The Bombay High Court has quashed a case against Quint journalist Poonam Agarwal and Kargil war veteran Deepchand, charged with spying under the Official Secrets Act and abetment to suicide after her sting on the ‘sahayak’ system published in February 2017.
The bench, comprising Justices Ranjit More and Bharati Dangre, heard arguments on the case today after an intervention application by the army and said there was no substance in the matter. Agarwal, along with retired soldier and war veteran Deepchand Singh, had been charged with spying under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). Agarwal was granted anticipatory bail on April 26, 2017.
On April 3 this year, the judges saw the raw footage of the video and the edited video that appeared on the news site. In the hearing today, the judges asked the Army lawyer, Sandesh Patil, “Why are you so vindictive?” to which he had no answer.
Senior counsel Uday Warunjikar appeared for both petitioners in the Bombay High Court. He told FSC that the FIR on both matters, the charges under OSA and Indian Penal Code (IPC) had been quashed. It was clear from the video and the raw footage that the judges had seen last month that no case could be made out against Agarwal and Deepchand.
Agarwal, the Associate Editor of Quint, had published a story on February 24 after conducting a sting wherein she had interviewed five persons on the pernicious sahayak system, by which army jawans are deployed to do menial work – from washing cars, driving to walking the dogs of officers. Tragically, after the story was published, one of the persons she interviewed, Gunner Roy Mathew, was found dead in his barracks. There was no clarity forthcoming as to when and how he died as his body was found in a highly decomposed condition, she had said and attempts to seek an investigation also came to nought.
After a furore, The Quint took down the story on March 3. Agarwal was subjected to intense pressure to disclose her source and had to submit the raw footage of her video to police, through which they managed to secure the identity of her source. Deepchand was a Kargil war veteran and a triple amputee.
A jawan who had featured in the sting, Lance Naik Nareshkumar Jatav, filed a complaint against Agarwal stating that she had spoken to him but recorded a video without his knowledge. Agarwal filed a counter complaint in Devlali police station against Colonel Anil Jethania, as to why he advised the family of Roy Mathew against filing a missing person report.
Agarwal told FSC that she was extremely relieved at the decision. Even though she continued with her work, the case haunted her and took its toll, professionally as well as emotionally. Deepchand also had to suffer and could not even secure any employment. As it is, he was a war veteran, disabled during duty in the Kargil war, but has found the going tough after the case filed against them. Even for Mathew’s family, there is no closure, with the total clamp down even on information on investigations into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Agarwal and Deepchand have already filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a quashing of the OSA as well as the abolition of the sahayak system. That is still pending, she said.
The Network of Women in Media, India, had issued a statement against the charges levyied on Agarwal and demanded the dropping of charges against her. In its statement, the NWMI said:
We would like to state that we are firmly behind Poonam Aggarwal in her quest to seek justice against a system that has turned against her. We also propose that if the army or any individual for that matter would like to raise an objection about a report, they should take it up with the Press Council of India which is the proper forum to address any systemic lapses that may occur in the quest for the truth. We would also like to add that singling out the reporter with no attention to the establishment, The Quint, for which she works and which supported, edited and published her story seems like a disproportionate reaction.
We urge the government and the army to thoroughly investigate all angles of this case, and withdraw the charges under the Official Secrets Act and the abetting of suicide since they have no sound basis. It is also apparent that the government and the army is focused on Ms Aggarwal in an effort to derail a thorough and much needed debate on the sahayak system. We demand that the issues raised by the report be given the serious attention they deserve.