No Prison Is Big Enough To Contain Free Speech

This is a special edition of The India Cable.

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

February 1, 2021

By the editors

Politics has become a relentless irony, but even so, it is remarkable that Rajasthan BJP MLA Pratap Singh Singhvi has written to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot demanding legislation to protect journalists. The trigger was an incident of casual thuggery, which unfortunately took the life of 27-year-old journalist Abhishek Soni in Jaipur. Nevertheless, legal cover for journalists looks like a good idea, now that state police have taken to firing off FIRs to cow down prominent bylines like those of Mrinal Pande and Siddharth Varadarajan (one of the founders of The India Cable), while the Delhi Police bundle off lesser-known but no less important reporters like the young freelancer Mandeep Punia, a frequent contributor to The Caravan and Dharmendra Singh of Online News India, who were asking probing questions about “locals” at Delhi’s Singhu border who were opposing the farmers’ protests, but turned out to be Hindutva imports. Punia’s family was informed of his detention 16 hours after the event. 

Yesterday, in his Mann ki Baat, which delivers weekend entertainment and edification to the backward parts of the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said through his faux-Marxian beard: “The country was saddened to see the national flag being insulted.” In reality, the country was not saddened, because the flag was not insulted. There are so many links on social media of the Nishan Sahib flying much lower than the tricolour, and of the pennant being unfurled proudly by Sikh troops at the border (the border between India and China, not that between Delhi and Haryana) that we need not burden you with more. The violence at the Red Fort united the Opposition in the belief that it was the result of a “government conspiracy”. And now, journalists probing the validity of the charge are being detained. 

While the Prime Minister’s preoccupations are being broadcast efficiently, the people are denied free expression. The Haryana government has extended the suspension of mobile internet services until 5 pm today in 14 districts ― Ambala, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Kaithal, Panipat, Hisar, Jind, Rohtak, Bhiwani, Sirsa, Fatehabad, Charkhi Dadri, Sonipat and Jhajjar. Services were suspended following the violence in Delhi on Republic Day, which was allegedly triggered by a BJP mole and agent provocateur in the tractor rally, Deep Sidhu. 

Sidhu should be a person of deep interest to the Delhi Police, but he is free. Journalists who were doing their job are behind bars. Blaming the victim is an old strategy. In the Delhi ‘riots’ a year ago, hate speakers walked free while ordinary protesters were put away under the UAPA. It has been revived against journalists. Punia was probing people at the Singhu border who claimed to be local residents and were agitating for the farmers to leave. They could have turned the tide in the favour of the BJP, and they were led not by locals but the fringe organisation Hindu Sena. Journalists like Mrinal Pande are being served FIRs for minor errors of judgement or inflexion which, in normal times, would have attracted nothing more than an official statement. On January 26, the death of a 27-year-old farmer in a tractor crash was variously attributed to a bullet injury, a head injury from a tear-gas canister, and the accident itself. The postmortem report was one of accidental death, but his family insisted that he had been shot. In such situations, it is the job of the media to report all versions of the story, including those which question the government. 

An FIR is the SLAPP suit with a government stamp on it. Its content is often vague or absurd. It doesn’t really matter, because it is aimed at a larger purpose, and the immediate target of the state’s ire is just a pretext. The SLAPP suit, which has been used to harass people in media and the arts, and actually drove MF Husain out of India in 2006, relies upon the sentiments of other citizens, who serve as proxies for political interests. The FIR, on the other hand, is filed by an aggrieved government, and its immediate consequence is the loss of liberty. What else may be taken away depends on the law under which the FIR is filed. 

Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, who has been behind bars since October 6 for the crime of travelling to Hathras to report on the police cover-up of a rape and murder, was denied access to his family and his lawyer for over a month. He was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is both draconian and excessively wide in scope. A week ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had expressed concern about the deployment of “vaguely worded laws” like the UAPA to choke off dissent.

That statement concerned the detenus of the Bhima-Koregaon case, an egregious example of the indiscriminate use of state power. But attacks on the press are no less important. Since January 28, the police have filed nine FIRs against journalists in India. Uttar Pradesh is a bulk supplier of FIRs, with at least 15 cases against journalists in the last 18 months ― Pankaj Jaiswal in Mirzapur in August 2019, six journalists in Azamgarh and Ravindra Saxena in Sitapur in September 2019, five journalists in Bijnor in September 2020, Pradeepika Saraswat in Ghazipur in February 2020, Prashant Kanojia in April 2020, Supriya Sharma of Scroll in Varanasi in June 2020, and Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire in Ayodhya the same month. 

Last month, Paojel Chaoba and Dhiren Sadokpam, editors of the news portal Frontier Manipur, were arrested under UAPA and for sedition, for criticising the insurgencies in the state. In a variation on the theme, on January 22, business journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta faced an arrest warrant in a defamation case filed by the Adani Group which, he had alleged, had influenced government policy to its advantage. On January 31, two news sites in J&K faced FIRs for reporting that the Army had forced a school in Shopian, closed for winter vacations, to conduct Republic Day celebrations. The dangers that journalists now face in India have been repeatedly highlighted.

If the voices of reporters and writers who are doing their job at a difficult moment in the history of our democracy are suppressed, only the ‘godi media’ (lapdog press) will be heard. But their credibility has plummeted. The farmers who are at the epicentre of the present political crisis have refused to speak to them, for instance. Which means that perhaps, you will hear nothing at all in the future, except the soothing drone of the government’s claims and narratives. 

Cases and warrants against journalists have to be seen in the wider context of the clampdown on human right defenders and grassroots workers such as Sudha Bharadwaj, an IIT alumnus who has worked tirelessly for mining labour for three decades, and the scholar Dr Anand Teltumbde, who has written extensively on the caste system. Comedians are moving targets ― Munawwar Farooqui is languishing in jail for over a month for a joke he did not crack, because the son of a BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh said the comic would have offended Hindu sentiments, in a future which never came to pass.  

The essence of democracy is about informed choice. Not just the choice we exercise at the ballot box, but also foundational choices between ways of seeing and being ― the moral choice between good and evil. Without reliable information from the media, there can be no valid democratic choice. In 2020, Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Press Freedom Ranking placed India at 142nd out of 180 countries. The Free Speech Collective finds that 154 journalists were arrested, detained or questioned between 2010 and 2020 ― and 40% of that happened last year. In India, informed choice is being constrained.

Today, the Union Budget is being released. India shows the lowest Covid-19 casualty rate since May 2020. The Tatas will venture into military aviation. These should have been the preoccupations of The India Cable, but they are not more important than calling attention to the systematic attack on the Fourth Estate, which has dire implications for the future of Indian democracy. 

This morning in neighbouring Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and her associates are in custody following a coup, and the internet is down in two cities (a problem familiar to people in and around India’s capital). A one-year state of emergency has been announced. Many journalists are in hiding, fearing for their safety. Myanmar’s democracy is chronically fragile. To Google the coup in progress, you must search for “Myanmar coup 2021”, specifying the year, or a data deluge would follow. India has been more fortunate, but the road to Myanmar is a slippery slope, and the suppression of the free press is a starting point. For their own safety, India’s institutions must not let the country venture down that path. It is time for all who have been unwillingly press-ganged, in a political project not of their choosing, to speak up. 

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