Backstory: In Parallel With the COVID 19 Pandemic, We Now Have a Pandemic of Arrests

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Lockdown – the word that best describes our present physical and mental state – has now acquired a vicious new meaning. As if in parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have a pandemic of arrests, with prison gates clanging shut on those marked by the state as anti-nationals.

Consider, for a moment, this last fortnight. It began with Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, prominent intellectuals and political activists, being jailed. Both marked their impending incarceration with letters that held up a mirror to their country. Navlakha pointed to how the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has turned jurisprudence upside down: “No longer is it the axiom that ‘a person is innocent unless proven guilty’. In fact, under such Acts, ‘an accused is guilty unless proven innocent’” (‘‘My Hope Rests on a Speedy and Fair Trial’: Gautam Navlakha Before His Surrender’, April 14).

Teltumbde begins with the observation that he is aware that what he writes may be drowned in the “motivated cacophony of the BJP and RSS combine and the subservient media”. Sure enough, large sections of the media blanked out all news of the arrest (‘Hindi Newspapers Look Away as Anand Teltumbde Is Arrested’, April 15). This deliberate deletion is part of the larger strategy to erase any evidence of state repression, as Teltumbde’s letter points out:

“An individual like me obviously cannot counter the spirited propaganda of the government and its subservient media. The details of the case are strewn across the internet and are enough for any person to see that it is a clumsy and criminal fabrication.”

A analytical piece in The Wire (‘Why Is Anand Teltumbde So Dangerous for the Narendra Modi Government?’, April 14) argues that it is his stance as a “progressive intellectual wall against the neoliberal Hindutva of the RSS-BJP”, that makes him such an important target.

Similarly, there are excellent reasons why credible, argumentative journalists also invite the displeasure of the powerful. The Wire has had a taste of state repression. On April 10, one of the founder editors of the portal was visited by the UP Police (‘Attempts to Muzzle the Media’: More Than 200 Journalists Condemn FIRs Against The Wire’, April 12) for allegedly causing panic by reporting that the UP chief minister had attended a religious event on March 25. That, of course, is a matter of public record and a wrongly attributed quote in the report had been duly retracted along with a corrigendum. Yet none of this served to halt the UP police from driving all the way from Faizabad to Delhi amidst the lockdown, to serve a notice on Siddharth Varadarajan. This is by no means the first instance of police high-handedness. Over the last year, over a dozen cases have been filed against journalists by the UP police, according to a recent report filed by Kunal Majumder of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Also read: Is the Press Council Being Selective in Upholding Media Freedom?

Hunting journalists down has now become part of active policing in these COVID-19 times. Over the course of a week, at least four mediapersons in Kashmir have had FIRs filed against them. Two of them were booked under UAPA, photojournalist Masrat Zahra (‘Kashmiri Photojournalist Charged Under UAPA for Unspecified Social Media Posts’, April 20) and author-commentator Gowhar Geelani, who in an interview to The Wire interpreted the move as a bid to criminalise journalism in Kashmir (‘The Assault Is on Journalism’: An Interview With Kashmiri Journalist Gowhar Geelani’, April 23).

The case against Masrat Zahra has been registered under Section 13 of UAPA. Revisiting this Section is educative. The key reason why UAPA is so effective as a tool of state coercion is the broad manner in which the offence is framed and this Section lays down that not only are persons who take part in “unlawful activity” liable for punishment,  anyone who “advocates, abets, advises or incites the commission of, any unlawful activity” can be  imprisoned for a term which may extend to seven years under the law.

We need to remember here that we are now seeing the results of the amendment to UAPA, passed in parliament in August 2019 shortly before the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5. Through that amendment, the government and its police assumed the power to take action not just against organisations deemed as terrorist, but against individuals, too. Union home minister Amit Shah not only piloted that amendment in parliament but justified it forcefully, arguing that acts of terror are done by individuals, not organisations.

The logic inherent in that argument has now led to the scary outcomes that we are witnessing today, with the police drawing up elaborate conspiracy theories in a bid to make the charges stick. Journalists should be alert to the consequences this holds for others, because the same could wreak havoc on their own lives as well. Today it may be the Jamia students who had come out in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (‘‘Terrorism’ Charge a Lesson for Jamia Students that Democratic Protest Carries Heavy Cost’) and are now being imprisoned under a draconian law which has no provision for anticipatory bail; tomorrow it could be their colleagues or themselves.

It appears that while we wear our masks and stay at home under the lockdown, the Modi government and assorted state governments under BJP rule are displaying an uncommon appetite to place all those it has marked as “enemies of the state” – even if it is just a comment they put out in the public domain – under lock and key. They may not have an UAPA hammer smashing down on them, but they and their families have to contend with the terror of impending imprisonment.

Over the last few days, we’ve had the Manipur government locking up Mohammed Chengiz Khan, who is doing his PhD at JNU, for critiquing the state’s government’s anti-Muslim policies. The Gujarat police booked Prashant Bhushan, well-known lawyer, for a tweet. A spirited, socially conscious former bureaucrat, Kannan Gopinath, and a news editor, Ashlin Mathew, have invited police action from the Gujarat state government  for their responses to a government order (‘FIR Against Prashant Bhushan, Kannan Gopinathan in Gujarat’, April 15).

As if to indicate the pan-national nature of such aggravated police action, we now have the Coimbatore police march Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, founder of the news portal, ‘SimpliCity’, to jail for highlighting the looting of ration shops and lack of food for students (‘Coimbatore: Founder of News Portal Arrested for Reporting on Government’s Handling of COVID-19’, April 24). Please note that none of the above had Union ministers rushing to defend them, or the Supreme Court keeping aside urgent matters in order to provide them a patient hearing, as was the case with the editor-in-chief of Republic TV (‘SC Allows Hate Speech Probe Against Arnab Goswami to Proceed, Stays Multiple FIRs’, ‘SC’s Interim Protection to Arnab Goswami: What It Does and Doesn’t Say’, April 24).

Is this just state paranoia that is playing out, or does this portend a new cycle of ever-deepening, ever-inexplicable state tyranny? COVID-19 is set to alter forever the political and social landscape of the country at multiple levels (‘What Will Politics Look Like in the Post-Pandemic World?’, April 13; ‘The Economy Needs a Survival Strategy – and Not Just Stimulus – to Recover From COVID-19’; ‘Children Will Be More Vulnerable to Trafficking After COVID-19’, April 13), but how alert are we to the permanent damage this phase will wrought on our rights and liberties? How alert is the Indian media to this? Incidentally, India’s free fall in terms of the World Press Freedom Index – it currently stands at 142 in a tally of 180 countries – is a story in itself. Even Bolsanaro’s Brazil is streets ahead.

As the writer of the piece, ‘If We’re at ‘War’ With the New Coronavirus, We’re Doing It Wrong’ (April 15), observes, the way we use language to define COVID-19 needs attention.The war metaphor is not useful:

“In this conception, the virus becomes an agile enemy, the national leader’s actions are shows of strength, the suspension of civilian rights becomes a matter of necessity, and every citizen is seen as a soldier with well-defined orders and a quasi-duty to self-censor.”


Gulshan Ewing:  the most glamorous was also the kindest

When news that elderly patients in UK’s care homes were succumbing at an alarming rate to COVID 19, I didn’t imagine for a moment that the disease would also take away 92-year-old Gulshan Ewing, editor of two Mumbai staples, Eve’s Weekly and Star and Style. A resident of a care home in London’s Richmond area, she succumbed to the disease on April 18, a few days before her daughter, Anjali, had tweeted: “My mother is NOT receiving the same level of care in her care home as Boris did in hospital. We are all equal and all in this together. Aren’t we? @BorisJohnson @10DowningStreet @DominicRaab @MattHancock @tnewtondunn @bbclaurak @BBCHughPym @GuidoFawkes

Gulshan’s era was certainly kinder to those who helmed media institutions than is the case today, but what must have helped her longevity as an editor was the kindness and teamship she brought to her long innings. Glamorous she may have been, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cary Grant and Raj Kapoor, Alfred Hitchcock and Nargis Dutt, partying with beauty queens and supping with the crème-de-la-crème of Bombay society, but within the office she remained cool, unflappable in her brightly patterned chiffons and chunky rings – even when her celebrity columnist, Devyani Chaubal (clad at all times in embroidered white organzas), threw a tantrum and would need to be coaxed to write up her next column.

By the 1980s, second wave feminism had made an emphatic entry and the new generation of women journalists who landed up at Gulshan’s desk disdained much of what she took great pleasure in. They loathed the beauty contests that sometimes brought instant international fame – Reita Faria, India’s first Miss India, was Gulshan’s catch, make no mistake – and they even found the very name ‘Eve’s Weekly’, an affront to their senses. But they realised that the matrix of the women’s magazine was a great trojan horse to smuggle in feminist ideas. Along with recipe spreads and knitting patterns, many radical notions would make their way into unsuspecting households. Household hint: squeeze out a little Colgate to clean the family silver and, while you are at it, remember that you, yourself, are not a beautiful object to be displayed at home. Use a little foundation under the eye to cover up those dark circles, but also remember being beaten by the “lord and master” is a criminal, unacceptable act.

Gulshan was too intelligent a woman not to recognise the changes that were taking place, and somewhere she made the decision that while she would continue with her social whirl and beauty contests, she would allow her junior colleagues to mould parts of the magazine to their liking. In fact, she also knew how she could make feminism work for her. Among the questions she asked as she interviewed me – a Times of India sub-editor – for a job as chief sub, was what my plans of being a mother were about. When I shrugged away the intrusive query, she smiled, “Yes, you are a modern woman and don’t believe in rushing to have children I am sure!”

This live-and-let-live approach helped her to negotiate an unbroken run as editor from 1966 to 1989, possibly making her India’s longest serving woman editor.


Lockdown and I

In the last column, readers had written in about their experiences of lockdown. This time Khubrooh Siddiqui had this to say: “These are my circumstances during this abrupt and insane  lockdown. I am stranded in Ghaziabad, which has been my home city for the last 15 years. My husband is stuck in Kolkata. His father is in his late 70s and is mentally unstable, making life impossible for my husband, continuously shouting and throwing things around. At one point, he almost threw down my husband’s laptop, which is crucial for his work. I feel helpless because I cannot reach out to him at this time, knowing that he himself is often seized by extreme anxiety, and his doctor has recently modified his medicine dosage knowing that I am not there to help him. I dread to think what may happen over the next days. I don’t know if I am in a better position than others who may not have food to eat, but I can say, for sure, that I am absolutely desperate to reach Kolkata. I can only urge the authorities to let stranded people like us go to our respective destinations.”


Attack on press freedom

A letter from Satish Mahaldar, chairman, Reconciliation, Return & Rehabilitation of Migrants, New Delhi:

“In these difficult times of a pandemic, when people associated with essential services like the Media, Health workers and the Police are doing everything they can to save people, certain vested interests are trying to cause harm.  The responsibility to disseminate news in an atmosphere where rumour mongering and fake news is the order of the day, there have been attacks on media personnel. I wish to draw attention to acts of intimidation by certain elements against the reputed news service, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).  Its subscribers and journalists are being threatened for its reportage on the issue of Tablighi Jamaat and its role in the spread of the corona virus. As these threats were persisting, IANS has been forced to file three criminal intimidation cases against individuals who claim to be the members of  the Jamaat. The attempts to muzzle IANS and other media organisations are not only criminal but an attack on the freedom of the media. Such acts should not only be condemned but the perpetrators must be held accountable for their anti-democratic activities. We urge stern governmental action against such miscreants.”


Songs for the Migrant

Kaushik Raj, who described himself as a poet and activist, wrote and recorded this poem on the “plight of migrant workers who had to walk hundreds of kilometres after lockdown in their bid to reach home”. He sent across the IGTV and Facebook links of the two-minute poem:

The same topic inspired Poojan Sahil, to compose and perform this three-minute song. He asks why we as a society has always neglected this section of the population:

Speaking of songs and poetry,  I was glad to notice that The Wire carried Manohar Shetty’s ‘Lockdown Song: A Poem For the Times We Live in’ (April 12):

For the recluse and jailbird it’s nothing new.
The contagion, most democratic,
Knows no cure and can spread with just
One breath from patient to physician.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in