October 3, 2023 will go down in history for the biggest crackdown on Indian journalism by the Indian state. Homes of 46 journalists, including nine women, who are said to be directly and indirectly associated with the news portal NewsClick were raided by the Delhi police’s special cell that usually probes cases of terrorism in the wee hours of Tuesday.
For many of us scribes, the day unfolded like a typical thriller. Our messenger apps, WhatsApp or Signal, didn’t stop buzzing. First, we heard that raids were ongoing in the homes of over 100 journalists. We didn’t know why as the Delhi Police officials refused to divulge any details. Then, one by one, names of those whose houses were being searched started coming in.
“Urmilesh’s house!” I wondered. Urmilesh is one of the most respected senior journalists of the national capital who has been at the forefront of highlighting the failures of state establishments over the last 40 years. Over the last 10 years, he had been particularly critical of the alleged authoritarian policies and measures of the Narendra Modi government.
“Paranjoy, too,” one of my colleagues informed, even as most of us were slowly waking up to the scale of the raids. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, in the last 40 years, has consistently exposed crony practices of Indian governments. Most recently, he worked on a series of stories about the Adani group’s alleged financial frauds.
By 9 am, it was clear that the police were searching the homes of journalists who were related in some fashion with Newsclick, a portal which has been accused of taking funds from a pro-China lobbyist in the US, Neville Roy Singham. But then, we soon learnt that police had registered a fresh case against under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a stringent law that should be sparingly used against terrorists.
Among the prominent journalists who came under the scanner were Bhasha Singh, a lifelong anti-caste activist who has been exposing the prevalence of manual scavenging practices in India, Subodh Verma, a former Times of India editor whose work on data analysis is peerless, NewsClick’s founding editor Prabir Purkayastha, a scholar, scientist and columnist, and critical television anchors like Abhisar Sharma and Urmilesh.
Most men whose homes were searched were taken away to the Lodhi Colony’s special cell police station where they were questioned for over 10 hours. As some of us descended to the Lodhi colony police station, we were told that none could enter the premises. “Even lawyers are not being allowed,” a lower level police official told reporters.
We waited for the detained journalists to be released and give their statements, unsure of whether they have been formally arrested or detained only for questioning. As daylight faded, many of those began to come out but darkness still prevailed over the charges under which they were detained. By late evening, the police gave a statement that Prabir Purkayastha, founding editor of NewsClick, and the organisation’s HR head Amit Chakravarty, had been arrested under UAPA sections.
Almost all of them said upon their release that the police kept asking them whether they covered stories on the anti-Muslim Delhi riots, the year-long farmers agitation, the anti-CAA protests, and even the COVID-19 crisis. They were asked why they covered these stories that portrayed India in a poor light.
Are we to assume that the journalists should now skip the most important stories of the time because they may embarrass the government of the day? Over 50 journalists working in India’s hinterland have been booked earlier under different charges for covering the conditions in which the poor had to live in during the COVID-19 lockdown. Many Kashmiri journalists have also been targeted by the security agencies, forcing their news platforms to shut down. But October 3, 2023 will be etched in our memory as the day when simultaneous raids were conducted on nearly 50 journalists, many of whom are prominent figures.
We still don’t know the specific charges slapped against the news portal, but some television channels, known for pro-government coverage, claimed that the portal had routed some of the Chinese funds to human rights activists Gautam Navlakha and Teesta Setalvad, who are already under the government’s scanner. The police claimed that Purakayastha and Chakravarty have been accused of taking Rs 38 crore from Chinese entities, a portion of which was routed towards the accounts of Gautam Navlakha and Teesta Setalvad, both prominent human rights activists and vocal critics of the Modi government who already face serious criminal charges. Navlakha is under house arrest, while Setalvad secured bail after being imprisoned for days in a case of financial fraud.
Yet, none of the drastic actions taken by the police made much sense. Homes of junior staffers, freelancers who may have contributed an article or two to NewsClick, consultants, even graphic designers and cartoonists, political activists, a stand-up comedian and academics who have appeared in the website’s programmes, were also under the scanner. Their homes were almost invaded. Their phones, laptops, hard disks, and even books were seized. A majority of them didn’t get any mandatory seizure memo and hash value of gadgets being taken away by the police. Many who were raided also complained that the police didn’t have a search warrant.
A case of financial fraud against NewsClick was already being pursued. Last week, the Delhi high court ruled that no coercive action could be taken against Purkayastha or NewsClick until the next hearing, scheduled next week. However, a fresh case under the draconian provisions of UAPA case has now allowed the police to not only conduct fresh raids on NewsClick journalists but also seal the organisation’s office.
Most scribes believe that these unprecedented raids were conducted to create a chilling effect on journalists, to silence them ahead of the 2024 general elections. The searches provoked a spontaneous protest meeting at the Press Club of India. Many journalist groups have also planned a protest march in the heart of Delhi today. Many will also write appeals to the President of India and other authorities.
India is placed at an abysmal 161 among the 180 countries surveyed in the Press Freedom Index and has fallen 50 points over the last 10 years. The criminalisation of dissent has become the new normal in present day India, as multiple instances have revealed in the last decade. The crackdown on journalists will only set a new benchmark in India’s democratic backsliding.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.