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Panchkula’s trial by fire: Stories of storytellers remain uncovered

Mediapersons became a soft target as dera followers went on a rampage in Panchkula last year; but the steady flow of news from ground zero didn’t cease.

punjab Updated: Aug 26, 2018 12:17 IST
Saurabh Duggal 
Saurabh Duggal 
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Panchkula,panchkula violence,Haryana Police
An outside broadcasting van damaged during the rioting and arson in Panchkula. Vehicles, including cars, of around 50 journalists were gutted. The equipment of many photo and video journalists was also damaged.(HT File )

Turn the calendar to August 25, 2017, and the memories of a burning Panchkula come haunting back. Over 1,000 rounds were fired by Haryana Police and paramillitary forces to control the thousands of Dera Sacha Sauda followers, who turned violent after their leader’s conviction.

Those caught in the line of fire were journalists, who were stationed there to give minute-by-minute details of the horrifying turn of events. The entire country was glued to their television sets, surfing the internet for the latest updates. And the journalists, away from the security cover, fearlessly stayed on the ground zero.

Finding mediapersons a soft target, protesters started attacking them. They watched their vehicles being burnt; and many of them, including women journalists, had to look for safe places to report from.

With the internet blocked in the region, scribes had to find alternative ways to make sure the updates keep reaching their offices and that too on time. But nothing stopped the flow of news.

These journalists reported everyone’s plight — of security forces, protesters and innocent bystanders . But one aspect of that horrifying day that remained largely uncovered: The plight of the journalists.

Await compensation

Vehicles, including cars, of around 50 journalists were gutted. The equipment of many photo and video journalists was damaged. Even after a year, they are waiting for the compensation.

“I saw a mob coming towards my car, parked near the Hafed Chowk. I immediately rushed towards it and took out my laptop lying on the rear seat. Soon my car was up in flames,” says Bhupinder Jishtu, an electronic journalist. “The maximum I could do in such a situation was save my laptop, as it had a lot of useful data.”

Jishtu says that for some time, he went completely blank, but soon realised he has an official commitment to fulfil and kept on reporting.

“Recently, I got a call from the Panchkula district courts to identify those from among around 100 people who had torched my car. I told the court that it was a mob and it is difficult to figure out the exact faces. I am still waiting for the compensation,” he says.

Around 30,000 followers had gathered on dividers along the Zirakpur-Panchkula highway. The mob’s first target on the highway — as at Hafed Chowk — was an outdoor broadcasting (OB) van of a media house.

Even the Chandigarh Press Club moved an application with the Punjab and Haryana high court on the compensation to the journalists whose vehicles or equipment were damaged. The application has been clubbed with the ongoing case related to damages in the Panchkula violence.

The committee formed to look into the compensation has received 128 applications, of which around 50 are of mediapersons. The total claim is of Rs 10.48 crore.

“The committee has told me that all proceedings related to torching of my car – Toyota Etios Liva – have been completed. But it’s been two months and I haven’t heard a thing about the compensation,” says Barinderjit Saluja, a journalist working with an English daily.

“Whenever I go to Panchkula for work, I make it a point to visit the place where it all happened. We have horrifying memories attached to that day. But despite being caught amid the rampaging protesters and police firing, all journalists present there didn’t leave the ground to ensure no aspect of the incident remained uncovered.”

First Published: Aug 25, 2018 11:12 IST