investigation are absurd.

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The Sahayak Sting

On 24 February 2017, The Quint published a video of the sting operation conducted by Agarwal, in which she recorded conversations of several army jawans who talked about the menial work they were forced to do as part of the sahayak system.

The sahayak or buddy system is a practice in the Army that is used by officers to make jawans perform tasks like taking dogs for a walk, taking children to school, driving wives of officers to parlours and shops.

The practice was banned by the Army, including by a circular dated 19 January 2017.

And yet, Agarwal found it was still being used even after the circular, to exploit jawans in the Deolali Army camp, near Nashik.

Agarwal took careful steps to ensure the jawans' identities weren't revealed, including blurring their faces.

But two weeks after the video was published and went viral, Lance Naik Roy Mathew, one of the jawans she'd spoken to, was found dead in an abandoned barracks. The body was found hanging in suspicious circumstances.

This proved a trigger for a criminal complaint to be filed by another jawan from the camp, against Poonam and Deepchand, who had helped set up her meetings with the jawans.

Not only were they booked for abetment of suicide, but the police, at the instigation of the Army, also booked them, incredibly, for offences of spying and interfering with a member of armed forces on duty under the Official Secrets Act.

In addition to the traumatic experience of being blamed for another human being’s death, the OSA charges were extremely serious.

They implied the Army and government viewed them as anti-nationals, and also made it tougher for them to get bail, and caused great hardship in their lives.

What the Bombay High Court Said

These accusations were so outlandish that the high court actually stayed the investigation in an interim order on 1 September 2017, but sadly, the attempt to quash the FIR took time because of delaying tactics from the state's lawyers.

Thankfully, even though it has taken two years, the judgment by Justices Dangre and More recognises just how baseless all of this was.

On the OSA charges, they pointedly say that they “fail to understand how the video clippings affect the security of the Nation.” They also note that at most the video exposes a system that was “an insult to the jawans.”
On the accusation of abetment of suicide, they rightly point out that to prove this, you need to show an intent and act to make someone take their own life. As they say, the video “by no stretch of the imagination”, satisfies this requirement.

As a result, they held that "the case initiated against the applicants is without any factual foundation and any further investigation would only result in sheer harassment to the applicants without any fruitful result."

They also expressly state that Agarwal and Deepchand were "wrongly implicated in the said FIR".

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A Victory for Truth

This is very, very important for press freedom.

This isn’t some acquittal on technical grounds after a trial. This is the judges looking at an FIR and saying there’s nothing justified about it. That, not only is there zero evidence to back up these claims, but that even if the claims were true, there would still be no offence made out – that no trial is needed to see this.

That tells you everything you need to know about the legitimacy and bona fides of what was done to Agarwal and Deepchand, who have nonetheless conducted themselves with dignity throughout the ordeal.

Journalists and whistleblowers face this kind of intimidation and harassment every day, when they try to bring important information to light.

But the old adage, satyameva jayate, has been upheld by the courts in this case.

Poonam Agarwal stands vindicated, and The Quint will continue to fight for the truth to come to light, whether it's about the sahayak system, or other misdeeds of those in power.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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