Phuentsholing Gate(Left) & Trucks awaiting to enter Bhutan from Jaigaon(Right)

Nexus of 5 Jaigaon ‘journalists’, some SSB and clearing house agent extort Bhutanese exports and imports from Phuentsholing

Extortion from those traders importing Bhutanese vegetables and fruits into India

Attempt to Extort the Bhutanese government by trying to slow down or stop essential imports into Bhutan

Harass Bhutanese drivers and even Dessups accompanying Bhutanese vehicles from one part of Bhutan to another via Indian roads

An investigation by The Bhutanese found that five so called ‘journalists’ in Jaigaon are at the heart of a syndicate of people with links in the SSB and the clearing house agent at the customs office in Jaigaon who have primarily been targeting Bhutan’s exports of vegetables and fruits for extortion as well as other exports by Bhutan and even imports into Bhutan.

The Bhutanese talked to officials in Thimphu, Phuentsholing, FCB, traders in Jaigaon, Connecting Nations media house and others and also examined documentary, audio and video evidence which all proved the existence of this extortion and its process.

The simple modus operandi of these people is that they get prior information of consignments from a private employee of the clearing house agent in the customs office in Jaigaon about all consignments coming or going days in advance. This is because all documents for import or export have to be filed with the customs two to three days in advance.

They then approach the importer or exporter in Jaigaon and demand hefty amounts.

If the trader does not comply this group of five publishes immediate facebook news on the consignment or negative news in general and then using this excuse of negative publicity their associates in the SSB stop the vehicle and send it back to Phuentsholing.

This extortion started after two events last year. The first was Bhutan closing its borders and the second was India starting to implement the need for formal documentation for vegetable and fruit exports from Bhutan.

The extortion initially took advantage of the fact that the so far informal export of Bhutanese vegetables suddenly required documents, but now it has become so entrenched that even after the Indian government allowed all exports minus ginger, there is still harassment and extortion going on.

The FIR

On the 15th of September 2021 a video by the Jaigaon based media house ‘Connecting Nations’ went viral where journalist cum businessman Rishi Nandan alleged that five Jaigaon based journalists led by Journalist Rajesh Sharma tried to extort money from  his legal consignment of tobacco going to Bhutan.

Earlier on 11th of September the Editor of Connecting Nations, Ajay Verma launched a formal First Information Report (FIR) in the Jaigaon police station against the five.

The FIR said that on 8th September 2021 at 11 pm in the premises of the police station Rajesh Sharma representing Tilak Katwal, Mahabir Jaiswal (Siddhu), Bijay Kumar Gupta and Deepen Chhetri illegally demanded extortion money amounting to INR 5,000 for their bolero of legal tobacco consignment.

It said, “On denial by me and my colleague, Rajesh Sharma threatened us to plant contraband items in our vehicle, inform police, defame us and get us arrested.”

The FIR says that they did not pay heed and so on 10th September Rajesh Sharma and his four associates misled and misinformed the Jaigaon Police and other agencies about the consignment.

The consignment was detained three times on its way but everything was found to be legal and it was let go into Bhutan.

The Jaigaon Police confirmed to The Bhutanese that they have registered the FIR under section 384 of the Indian Penal Code which is for extortion against the five journalists.

Meet the reporters and their associates

The individuals named in the FIR are primarily stringers for regional newspapers or have their own Jaigaon based facebook pages, but these outlets have significant reach in Jaigaon, Jalpaiguri and even North Bengal.

Rajesh Sharma, who is originally a resident of Kurseong from the Darjeeling Hills stays in a rented accommodation in Jaigaon and is a stringer of sorts writing for multiple news outlets.

He writes for the Kolkata based English Daily called ‘The Echo of India,’ the Sikkim based Nepali Daily Hamro Prajatantra and formerly also worked for the Nepal based TV station called Nepal One.

Several Bhutanese officials the paper talked to said Rajesh Sharma has a consistent and long standing record of writing against Bhutan for over a decade now and the writing has become particularly virulent during the lockdown.

Tilak Katwal who is a close associate of Rajesh Sharma writes for the Siliguri based Nepali Daily called Himalaya Darpan. He is a former forest ranger who worked in Bhutan till 1990.

He had even been sent for training to Norway in 1990 but after coming back in the middle of the 90’s problem he left his job and the country in 1991. He is currently based in Jaigaon.

Mahabir Jaiswal (Siddhu), is a writer for the Hindi daily Janpat Samachar which publishes from Siliguri and is also the admin of the facebook page Jaigaon Today with 145,072 followers.

Bijay Kumar Gupta is the admin of Jaigaon Mirrors with 10,015 followers.

Deepen Chhetri has a news portal by his own name.

Ajay Verma of Connecting Nations who filed the FIR clarified that it is not the entire SSB that is involved but the former Deputy Commandant of the SSB based in Jalpaiguri and local people have complained and protested against him leading to an enquiry against him by the senior authorities of the SSB and punishment posting in a Naxal infested area around 15 days ago.

Ajay said said that it is again not the entire customs office in Jaigaon that is involved but the private clearing house agent employee who passed on the information to the five people.

Ajay also said that the five reporters also enjoy the backing of a local political heavyweight from the ruling party with whom the five shared a part of their earnings allowing them to be so brazen.

An audio tape to extort Bhutan

Two damning pieces of evidence against Rajesh Sharma and group are two audio clips of Rajesh talking to his four associates planning to extort money from the Bhutanese government by raising controversy over the essential commodities trucks coming into Bhutan.

The tape was recorded by Ajay Verma of Connecting Nations who had pretended to show interest and joined the discussion to collect information on the group.

The first tape on 6th May 2021 has Rajesh Kumar saying, “We should do some news and harass them and then automatically they (Bhutanese officials) will come looking for me. We should take out videos on Bhutanese vehicles on the National Highway with the people stopping for tea or eating. The video will show that they can spread COVID and once this is done they will get harassed and then they (Bhutanese officials) will try to settle for us at a less amount of Nu 100,000 to 200,000 but we should ask for Nu 700,000 to Nu 800,000 as they will ask us not to do the news and come to negotiate with us.”

“We should work in such a way that the snake also dies and the at the same time the stick does not break. Money will come as long as we apply our minds,” he added.

Rajesh says in the tape that he and Tilak had already planned an extortion racket against Bhutanese trucks carrying coal after the lockdown as a ‘full setting’ had been done but due to Anil and Siddhu it could not happen.

Prakash Sharma can also be heard plotting against the Phuentsholing Regional Director of Immigration Sangay Tenzin saying the RD will be changed soon. He also tells his colleagues to start the news from the next day.

The second audio clip is from 6th May 2020.

Here again Rajesh Sharma is heard telling his group that due to close India-Bhutan ties, since 25th March 2020 India has been providing help (transit of essentials) even in the middle of such a major pandemic.

He says, “There are so many vehicles coming from outside and going to Bhutan and even some staff have got Corona. As per the agreement only essential items are supposed to go government to government but right now it is private to private and non essential items like pipes, fridge, TV are also going as per my video recording (laughs loudly).”

One of the participants says this video will go against the business community (in Jaigaon) but Prakash says ‘let it go against them.’

The audio has one of the participants saying they are getting information from the clearing agent sitting in the customs.

Rajesh says they must stress that COVID could spread in Jaigaon from these trucks carrying goods to Bhutan and that these trucks are carrying non-essential goods like fridges.

Rajesh says, “The four of you just need to make a good script and release the news in the form of video with a couple of audio comments on facebook and then once their trucks get stopped  Bhutan will need those goods.”

He then talks of Bhutanese trucks exporting boulders to Bangladesh and talks of extorting them by doing news on Bhutanese trucks with Bhutanese number plates and raising the point that they do not pay tax in India.

Rajesh says, “They (Bhutanese) will come to us to pay money to not do such news.”

One of the participants says, ‘There will be a strike (shutdown) on Bhutan now.”

Ajay Verma said he will be submitting these two audio clips to the court as evidence against the group and he is ready for forensic verification of the voices too.

A video clip and testimonies of extortion 

In an October 2020 video clip by Ajay Verma a trader in Jaigaon trader named Raju Jaiswal who imports potatoes from Bhutan says that these reporters had written news about Bhutanese potatoes being illegal and as a result their import got stopped by the SSB.

He says the traders had a meeting and one of them said Mahabir Jaiswal (Siddhu) (Jaigaon Today) on behalf of the Jaigaon media team asked INR 550,000 to be distributed among 11 people at 50,000 each. He said that the offer was that if this money is paid then they will no longer write about Bhutanese potatoes, but if the amount is not paid then they will keep publishing the news calling Bhutanese potatoes imports as being illegal.

The traders said there is zero percent tax for the import of potatoes, but the local media in Jaigaon wrote that crores worth of tax had not been paid for the potatoes.

Ajay said that even this video clip will be submitted to the court as evidence against the group.

Apart from the video clip The Bhutanese talked to two prominent whole sale traders in Jaigaon who regularly import Bhutanese potatoes, vegetables and apples in large quantities.

The first one named Harindar Prasad said that though he had not been personally approached yet there were others who had been approached for money by this group. He said these people are not real reporters or media houses but are just ‘mobile media’.

Another trader who had been approached on the condition of anonymity said last year this media group had written many posts and articles about import of Bhutanese potatoes into Jaigaon being illegal and requiring to be quarantined, and so 72 of his trucks of potatoes from Bhutan got held up as they were stopped by the SSB and Customs.

He said this media group demanded 550,000 for 11 members in Kalchini block. He said that this year too and not long ago he faced a loss of INR 600,000 while importing cabbage, green pea and carrots from Bhutan as again his consignment was held on baseless grounds by the SSB despite having all documents and all of it rotted and instead he had to pay INR 20,000 to get rid of the rotten vegetables. 

Ajay Verma said that he has around 10 traders in Jaigaon who are willing to come forward and give evidence in court against the group for extortion by them.

Bhutanese officials speak

A senior official from a law enforcement agency in Phuentsholing, on the condition of anonymity, said, “Rajesh Sharma has been writing stories against Bhutan to provoke local Jaigaon authorities and residents to create disharmony between the people of two neighboring towns.”

“He unnecessarily stops our trucks coming to Phuentsholing from other destinations in Bhutan via Indian highways and harasses our drivers and Desuup escorts by interviewing them. Such acts expose our people to the virus,” said the senior official.

“He keeps calling Bhutanese authorities that by importing essential items from various states in India, the Bhutan government is risking lives of Jaigaon residents and hence he publishes stories that would stop supplies to Bhutan. His other friend Bijay Gupta (Jaigaon Mirrors) also posted several videos on this. This was done with an intention so that the authorities in Bhutan may pay them to stop such coverage,” said the senior official.

The official said that Rajesh Sharma seems to have a personal issue against Bhutan and one of the things he is doing these days is to stay near the border gate to interview exiting Indian workers one by one to find out if they had been harassed by the Bhutan government, if they are paid enough and if they got enough food to eat or not.

The official said that some years ago Rajesh had been let into Bhutan as a journalist to cover the elections, but he was going around asking questions about Bhutan’s 90’s problem.

A RBP official said that Rajesh Sharma is known for writing anti-Bhutan news and trying to instigate locals in Jaigaon against Bhutanese. 

A senior Home Ministry official in Thimphu who also did not want to be named said that Rajesh has been bad news for Bhutan since the start of the pandemic and he has been trying to create media hype to disturb the flow of trucks carrying essential goods into Bhutan.

The senior official said that Rajesh and his friends had made a big issue of Bhutanese vegetable exports and apart from potatoes they did not even spare betel nut exports from Bhutan.

He said when Rajesh and others write they put pressure on the SSB who are then forced to stop things.

A Phuentsholing Dungkhag official said that he too had heard about the media group trying to extort money from Bhutan. He said they are trying to create issues with Bhutan’s boulder exports too and even harass Bhutanese trucks traveling form one part of Bhutan to another via Indian highways.

The Dungkhag official said that the group of late have been maintaining a low profile as they fear that they will get blacklisted by Bhutan once the gates open.

A senior Food Corporation of Bhutan official in Phuentsholing said that he too had heard from Indian importers in Jaigaon of Bhutanese potatoes and vegetables that this media group was extorting money from them.

He said they were particularly active last year when there were issues over the requirement of documentation and certificates to export Bhutanese potatoes and vegetables.

He said he heard that the moment the Indian importers don’t pay then their consignments face trouble with the customs and SSB on the Indian side.

The FCB official said that a similar problem happened around a week ago in Samdrupjongkhar where despite having all the documents including the phyto-sanitary certificates from BAFRA, the Customs and SSB there are not acknowledging it and have asked them to get the certificates from Guwahati by which time the vegetables will rot.

He said SSB and customs there have demanded Nu 100,000 for one of the consignments despite the legal papers.

FCB has stopped exports from there for now.

Connecting Nations speaks

The Editor of Connecting Nations, Ajay Verma said that the public and traders of Jaigaon are fed up by the extortion led by the group and are ready to speak out against them now. He said earlier they were afraid but not anymore.

He said apart from the extortion by the media group on imports from Bhutan into India they also extort local traders trying to export legitimate goods into Bhutan.

He said that Bhutanese vehicle which are sent for repairs to Jaigaon are extorted at the rate of Nu 6,000 per car. He said even scrap vehicles from Bhutan are extorted to the tune of Nu 20,000 to 30,000 per car.

Ajay said that this so called reporters syndicate are not even real reporters as they are not qualified and many of them are class 8 or class 10 fail. He said they are backed by a politically influential figure in Jaigaon from the ruling party in Jaigaon and that same political figure is heavily involved in smuggling tobacco products into Bhutan.

He said they have formed a Kalchini Press club but the club is aimed more at getting them recognition given their lack of qualification.

Ajay said that one more loophole that the media team used is that India like Bhutan had also instituted the need to quarantine imported goods for a while but while Jaigaon had a quarantine officer deputed there was no quarantine facility. Again this was used to extort money.

He said Bhutanese boulder vehicles are harassed with the fear of the motor vehicle inspector who can charge INR 90,000 per vehicle for overloading.

Ajay and Rishi both said they they have their own legitimate businesses to earn their living and so they do not rely on their media business for income.

Rishi said that Rajesh Sharma plays it both ways as he has a habit of boasting to Jaigaon business people about his high level contacts in Bhutan which are actually fictional as Bhutanese authorities know about his true intentions.

He said that Rajesh is very anti-Bhutan in his views and writing.

He said these outlets have also been running sensational news about Bhutan gate opening or not etc.

The Five accused decline to respond

The Bhutanese called up all the five reporters or admins about these allegations, but all of them declined to give any statements saying they are awaiting the court process and will respond in a few days.

In India there have been documented cases of poorly paid stringers in small towns reporting mainly for small regional papers facing the pressure of producing stories, low wages and also the pressure to collect advertisements for the paper.

There stringers then end up using various means to supplement their income from becoming fixers to doing other dubious things.

In this case by all accounts it seems that the group thought they can capitalize on Bhutan’s vulnerable situation during the pandemic with support from a local political leader and apparent links to other local officials.  

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