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Where Lakhimpur was a challenge to report, ground stories help to break ‘us’ vs ‘them’ binary

Truth be told, Lakhimpur was like trying to fit different puzzles together. That's why we didn't chase every video clip.

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What happened in Lakhimpur Kheri on the afternoon of 3 October 2021? How did eight people die during the protests against a Union minister’s visit and in the violence that followed that fateful Sunday? Was Ashish Mishra — son of Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra — didn’tdriving the Mahindra Thar in the SUV convoy that allegedly killed four of them? Or, was he seated next to the driver? Was he in the vehicle, at all?

How did two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers die? Were they ‘lynched’ by some protesters? And what about journalist Raman Kashyap, who paid with his life for covering the protests to earn a meagre Rs 500?

Questions. Questions. Questions. And hundreds of video clips, social media posts, eyewitness accounts, hearsay testimony, and political posturing to confuse the answer— so much so that almost a month later— we are not any closer to the ‘truth’ than we were on that tragic day.

You can believe the version of events that you want to. Journalists, alas, do not have the luxury of taking sides—they have to report facts and report them objectively. However, when the facts are buried under a mountain of conflicting versions, when the ruling party in the state—the BJP— the local administration and the police are hemming and hawing, when there’s a minefield of (mis)information exploding as ‘Breaking News’ on TV news channels and in social media posts, journalists have to tread gingerly.

So, how do you tell the story of Lakhimpur? That was the challenge faced by ThePrint, like other media organisations. “We decided to take a larger perspective,” said Political Editor D. K. Singh, “There were just too many videos and it was impossible to establish their authenticity.”

Boots-on-the-ground was a clear necessity, especially after Section 144 was imposed and internet services were suspended in Lakhimpur. Accordingly, Praveen Jain, National Photo Editor, and Neelam Pandey, Associate Editor, travelled to the Uttar Pradesh district. “The connectivity was very poor, filing stories became difficult, so we went back to old-fashioned note-taking. But people were reluctant to speak,” recalled Pandey.

In the face of the relative silence of all the authorities, ThePrint’s correspondents and editors found it difficult to verify anything at all—the timeline of the incidents and who had done what to whom, when, where and how— the very basics of good reporting. For instance, in the initial reports, there was even some confusion over the number of people who had died.


Also read: Ashish Mishra remanded in 2-day police custody in Lakhimpur Kheri violence case


Reporting from bottom up

This led a reader to criticise ThePrint’s first report on the violence. The reader felt that the report was biased as it didn’t mention the deaths of the two BJP workers and the driver of the Thar. They thought this was a deliberate omission.

True, the initial report didn’t refer to those deaths. However, the reason is simpler than what the reader thought: news of the deaths was not publicly known when Senior Correspondent Prashant Srivastava filed the story. “It was chaotic, the first 24 hours were very confusing, and we were unable to get any accurate information on what had happened or the number of deaths,” said Srivastava, who was in Lucknow, four hours away from Lakhimpur.

Since ThePrint didn’t have a reporter in Lakhimpur, it depended on agencies like the Press Trust of India (PTI) and the Asian News International (ANI). “I called up local stringers, politicians and we made contact with the farmers’ unions,” added Srivastava.

The only public statement came from the latter—the Samyukta Kisan Morcha—which claimed that three farmers had been killed and 10 were injured by Mishra’s convoy. Srivastava based his report on that release, adding clearly, “There has been no official confirmation about the deaths from the administration.” Neither was there any word from the BJP.

When the deaths of the BJP workers and the vehicle’s driver became known, ThePrint ought to have revised its earlier report to include the update on the casualties, which, it didn’t do, even on Monday. The deaths were reported, subsequently, as part of the other stories, but it was a miss—these are the challenges that we face in long-distance reporting, and the lessons that we learn.


Also read: Why I visited deceased BJP worker’s family in Lakhimpur Kheri: Yogendra Yadav


Looking into the other side of news—people’s stories

Looking back at the rest of ThePrint’s coverage, a pattern emerges—the agency copy was used for the latest allegations, videos, developments and political reactions. ThePrint’s correspondents reported on the political activity on the ground, such as the detention of Congress General Secretary UP Priyanka Gandhi, Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav and other political leaders, and the political fallout of the Lakhimpur incident in states like Punjab and Uttarakhand.

Meanwhile, Praveen Jain and Neelam Pandey described the grim reality of Lakhimpur following Sunday’s violence.

People had died, leaving behind grieving families. “We thought it best to tell the story through people,” revealed Pandey, “The families were suspicious of the media, upset, and we had to be very careful when quoting them.”

The stories Jain and Pandey told were of 19-year-old Gurvinder Singh’s family who refused to cremate him because they insisted that he had been shot.

Or, the family of BJP worker Shubham Mishra, hurt by what they believed was the indifference of the media and Priyanka Gandhi to their son’s death and the lack of compensation. There are photographs by Praveen Jain of Mishra’s young wife clutching their one-year-old child and of driver Hari Om’s father that move you to tears. “They (the families) didn’t want to meet the media. We had to listen patiently and convince them that our stories may help them. Only when they were comfortable, did I take the photos,” explained Jain.

You may have felt like crying over the story of freelance journalist Raman Kashyap, a victim of the violence, when all he had gone to do was cover the event for the TV channel Sadhana Plus—and earn Rs 500 if his story was broadcast.

To reflect the larger context of the immediate protests, ThePrint also reported on the discontent among the farmers in the region. Such stories fleshed out the Lakhimpur tragedy in human form. They also betrayed the fault lines between conflicting versions of the events—the post mortem found no bullet wounds on Gurvinder Singh, Kashyap’s family believed he was alive but the police delayed his transfer to the hospital, which, the latter denied, Priyanka Gandhi claimed that she wanted to visit the families of the BJP workers but wasn’t welcome, and so on.

Honestly? Reporting on the Lakhimpur incident was like trying to fit pieces of different jigsaw puzzles together. Perhaps, that’s why ThePrint didn’t chase down every video clip or social media post.

This, is what made the story, “These 53 videos tell the Lakhimpur Kheri story” by Senior Associate Editor Chitleen K. Sethi, such a significant contribution—it recreated the sequence of events through a series of video posts on social media and live feeds. It was as intelligible a reconstruction as you will perhaps have read. “I watched live feeds on Facebook and YouTube channels constantly—they were out there 24×7. This was a highly videographed (event), so you could mine it”, explained Sethi. She says she “mapped” the story, literally through maps, videos, and people’s accounts.


Also read: Second FIR in Lakhimpur Kheri violence case only mentions attack on BJP workers


News reporting has its pitfalls but avoids binary conflicts

Such assignments have their pitfalls and some of those are reflected in ThePrint’s reports.

For instance, language—stories referred to the deaths of the protesters as “mowed down”, “ploughed through” or “hit” by the vehicle(s). The deaths of the BJP workers, however, are described less colourfully—they died in the “violent clashes” or “the violence that followed” the death of the protesters. Words like ‘lynching’ were avoided and it would have been wiser to refrain from verbs like ‘ploughed’ and ‘mowed’, too, till the facts are confirmed.

And, if the reporting focussed on the death of the protesters, it is because there was little clarity on how the BJP workers died—one video shows individuals being beaten up with rods. Also, during the first week, Ashish Mishra’s alleged role in the incident was a major issue and the BJP was unusually circumspect in its comments regarding the events of that day.

In a sense, the assignment was plagued by too much `evidence’ and too many silences. ThePrint’s spotlight on the families of the deceased and the political repercussions of Lakhimpur Kheri avoided the ever-changing ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict of versions and told the story through the people most affected by the events of 3 October.

Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to readers.editor@theprint.in

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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