The award-winning journalist who exiled himself

https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/04/02/pushp-sharma-the-award-winning-journalist-who-exiled-himself

Pushp Sharma of Operation 136 fame is currently seeking political asylum in the UK. 

Pushp Kumar Sharma isn’t an unfamiliar name in the Indian media space. The 48-year-old investigative journalist has reported on many big stories—most of them sting operations. Apart from reporting on political bigwigs such as Amit Shah and Baba Ramdev, Sharma has also reported on the Centre’s Ayush Ministry. In one of his stories last year, he had accusedthe Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) of illegally gathering and harvesting data in a bid to win the 2019 elections.

He also has multiple other cases against him filed by the police and was sent to jail twice. He has been accused of extorting a police officer, of forging evidencefor which he was later given a clean chit by a courtand now, of leaving the country while on bail.

In December 2018, Pushp left for London, where he approached the UK government for political asylum. The journalist says he fears for his life, and that the political vendetta against him is too tough for anyone to take. He has written to the current Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Editors Guild of India, and even the PMO about his plight, but claims to have received no response. Meanwhile, the alleged strong-arming against him and his family hasn’t stoppednot even when he is away.

In October 2012, an Outlook-IBN investigation conducted over several months spilt the beans on the “shoddy investigation” into the disappearance of Baba Ramdev’s guru, Swami Shankardev. The byline on the story was Pushp’s. Soon after the story was published, he was at the receiving end of the wrath of Ramdev’s followers and even had an FIR filed against him by Ramdev’s driver for allegedly threatening him (the driver) over the phone.

In March 2019, seven years after the story was published, a Haridwar court, issued an “impounding of property and non-bailable warrant” against him. Acting on this warrant, police authorities reached his ancestral home in Saharanpur on March 10, 2019.

Speaking with Newslaundry over the phone from the UK, Pushp explains how the timing of the authorities landing up at his ancestral home—just a few months after he left the country—is both uncanny and suspicious.

“I had done a sting operation against Ramdev, which was an IBN and Outlook joint investigation,” says Pushp. “After it aired, Ramdev, through his driver Inder Kumar, conducted a press conference against me to build pressure. He also filed a non-cognisable (NC) complaint against me in Kankhal Police Station.” When asked whether Kumar was a part of the aired sting operation, Pushp says although Kumar was put on camera, there was nothing relevant in what he said, therefore he was not a part of the final package that went on air. “He was very smart so as to not reveal anything.”

He points out how even the FIR filed against him by the Haridwar Police isn’t on valid grounds. “They are saying that I was threatening the driver—who has no recording of this happening—over the phone. If someone is threatening another over the phone and that person doesn’t have a recording of the same, it counts as an NC—you cannot file an FIR based on that. The entire story is actually based on an NC so there is a counter question of how can one file an FIR based on an NC. It was based on this NC the police registered an FIR against me.”

Pushp says he subsequently got bail from the Nainital High Court in the aftermath of his story being published and aired. “Later on, they (police) filed a charge sheet against me in a district court of Uttarakhand.”

Pushp claims a Roshnabad court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against him sometime in early March 2019. “Although I have been in the UK since last year, I recently got to know that the police landed at my home in Saharanpur on March 10.” Pushp found out when he called his mother shortly after March 10. The house in question is a large ancestral property built by his grandfather. It houses all his relatives, including Pushp’s mother.

“But it is not under my name; I have no investment there, and that is not the address on my ration card. So how can the police go on to confiscate or compound that property? My mother was crying over the phone because she was scared after the incident happened. She gave me the number of the police official who had come home. His name is Lal Singh, from Kankal Police Station, Haridwar. I called him and he told me that since I have gone absconding, there is an FIR against me.”

Lal Singh told him, “Aap kuch bhi kar lo, PM ka bhi order lao, lekin hum log isko seal karenge (Whatever you do, even if you get the PM’s order we are going to seal this property).”

Pushp says: “He was trying to scare me. He is from UP so he feels like he is a demi-god. He also told me that I had time till March 20, after which he would come and seal the property. But how did they (authorities) even get a hold of this address? More importantly, how can you register an FIR based on an NC? I then intimated my lawyers and they approached a local court in Haridwar and got an order to stay this decision from a link magistrate.”

According to him, his mother went to the court and showed all the relevant documents. With his advocate, she submitted a petition that Pushp had no connection to the property and so asked how it could be confiscated. The link magistrate gave a date of April 10. Meanwhile, the court ordered the Haridwar police to independently verify and file a report as to whether the property belongs to Pushp or not.

When asked whether this was a move to strong-arm and intimidate him into coming back to the country, Pushp says: “The timing is suspicious. I have not been connected with this case (the Baba Ramdev case) since the past seven years, but now suddenly, when I landed in the UK, all this is happening. It is because I am seeking political asylum here which is why they are reopening old cases so that they can say that there are a number of arrest warrants against me. When I was in India, I was facing all my court cases.”

When this correspondent asked Pushp about Ramdev’s driver’s allegation of over-the-phone threats, he said: “I was meeting a number of people. This is a vague charge. What is the point of me threatening him? What will I get out of it? My story was already on air on IBN7 and Outlook. Agar maine kiya hota toh main confess kar leta (I would have confessed had I done it)—I don’t need a recording for that.”

Pushp claims he was tortured on four different occasions in 2018—on June 26, October 9, October 19 and November 25—due to reports he’d done. He finally left India and landed in the UK on December 7. He then applied for political asylum. Although it hasn’t been granted yet, his application hasn’t been wholly rejected. “In 99 per cent of the cases, when you approach the Home Office for asylum, they detain you. But I was not detained. I showed them all relevant documents, magazine clippings, etc., and they’ve told me that prima facie, they believe my story. At the same time, I have been told not to conduct any press conference against the (Indian) government unless a decision is made regarding my asylum status.”

When asked why he exiled himself to the UK, Pushp says: “Ever since my 2016 story about the Ayush Ministry, I was sure that the authorities would come after me. I was arrested, questioned, and later on, even sent to Tihar jail for nine days by the police. They had alleged that I had fabricated the proof on which my story was based on, but my laptop got a clean chit from the FSL lab. After that happened, I thought the trouble would end here.”

But then, on March 25, 2018, the Cobrapost story “Operation 136” broke, in which there was a purported subplot of illegal data mining between Paytm and the PMO’s office. “The person caught on camera is Ajay Shekhar Sharma, VP of Paytm, who is clearly taking the name of one person very clearly,” says Pushp. “That is Bhaskar Khulbe, senior IAS officer…I’m 48 years old and have seen enough of the ugly side of North India, but I miscalculated this one…”

In another incident on June 26, 2018, a local police officer—or someone Pushp initially thought was a police officer—landed up at his home in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. “I stepped out of my house to talk to him once he rang the bell since I don’t let anyone into my house; they can plant anything if they want. So I told him that there are ladies inside and it wouldn’t be right for him to come in.”

A suspicious Pushp asked the officer to accompany him to a small garden at the back of his society where they could sit and talk. “He then introduced himself as an officer from the IB department but did not give me a name. He told me: ‘aap lagatar establishment ke khilaaf ja lage hai, aapka iraadha kya hai? (you are constantly reporting against the establishment, what are your intentions?)’ He told me that all my stories were targeting Modi and Amit Shah and the current government. He asked me to come to meet him in his office.”

Pushp adds: “It has been made to look like I am anti-saffron and anti-establishment. That I am against their (saffron) school of thought. I was given a clean chit by forensics regarding the authenticity of the material that my Ayush Ministry story was based on. In spite of this, I still have the case going on against me by the Delhi Police. I have been charged under Section 153(A)—that I was trying to create grounds and an atmosphere of communal disharmony. One will never be able to defend themselves against such allegations. Who will say whether Pushp Sharma is right or the authorities are right when it comes to such grounds? What kind of proof can be brought in to show that I was creating 153(A)? At the end of the day, this can be arm-twisted by any political party.”

Pushp was sent to Tihar jail twice, once in 2016 after the Ayush Ministry story was published, when he was in jail for a total of nine days, and the other, back in 2009, when he allegedly attempted to extort a police officer of ₹10,000. In fact, he joined Tehelka shortly after his release in 2009. Now, he’s on the run, seeking refuge in a foreign country. Is it wrong for a journalist to let his political stance influence his journalistic work? Maybe, but is that grounds for the Centre to employ strong-arm tactics?

At the end of this conversation, when asked whether he sees himself coming back to India, Pushp takes a long breath and exhales. There is a momentary pause over the phone. “From what I feel now, I don’t have any immediate plans to come back.”

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