A Journalist's Murder Exposes Mumbai's Rifts: World View

The Mumbai Police announced June 27 that they had finally cracked the case of the murder of the crime journalist Jyotirmoy Dey, who was gunned down in a Mumbai suburb in broad daylight on June 11. Dey (who wrote under the byline “J Dey”) was the intrepid, muckraking crime and investigations editor for the Mumbai tabloid Mid Day and widely admired and loved in journalistic circles. The police arrested seven men from across the country.

The chief suspect in the brazen assassination, which rattled the city’s press corps, was said to be a notorious gangster, Chhota Rajan (“Little Rajan”). Rajan is one of several figures who ran criminal rackets in the city before they were driven out of the country by police crackdowns. Many of them, including Rajan, now run their operations from bases abroad.

The motive behind the killing was still unclear, especially since no members of the press were targeted by the underworld during its heyday in the nineties, when shootouts between gangs, assassinations of businessmen who refused the demands of extortionists, and “encounter killings” of gangsters by cops were almost an everyday occurrence. The details of Dey’s murder were reported by his colleagues on the crime beat, many of them his protégés. Sagnik Chowdhury reported in The Indian Express:

Dey was due to travel to the Philippines this month on an official trip, and was apparently trying to set up a meeting with Rajan during the trip. However, Rajan suspected that this information was likely to be leaked, and ordered the hit, the sources said, citing the interrogation of one of the seven arrested men.

That Dey was thought to be so dangerous to vested interests that he had to be bumped off was a tribute to the quality and persistence of his reporting, as well as a sign of the continuing influence of the underworld and the size and strength of the parallel economy in India’s financial capital. Dey had himself done a great deal to document the character, methods and strongholds of these forces. In a report from 2009 describing how the underworld had infiltrated the city’s economy, he wrote:

The underworld today is a clear departure from what it was between the 70s and 90s. From controlling bootlegging, gambling and smuggling, the gangs have now entered businesses like real estate, cinema, sand dredging and waterfront commerce in Mumbai's ports and even the purchase of vegetables and meat. For the common man this means he unknowingly adds to the coffers of gangs.

In recent months Dey had published an exhaustive report, chockfull of names, showing the presence of a sizeable trade in smuggled diesel fuel on the seas off Mumbai. For this reason, the oil-smuggling mafia had initially been suspected in his death.

In May, after the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan, Dey published a provocative report on the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, wanted in India for his role in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, and for many years a resident of Karachi. The report was titled “Osama’s Death Means Dawood Lives Longer,” and suggested:

The killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the subsequent beefing up of security around Dawood Ibrahim's Karachi home has come as a setback for several underworld gangs in the city who have been trying to eliminate India's most wanted man. A senior police officer told Mid Day that Laden's killing has put Pakistani's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on high alert to ward off any attacks on Dawood. They are running a background check on all Indians in Pakistan who could have any possible links with Mumbai's underworld.

The Pakistani intelligence agency reportedly fears that Dawood's killing in Karachi would expose its consistently maintained stand that he is not in Pakistan. [...]Information gleaned from their sources and from the police in Mumbai suggests that the ISI has doubled its surveillance around Dawood's palatial home in the upmarket Clifton area after the US operation to kill Osama at Abbottabad.

In the days that followed Dey’s assassination there was widespread scepticism in the press about the Mumbai Police’s ability to crack the case. Journalists pressed instead for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an indication of the city’s dwindling faith in the keepers of law and order and in the Maharashtra government. Writing in the Hindustan Times, a paper where Dey once worked, the journalist Ayaz Memon explained:

It may seem impetuous for Mumbai’s journalists to demand a CBI inquiry within a week into crime reporter Jyotirmoy Dey’s murder, but this is only symptomatic of the low trust that the state government and Mumbai Police command today. Such sentiment is not restricted to just members of the fourth estate but sweeps the citizenry and judiciary as well.

Over the last week as journalists demanded rapid action, police and politicians scrambled to find answers and theories ranged from gangsters to oil, quarrying and sandalwood mafias. Chillingly, these theories also included the possibility that policemen were involved in Dey’s death.

[...] In days gone by, the Mumbai Police was compared to Scotland Yard; today such comparison would only invite derision. Over the past two decades, the situation has been exacerbated by the tug-of-war between coalition partners who have formed successive state governments.

In this unseemly power play top policemen have become political appointees, often for such a short tenure as to be totally ineffective. The last police commissioner to have got a three-year term was Julio Ribeiro almost three decades ago (1982-85); nowadays, there is a scramble to get even six-eight months.

This has led to unhealthy competition among senior policemen for the top job to the extent that stories of officers paying huge sums to get high postings are now mundane. Internecine warfare is an open secret, reducing a once proud and elite force to shambles.

And in a piece in The Hindu called “Now, An Endangered Press,” Sevanti Ninan wrote:

The lawlessness that is currently manifest in public life is turning out to have another dimension to it. The power to scotch the watchdog role of the media. Ironically, while the profession has been drawing flak for having become both soft and sensational, those who have been trying to report honestly from the ground may not be able to continue doing so. Since India is now a country where many exercise power illegitimately, our much-touted free press has become an endangered press.

[...] J. Dey's murder has made people sit up because it happened the way it did — a spectacular shooting reminiscent of a gangland killing. But it was the third murder of a journalist in a six-month period, not something a civilised country should permit. The other two barely claimed attention; they occurred in Chhattisgarh in late December and in January. Both victims belonged to Hindi newspapers, to Dainik Bhaskar and Nai Dunia. Neither case has been solved; one has been handed over to the CBI.

[...] While the Prime Minister, [Congress president] Sonia Gandhi, the Maharashtra CM and so on rushed to make pronouncements after Dey's killing, they need to take note of one fact. The most consistent perpetrators [of violence upon journalists] across different states are from the police, usually as retaliation for a report published or a picture taken. Of the 11-odd cases of physical attacks against news personnel this year, the police figure as alleged perpetrators in as many as seven.

One of the most restrained and reasoned responses to Dey’s murder came from Mid Day’s editor Sachin Kalbag. In a piece titled “Who Killed Our J. Dey?”, published the day after his death, Kalbag went against the tide of popular opinion by giving a clean chit to the police:

Jyotirmoy Dey, Mid Day’s crime and investigations editor, was a journalist in the truest sense of the word. He was fearless (so fearless that his fearlessness often scared me); he was honest; his integrity was beyond reproach and just about everyone he worked with treated him as a friend, not a colleague.

[...]It is evident that Dey was a victim of his fearless journalism. But it would be improper to speculate on the circumstances that led to his murder. Admittedly, we live in times where hyperbole and dangerous conjecture, and not level-headed and thorough analysis, is the norm. Therefore, it is imperative that we let the police conduct their investigation without being pressured by guessing games.

The vivid and affectionate tributes to Dey published by journalists who knew him (here, here, and here) indicate that he knew more about the city and its secret vortexes of power than almost anybody else. It seemed fair to conclude that in losing Dey, India’s most storied city had lost something of itself.

(Chandrahas Choudhury is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.