New Delhi: “When rule of law breaks down, the society descends into chaos and violence and ultimately everybody suffers,” said Prashant Bhushan, eminent lawyer, while addressing a press conference in Delhi’s Press Club of India. The press conference was organised on Thursday to condemn the attack on the three journalists of The Caravan in Subhash Mohalla of North East Delhi’s North Ghonda on August 11 by a violent mob.
Speakers included noted author Arundhati Roy, senior journalists Anand Sahay and Shahid Abbas, the political editor of Caravan magazine, Hartosh Singh Bal, along with Bhushan.
Bhushan invoked recently deceased poet Rahat Indori’s couplet, “Lagegi aag to aayege ghar kayi zad me. Yaha pe sirf hamara makan thodi hai.” ‘If a fire breaks out, many houses will be burnt. It will not just be my house.’
“They beat up people who speak against the government and the police stands helplessly like bystanders,” he added, referring to police inaction when it came to controlling the mob, as alleged by the three reporters.
Talking about the Delhi riots, after which the northeast region of Delhi has become especially communal, he said, “And sometimes, as we saw during the Delhi riots, sometimes they [Delhi police] participate in the violence inflicted on helpless victims.”
On Tuesday, Prabhjit Singh, Shahid Tantray and a third reporter found themselves surrounded by a violent mob that demanded they delete all the footage in their camera. The three were beaten up on multiple times. Upon seeing Tantray’s ID card and realising that he was Muslim, they shouted communal slurs at him.
This happened at around 2:30 pm on Tuesday and according to Tantray, continued for about 30 more minutes even after the police had reached the spot. Later in the night, two separate complaints were filed by the three journalists – in which the female reporter filed a complaint for sexual harassment and physical assault. Another complaint was filed for the journalists’ physical assault.
Singh, a Caravan staffer, said both he and Tantray were confronting the mob that had surrounded them, questioning them and asserting themselves, “with the presence of mind. Shahid was exemplary because he was directly under attack [for his religious identity].”
He then went on to say, “One woman even tried to throttle him [Tantray] with his camera strap. A man from the mob who claimed to be a BJP secretary kept calling more and more women [to join the mob]. I saw a woman pulling his [Tantray’s] hair – and yes, all this happened in front of the police.”
The attitude of the police even after reaching the spot was, according to the reporters, disappointing. The police failed to disperse the crowd initially and finally managed to assuage the mob by telling them that they were taking the reporters to the police station.
Shahid Tantray said, “Communal slurs started after I showed them my ID card. We were constantly told by the man who claimed to be from the BJP that he doesn’t talk to lowly reporters like us and that he only beats them up. I found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to delete the footage on the camera. I felt helpless. The cops didn’t save us…”
At the police station, Tantray says that a police officer was heard saying that “real freedom” had come “five or seven years ago, not in 1947,” insinuating that the freedom was brought by the BJP when it was elected to the Centre in 2014.
Describing the female reporter’s condition after the incident, Singh said, “Our colleague, who has filed a separate complaint of sexual harassment was shivering and was in a complete state of shock, not even able to drink water.” According to a statement issued by Caravan, a middle-aged man had flashed his genitals at her while she was trying to escape the area.
Singh accused the police of trying to rush the process when they were filing a detailed complaint, saying, “They kept saying that the more we delay our complaints, the more it will impact the investigation. They also didn’t advise us to get an MLC done, which is important evidence.”
At around 10 pm, about eight hours after the incident, the three journalists finally filed two separate, thorough and detailed complaints at the Bhajanpura police station in North East Delhi.
Bhushan went on to say, “This lynch mob which is on the streets is also there on social media as we see the kind of vile comments issued day in and day out on such people, especially those who speak against the government or speak freely about what is happening in our country, particularly [towards] the people of the minority community, hate and violence is spread on social media.”
He then quoted from Swati Chaturvedi’s book, I am a Troll and said, “This lynch mob is controlled by the prime minister. He himself directs who is to be abused and all kinds of vile abuses are made by his followers, people whom he follows, people whom he invites for tea to his residence. The same kind of lynch mob have come to mainstream media also. What is the struggle of Sambit Patra? He is just a vile abuser and he’s part of the lynch mob now – which are now not only allowed but also encouraged.”
Delhi police’s role and attitude
Bhushan then added, “In the Delhi riots, the same police who is supposed to be investigating the riots or the so called conspiracy involved in these riots have been seen on camera beating people, throwing stones, breaking CCTV to hide evidence of violence committed by them.” Allegations of and video footage showing police complicity have come up in relation to incidents of violence in Jamia Millia Islamia university on December 19 last year and in JNU on January 5 this year.
Questioning the investigation process of the police on the Delhi riots, he said, “The whole investigation is of the nature of a conspiracy to frame innocent people and to let Kapil Mishra, who was seen clearly on social media, on TV instigating the mobs and threatening people.” He also mentioned Anurag Thakur, a BJP member, who is accused of instigating mobs against the anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, during the campaign for the Delhi assembly elections this year.
“The judiciary also needs to see what’s happening and play its role in stopping all this, but unfortunately they have done nothing to stop this complete and brazen destruction of the rule of law, of culture, of civilisation, and civilised values of the country,” Bhushan added.
Media under attack
Talking about the state of the Indian media, Bhushan said, “There is an attempt to just control the media by either drying them out, intimidating them or just beating up their reporters.”
Hartosh Singh Bal, gave context to the stories that Prabhjit Singh and Shahid Tantray had been doing on the Delhi riots and said, “They had been investigating the anti-Muslim violence since February relentlessly. They visited the area over and over again without fear and produced a good body of work.”
Talking about the media’s state, Bal said, “We are in a government and an administration wherein the very idea of a media that talks in a way that is critical or examines the role of the government is [considered] anti-national. Now they walked into the area of the [nationalistic people], who are already agitated by the audacity of the media to report on them.”
Bal then went on to read out a statement issued by the female reporter to be read out during the press conference. The statement read, “First, I want to congratulate my colleagues Shahid and Prabhjit for their relentless courage and determination in pursuing stories on the anti-Muslim violence in northeast Delhi. I want to say that I am proud and will always be proud of being a part of the Caravan magazine.”
Female reporter urges attention
Talking about the day of the attack, she said, “What I went through on 11 August is the most traumatising experience of my life, but here, I want to highlight the courage of the Muslims of northeast Delhi, especially Shanno and her family, whose story we were reporting. While interviewing these women about how the police molested them at the Bhajanpura police station, they recounted the ordeal they had to face from the locals, police and media. Their courage in facing all this was an inspiration. Shanno and her daughter are an inspiration for me.”
She added, “Shanno’s young daughter seemed exhausted but she was fearless when we asked if she would speak on record. Her eyes were bright and with a faint smile she said, “I am not afraid of speaking out the truth.” There is nothing more courageous than this. Many Muslim women who reside in north Ghonda came out to help me and bravely asked the Hindu mob to back off as it was attacking me.”
Urging all journalists to be unafraid of the “increasingly fascist government” and report more on the Muslims of North East Delhi and document “their bravery,” she said, “I also thank my editors and colleagues who are supportive and courageous and from whom I learned good journalism, at a time when the media is in such a dark state in this country. Shanno kept repeating the word ‘insaaf’ to us with tears in her eyes. It is still reverberating in my ears. As the media, we should do our duties fearlessly and pledge our solidarity to the brave women who are fighting for justice. This incident won’t deter me from pursuing many more stories like this and I am not afraid to do so. I again thank my friends, colleagues, editors, and all who stood by us.”
Arundhati Roy speaks on free media
“What we are living through right now is a moment where a hate-fuelled, fascist ideology that was born in 1925 [referring to the RSS], it has today been converted into actionable public policy and that includes the annihilation of every kind of opposition,” said Roy.
She then added, “In a democracy, you do have to have the media, court and so on but what we are seeing now is the annihilation of everything. We are a one-party democracy, which is an oxymoron to begin with.”
She further said, “Anybody who studies, even superficially, the history of fascism knows that all of it pivots on propaganda – which is in the hands of the Hindutva ideology today. Now there are only few people who are not mainstream, The Caravan, The Wire, and several others.” Talking about the importance of dissent in a democracy, she said, “No form of dissent, even down to the last individual will be tolerated and this is fascism. Think about what’s happening with small town journalists.”
She added, “We are in a situation which will self-destruct as this hate-fuelled ideology tightens its grips on every institution, as it attacks every individual that stands up against it.”