Saumen Sarker’s nightmare, which began in September last year, shows no sign of ending. It has just got more grim with Pratima Bhowmik getting elected to the Lok Sabha as BJP Member of Parliament from Tripura West.
The US-based promoter and editor of a news portal on Tripura, Tripurainfoway.com, relied upon Tripura-based writers, reporters and freelancers to inform the world about whatever is happening in the tiny state (population of just four million spread over an area of 10.5 thousand square kilometres. To provide a comparison, NCR Delhi has a population of 1.7 crore living in an area of around 1,500 square kms).
The portal, running since 2014, reported in September last year about Pratima Bhowmik’s involvement in the murder of her sister-in-law (brother’s wife) in April 2014. The case, Sarker admits (see interview), was closed by the police. But Bhowmik had risen in prominence since then, rising to become the general secretary of BJP’s Tripura unit. With BJP grabbing power in March 2018, she emerged as a powerful political leader and people began to speak in hushed tones about the three months she had spent in jail.
The news portal’s ground staff seem to have done a reasonable job, ferreting out copies of the FIR, court documents and newspaper reports of the time. They also reported that while Bhowmik was made one of the accused in the suspected murder of her brother’s wife, the complainant, BJP gets DoT to block a news portal in Tripura Six months after the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) blocked the site Tripurainfoway.com, promoters are still in the dark why it was blocked despite filing RTI applications, writing letters and complaining to various authorities the brother’s father-in-law, also died under mysterious circumstances.
The portal alleged a mistrial and appears to have campaigned for re-opening the case. Some of the content appear defamatory on the face of it, as they accused Bhowmik to be a ‘crime queen’ and running a smuggling racket of not just narcotics but accused her of gun-running. The BJP leader, it was alleged, had links with smugglers in Bangladesh.
The retaliation was swift, Sarker alleges. First, the reporters were intimidated and then local BJP leaders conveyed that the portal should stop carrying reports critical of the BJP and its leaders. Then the police moved in and told Sarker’s old parents in Agartala that they would be implicated in false cases and their son would be arrested under the National Security Act (NSA as and when he landed in Agartala. They were also asked to ensure that the portal shut down. The BJP government, Sarker alleges, managed to shut down a local TV channel ‘Din Raat’ and a local daily newspaper ‘Desher Katha’. His parents were forced to leave Tripura due to harassment by the police.
In November, 2018, the portal again incurred the wrath of the state government when it reported on the alleged fake degrees of BJP MLA Krishnadhan Das. The portal alleged that Das had in his affidavit to the Election Commission of India claimed that he had passed his Higher Secondary Examination from Tripura Board in 1997. He also mentioned that he had done his HS in 2004 from Madhya Bharat Gwalior Board.
The portal alleged that Das had migrated to India from Bangladesh only in 2013 and had acquired Indian citizenship through dubious means.
Soon enough the portal lost most of the contributors and reporters on the ground. And to make it worse, police not only began harassing their families but also arrested one Dipak Debnath for the ‘crime’ of sharing a report on BJP MLA Das.
The same month, Tripura Police wrote to Facebook India and got the Facebook Page of the portal withdrawn. The same month, the SP of Tripura West District, Ajit Pratap Singh, wrote to the domain owner company in the US that the portal was a ‘criminal website’ and hence be shut down. But the US company refused to oblige.
Thereafter, the Tripura government took it up with the central government which asked the Department of Telecom to block the site in December 2018.
Sarker claims to have received multiple threats to kill him. Tripura police have conveyed that if he dared to visit Tripura, he would be detained under the National Security Act. “But I am determined to fight criminalisation of politics,” he asserts