Dangerous Liaisons: The Perils of Reporting from India’s largest and most brutal state.

This investigation is part of the Justice for Journalists Foundation Investigative Grant Programme and was originally published by NewsClick).

On World Press Freedom day today, May 3, a story from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, where a small newspaper journalist, Shubham, was killed in broad daylight for exposing ‘fraudulent’ land deals.

On 11 June 2019 in Unnao, it was the fourth straight day with temperatures higher than 41° centigrade. In a narrow lane deep inside Shuklaganj, Unnao, Mani Telecom, run by journalist Shubham and his brother Rishabh Mani Tripathi, was one of the few shops open.

At 4:38 pm, Divya Awasthi walked into the shop, pushed the few customers standing inside, out of the door, slammed her palms down on the counter and started talking tough with the brothers, threatening them. A local ‘gang leader’ as she is referred to in a later police bulletin, she had many criminal cases against her. Shubham’s reportage on plots of government-owned land being sold by her using faked documents had brought undue attention on her from the local authorities and she was furious.

Within 5 minutes, her associates started hitting the boys with sticks. Divya picked up Rishabh’s precious laptop and flung it against the wall as her driver Amit Saini took out a revolver and pointed it the brothers, threatening to shoot. In 10 minutes, the gang started throwing huge rocks at the shop’s glass fronted doors, smashed up the counters and shelves while the brothers tried to fight them off with sticks. Three of the men Amit Saini, Monu Khan and Shahnawaj were armed with pistols, brandished them visibly and also fired multiple shots into the shop.

A year later, on June 19, 2020, Shubham was murdered, shot at close range multiple times and left to die on the roadside. All the people who attacked the two brothers in their shop a year ago, now stand accused of murder.

The entire incident on June 11, 2019, was captured on a CCTV camera in the shop and Shubham and Rishabh shared the footage with the police and had also filed a report. Clips of the incident were widely shared on social media. A later news report in Dainik Jagran noted that when a video of this incident went viral, a local police officer claimed it was a ‘toy gun’.

“The local media portrayed this incident as a gang war between land mafia” said Rishabh, when this writer met him in January 2022 in his small mobile recharge/computer shop in Shuklaganj, Unnao, just across the Ganga from Kanpur.

Shubham and Rishabh ran Mani telecom, which is still the only source of income for the family. While this writer was talking to Rishabh about his brother, there was constantly someone or the other who wanted to get money through a government scheme for widows, or wanted a family member’s name added on the ration card or wanted some details updated on their Aadhaar card. For a small fee, Rishabh was helping people who could not navigate the government paperwork needed. Most of his customers seemed illiterate. Rishabh now has police protection, with an armed guard always next to him, while two policemen sit outside his shop.

Rishabh said Shubham filed stories for Kampu Mail, a local evening newspaper published from Kanpur, from the same computer (on which he was working), after the shutters were downed for the night or in the morning before the shop opened. Their locality, Shuklaganj, and the areas around has shops and homes in close proximity. Land is scarce and valuable. Shubham had written a report on how a well-connected local woman had been “illegally” selling government-owned plots of land, after “forging documents”. Divya Awasthi, referred to as a ‘lady don’ in some news reports, reportedly has multiple cases against her for various crimes. She allegedly verbally threatened Shubham several times and even offered him money, said his brother, adding that Shubham was young and idealistic and believed in the power of journalism and that the system would protect him.

“He used to give ‘spot news’ (breaking news) and used to get paid for the advertisements he brought for the newspaper”, Ritesh Shukla, bureau chief, Kampu Mail told this writer. As is usual, at least in a small town in North India, Shubham was not paid a salary and only earned a ‘commission’ based on the number of advertisements he got for the newspaper.

It is unclear what the circulation of Kampu Mail is. Its circulation manager Ramesh Goel just said “at least 20-25,000 people from all over UP read our newspaper.”

On February 26, 2020, Shubham got married to Divya Awasthi’s niece. Divya did not attend the wedding.

Soon after, Kanhaiya Awasthi (Divya Awasthi’s husband) and Atul Dubey allegedly threatened Shubham’s father, asking him to withdraw the case, or else “they would not leave his sons alive”, said Rishabh. The father, who was already ailing and paralysed on the right side of his body due to a previous illness, died of a heart attack on March 8.

In March 2020, Shubham heard that Divya Awasthi had paid people a ‘supari’ (contract to kill.) for his head. “The lockdown saved him for a few months, as people were stuck in the city they were in,” said Rishabh. (A nationwide pandemic-induced lockdown was imposed on March 21, 2020.) For a few months, Shubham spent a quiet time with his family, but he did not stop his reportage.

On June 5, 2020, Shubham went to take pictures of unauthorised construction on a plot of land in Ganganagar, close to his home. That day, Raghavendra Awasthi, Shahnawaj, Monu Khan, Santosh Bajpai and three others allegedly threatened to kill Shubham, bomb his home, kill his family and said they would force the family to sell their home and move out of the locality, alleged Rishabh. Shubham has listed these threats in the four letters he wrote to the State Human Rights Commission, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the Superintendent of Police, Unnao, and the Station House Officer, Unnao. The letters are postmarked 14:31 on June 15,2020.

Shubham was murdered four days later, on June 19, 2020. Rishabh heard the dreaded words he had feared for months, that Shubham had been attacked by men with guns on his way back home after meeting his lawyer. A friend, Mukhtar, was riding the motorcycle and Shubham was the pillion rider. “We rushed him to hospital but the doctor said Shubham had died on the spot,” he recalled.

Rishabh heard from witnesses (and the fallen bullet casings counted by police) that more than 20 rounds were fired, and there were multiple bullet wounds on Shubham’s head. He was murdered at 3:50 p.m. The local reporter became headline news in Kampu Mail and other local newspapers the next day.

Rohan Kanay was posted as Superintendent of Police, Unnao, on June 16, 2020. He took charge the next day and the murder happened on his third day in office. “Rohan Kanay was like god for us,” said Rishabh, adding “he made sure our case was filed and got me these armed police guards.”

“The previous DIG Police took Rs 70 lakh ($85,520) from the accused and did not take any action against Divya Awasthi,” Rishabh alleged. His claim could not be verifed, except the fact that there was lack of police action against the accused, until a year later, much after Shubham’s brutal murder.

“The accused were big shots in society, politically connected, nobody could touch them, they were trying to influence the case somehow,” Kanay told this writer. He gave no details but admitted “there was pressure from within the system and when you have someone with a net worth of hundreds of crores, he will try to get out of the case by paying anything.” Kanay did not stay long in Unnao. “I was transferred to Jhansi in two months and four days,” he said.

The prompt and visible action that Kanay took in those two months cemented the case against Divya Awasthi, and the arrests continued after he left, until all the 16 accused were in prison. Divya was arrested on June 30, 2020 and remains in prison, while the trial continues.

The gruesome details of the murder, widely reported in the media, ensured that the accused remained in jail. Dainik Jagran reported that Divya Awasthi allegedly told her associate Monu Khan that she wanted video proof of Shubham’s killing. While two men shot Shubham, Monu recorded it on his mobile phone and sent a video of the murder to Divya, it is reported.

By September, most of the accused were behind bars. In December 2020, the UP police seized property belonging to the accused, Divya Awasthi, her husband Kanhaiya Awasthi and brother-in-law Raghavendra Awasthi and listed them in a Press Note. The note runs into five pages and lists out plots of land and vehicles owned by the three, totalling almost Rs 15 crore ($1.82 m).

On April 20, 2023, Rishabh told this writer, “The case is moving fast in the Unnao courts, four out of five witnesses have given their testimony and 70% of the case is complete, but the judge has been transferred and the next date is a week later.” When asked if it was a “routine” transfer, Rishab named the judge — Justice Jalal Akbar.

Kanay also spoke to this writer in some detail about the case and expressed deep worries for Shubham’s family. “Nothing was routine in that case. The accused have a lot of muscle and money power, the case should see a logical end”. When asked about armed policemen who stand guard, he said, “There are people with police protection, yet they are getting killed, aren’t they?” (Recently, there was a brutal murder of a lawyer under police protection in Uttar Pradesh. The alleged murderers were taken into custody and murdered on live TV even while surrounded by more than six policemen, by men posing as media persons.)

Rishabh’s parting words resound, “I feel my brother didn’t do the right thing, if he hadn’t shown so much courage, today he would have been alive with me.”