New Delhi: Even as the entire country is under a lockdown, the Uttar Pradesh police served a notice to Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wire, on Friday asking him to appear at the Ayodhya police station at 10 am on Tuesday, April 14.
A group of policemen served the notice at his residence in Delhi, some of whom said they had driven the 700 km from Ayodhya to do so. The national lockdown is on until April 14 and there are reports that it could be extended. Movements have been severely restricted during this period.
The notice under Section 41(A) of the Criminal Procedure Code cites an FIR registered by the Faizabad police claiming that Varadarajan had made an “objectionable” comment about Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. This is one of two FIRs registered on the basis of private complaints by individuals described as residents of Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. In one of the FIRs, the complainant objects to an unspecified tweet by Varadarajan, while the second complainant, as recorded in the FIR, says:
“The Wire editor on his blog (sic), with the aim to spread rumours and hostility among the public, publicised the following message:
“On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large fair planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual while Acharya Paramhans said that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus’. One day after Modi announced the “curfew like” national lockdown on March 24, Adityanath violated the official guidelines to take part in a religious ceremony in Ayodhya along with dozens of people”.”
The editor was not named. Though the contents of this FIR are statements of fact that were widely reported in the media, the police went ahead and filed a case. The details of this – along with copies of the two FIRs – were promptly circulated on Twitter by the media adviser to Adityanath.
Though the FIR does not explicitly say so, the words it quotes are similar to what appeared in a story in The Wire on March 31 about the sealing of the Tablighi Jamaat premises in Delhi. The story mentioned, by way of background, the Adityanath government’s stand on gatherings in Ayodhya at the time the Tablighi event was supposedly underway (i.e. March 15-18) and Adityanath’s presence with other people at a religious event in Ayodhya one day after Prime Minister Modi had declared a national lockdown and a ban on all such gatherings.
An earlier version of the story had incorrectly attributed Paramhans’s quote to Adityanath but a correction was made subsequently and noted in the article itself. Varadarajan had also publicly posted a clarification to this effect on social media.
Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University and wife of Varadarajan, posted a series of tweets describing what happened when the police contingent arrived at their home on Friday afternoon:
When it comes to the gross abuse of police power by the Adityanath administration in UP and its intolerance of press freedom, it is clear that COVID-19, the lockdown and social distancing make no difference whatsoever.
Yesterday, April 10, at 2 pm a plainclothes man came to our home and said he had come from the Ayodhya ‘prashasan’ to serve notice on Siddharth Varadarajan. He would not give his name. I told him to leave it in the mailbox. He refused.
At 3:20, he came with 7-8 uniformed men (at least 2 not in masks) in black SUV, no number plates. Only two identified themselves. On insisting, they gave plainclothes man’s name as Chandrabhan Yadav, not designation. They said they’d driven from Ayodhya for this urgent work!
They refused to let me sign the notice—”Our rule is not to give it to women and minors”—. When asked to be shown the rule, they sought instructions on phone and let me sign. Then, they phoned their boss to say “notice has been received”.
The notice asks @svaradarajan to appear in Ayodhya April 14, 10 am (when lockdown will still be in force) in connection with FIR registered by the police for factual @thewire_in story which said Adityanath & others had attended a religious event in Ayodhya after the lockdown
On April 3, the Editors Guild of India described the FIR against Varadarajan as an “overreaction” and “intimidation”.
The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the South Asia Media Defenders Network and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) have all issued statements condemning the cases against The Wire and its founding editor, and have demanded that they be withdrawn. The DUJ also said in its statement, emailed to The Wire, “We urge all governments, both in the states and at the centre, to concentrate on attacking the virus and protecting citizens from the fallout of the lockdown.”