Bashabi Fraser introduces ‘Why is India targeting writers during the coronavirus pandemic?’, by Priyamvada Gopal and Salil Tripathi, by reflecting on the current threat to freedom of expression and increasing imprisonment of writers in India.July 20, 2020
The Preamble to the Constitution of India declares India as a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’ granting ‘Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ to all her citizens, with the last tenet ‘assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.’ The Constitution was adopted in 1949 by the Constituent Assembly and came into effect on 26 January 1950 when India became a Republic. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution confirms, ‘all citizens have the right – (a) to freedom of speech and expression.’
The vibrancy of India’s democracy has thus been dependent on a constitution which is secular and thrives on freedom of expression. But in recent times, the media has become a perilous professional field in India, with journalists and media houses being threatened, facing physical attacks, different forms of violence, arrests, prison sentences with little recourse to a judicial process and even murder. The title of Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar’s article, ‘Getting Away with Murder’ published on 17 December 2019 by News Laundry Team), brings home the enormity of the situation in India. Seshu and Sarkar note that 198 attacks on media personnel have taken place between 2014 and 2019, with 36 such incidents occurring in the last year and 1 in every 5 being a murder. The perpetrators of the violence remain largely unapprehended, seldom arrested or convicted; they include ‘government agencies, security forces, political party members, religious sects, student groups, criminal gangs and local mafias’.
Another alarming phenomenon is the shift away from print journalism and TV news channels to a reliance on social media where there are no checks or controls, where the ‘readers’ and ‘listeners’ have become the producers of news which can be fabricated, fantasised and unevidenced and spread across the nation with an unprecedented speed that technology enables. Both the threat to journalism and the prevalent dominance of social media ‘stories’ and opinions are means to silence those who challenge and question dominant repressive powers and cast a light on what is really happening in current times.
The World Press Freedom Index report released by Reporters without Borders ranks India 142nd out of 180 countries in 2020 in a world facing a ‘crisis caused by growing and even hatred to Journalists.’
Priyamvada Gopal and Salil Tripathi’s article (The Guardian, 16 April 2020) raises the pertinent question as to why journalists are being attacked in India during the coronavirus pandemic, putting in jeopardy the Indian citizens’ constitutional rights and freedoms. They cite several prominent cases which highlight the continuing gravity of the situation where freedom of expression is at stake.
Scottish PEN is republishing Gopal and Tripathi’s article which brings to our notice gruesome facts like the murder of 14 journalists since 2014 and the divisive politics of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act with its discrimination against Indian Muslims. With the authors, we call all citizens to ‘stand by’ the journalists and media houses who speak for India’s pluralist society and strive to protect her secular constitution.
The urgency of the situation is apparent in the 16 July 2020 report in newsclick.in whose title ‘We Found Him Lying on Urine-Soaked Bed‘,says Varavara Rao’ Family’ speaks of the terrible condition his family found him in when they visited him in JJ Hospital in Mumbai. They found him unattended except for a policeman keeping watch.
Rao, an octogenarian, is a renowned poet and respected intellectual from Telengana, a writer activist campaigning for human rights for the marginalised. He has been incarcerated since 2018 in the controversial Bhima Koregaon Case. He has been in the infamous Taloja Jail in New Mumbai in spite of his frail condition, where his condition deteriorated and he has now tested positive for COVID-19 after being moved to JJ Hospital. His family’s plea for justice for Varavara Rao is based on Article 21: ‘ the Right to Life and immediately intervene’ and their prayer to the authorities ‘Don’t kill him in jail’ could apply to the writers and journalists languishing in India’s prisons in these uncertain times.
Board Member, Scottish PEN and Committee Member, Scottish PEN Writers at Risk Committee.
Read Letter to India, a poem about Varavara Rao by Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstockhere, in English, Irish and Greek here.
As a lethal virus scorches its way across continents, the leftwing Indian rights campaigner Gautam Navlakha has been reminding us of the words of Leonard Cohen, urging people to speak up for the right things: “There is a crack/a crack in everything, that’s how light gets in.” While many of us experience lockdown in varying degrees of constraint, Navlakha – who cited Cohen’s lyrics in a recent statement – faces actual incarceration as does another high-profile Indian, the eminent academic and Dalit intellectual Prof Anand Teltumbde. Meanwhile, Siddharth Varadarajan, the well-known journalist and a founder-editor of the respected investigative online portal the Wire,faces prosecution in an unrelated case. While locking down its vast population from coronavirus, why is India seeking to lock up dissident intellectuals and intimidate journalists?
The three men have been accused of outrages ranging from assassination plots to promoting “enmity, hatred or illwill among classes” — allegations that have been widely criticised as politically motivated. But their apparent common crime is one that underlies the harassment and intimidation of scores of other journalists, writers, academics and human rights campaigners in India. They have criticised the actions of the hardline Hindu nationalist dispensation that rules India today, as well as the culture of divisive bigotry that it has fostered widely in civil society.
The last six years of Modi’s government have seen an alarming crackdown on campus dissidents as well as journalists and writers
Navlakha is a longstanding critic of state and army atrocities in the disputed region of Kashmir, which has faced a disgraceful lockdown since August last year and continues to experience unconstitutional — and, in corona-ridden times, dangerous — limits on internet access. He is accused, along with respected figures like the poet Varavara Rao and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj, of allegedly conspiring in a plot against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018. Teltumbde, related by marriage to India’s towering Dalit leader and constitution-drafter, Babasaheb Ambedkar, has been remanded in custody in the context of violence in the town of Bhima Koregain in 2018. Ironically, Teltumbde has written in the past about how the Indian state seeks to “discredit and eliminate individuals it deems a threat to its apparatus.”Advertisement
Varadarajan, whose platform the Wire has previously fallen foul of powerful and wealthy figures with strong connections to the government, faces a different set of charges. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been strong moves in the Indian media and sections of the ruling dispensation to pin blame for the spread of the virus on Muslim communities. Yogi Adityanath, a fundamentalist Hindu cleric turned politician with a good line in inflammatory speech, is the chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where tensions have been rising. Although the Wire misattributed a quote to him on its website, the erratum was quickly corrected and acknowledged.
Nonetheless, Varadarajan now stands accused of a fantastical range of crimes, including disobeying an order of a public servant and creating or promoting enmity between classes. The real problem may be that the Wire reported correctly that Adityanath had attended a Hindu religious gathering after the national lockdown was declared on 24 March. This report came even as public feelings have been whipped up against Muslims because Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim organisation, held an event prior to the lockdown where many attendees did get infected. The Wire has also noted that “believers” in more than one religious community have been late in adopting precautions against large gatherings.
For a long time now, India has benefited from the title of world’s largest democracy (meaning, in fact, the most populous democratic state). That grand moniker continues to lull the world into believing constitutional rights and freedoms thrive in that nation, when they are in fact under grave threat. Although the misuse of state powers to intimidate principled journalists and of religious divides to garner votes has occurred under other governments, including those of the current Congress opposition, there is little doubt that the last six years of Modi’s government have seen an alarming crackdown on campus dissidents as well as journalists and writers.
Fourteen journalists have been killed in India since Modi’s election in 2014. (In the 10 preceding years when the opposition was in power, 17 journalists were killed.) Journalists routinely face intimidation, legal proceedings and restrictions on accessing information. Female reporters deal with constant online harassment, including threats of sexual violence. Three prominent rationalists who have challenged Hindu orthodoxy have been murdered in recent years. A widely condemned 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act promises fast-track citizenship to select religious minorities claiming asylum from neighbouring countries, conspicuously discriminating against Muslims.Coronavirus conspiracy theories targeting Muslims spread in IndiaRead more
As Donald Trump wrongly claims his government has “absolute power”, we know from the case of Viktor Orbán, who has seized sweeping emergency powers in Hungary, that the global lockdown against the virus can strengthen authoritarian forces if not strenuously guarded against. It will take a vigilant citizenry and media to stop that from happening. In India it is precisely dissident intellectuals like Teltumbde, journalists like Varadarajan and committed activists like Navlakha who are leading the defence of pluralism and democracy. It is of the utmost importance that the world speaks up for them and stands by them now. For, in doing so, we stand up for ourselves and a world we will want to see changed for the better after the pandemic, one in which we can all breathe more freely.
• Priyamvada Gopal is an academic at Cambridge University and author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019)
• Salil Tripathi is a journalist, human rights campaigner and chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International