During the virtual Group of Seven summit a couple of weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a joint statement to promote “freedom of expression, both online and offline, as a freedom that safeguards democracy and helps people live free from fear and oppression.”
A couple of days later, I faced a criminal investigation over a tweet.
On June 15, the police in the state of Uttar Pradesh accused journalists, a publication and even Twitter in India of criminal conspiracy, promoting “enmity,” insulting religious beliefs and provoking riots in an attempt to destabilize the country.
The accusation was made after a video circulated on social media of an elderly Muslim man who said he was attacked by a group of men. Several days after the attack, the man, whose initial video was posted without audio, went on Facebook to describe the assault. He said goons forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” (Glory to Lord Ram) and shaved his beard. The video was shared by me and other journalists, as well as by public figures. It was also shared and reported by many news channels and publications in India, including Times Now, Times of India and NDTV.
The police deny that the attack was religiously motivated, and say those who shared the video were looking to stoke communal violence. So they decided to target three Muslim journalists and three Muslim members of the opposition Congress party. They also went after Twitter and the independent news site The Wire.
The targets were no accident. It’s clear the investigation is an attempt to present journalists and opposition figures as the real instigators of violence, faking hate crimes against their communities. It’s also part of an effort to bring Twitter under tighter government control after daring to flag misinformation spread by ruling party officials. Twitter is accused of refusing to delete and censor our tweets, which simply amplified what the attack victim shared online.
It’s not difficult to figure out why we are being targeted aggressively. I shared the video after a social media break. I’ve been recovering from spine treatments, and also resting after months of relentless covid-19 coverage and pandemic relief work on the ground. I’ve been a very vocal critic of the criminal abdication of responsibility by the Modi government, which is underreporting coronavirus deaths in an effort to protect its reputation.
I had a cover story in Time magazine in April about the devastation caused by the second wave. That led to appearances on international outlets — which then resulted in a vindictive backlash accusing me of defaming India on a global scale. On Times Now, one of India’s leading news channels, Mohandas Pai, a prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter, labeled my reportage as “vulture journalism.” Social media attacks followed. Right-wing nationalists called my fundraiser campaign on Ketto, a charity website — which helped 70,000 families affected by covid-19 last year — an attempt to raise funds only for Muslims in the country.
Incidentally, the same day I was booked for my tweets by the Uttar Pradesh police, I received summons from multiple central government agencies asking me to respond within a week. When I read the summons to my lawyer, Vrinda Grover, she asked if I was surprised. One of the summons asked me to identify those who benefited from my relief work.
The brazenness is unmistakable. At a time when I should be reporting on the undercounting of deaths, the unemployment in the country, our preparedness for the covid-19 third wave while continuing to extend help to families in India through my relief work, I am engaged with a battery of lawyers to fight the legal cases and summons slapped on me.
These are not the only ways I am being harassed. Ultra-right-wing publications that have massive followings on social media and owe allegiance to the government have dedicated most of their resources in the last three weeks to running a concerted fake news campaign against me to discredit my reputation as a journalist. It is all absurd, but also dangerous. A talk I had with students at the Harvard Political Review was labeled by Op India, a right-wing propaganda publication, as a means of extending Chinese propaganda.
I can’t be a journalist — we are now enemies of the state. I have to keep a low profile, hide, switch off my phone — all in an attempt to protect myself against a vindictive regime. I even had to lie to my father, who suffered a serious palpitation while watching my image flash on news channels reporting that I had secured bail from the Mumbai high court. While I secured a four-week transit anticipatory bail last Monday, I don’t know what lies ahead for me.
I was recently told that the journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in October, lost his mother — whose last wish was to see her son. Kappan was booked for sedition for reporting on the gang rape of a Dalit woman. I wonder: Will I and other journalists who have been booked face a similar fate?
I wish I could ask Modi — a man who claims to promote “freedom of expression” but who has not given a single press conference in years — if journalism is now a crime in India.