In July 2016, I received an anonymous mail that told me that I had “crossed all limits when I abused Sanatan Sanstha and well respected Hindus. You conspired to defame Sanatan and asked for banning it. It’s time to give a hisaab of all your filthy activities.” After a long rant about my “sins” which included my testimony as a prosecution witness in the Naroda Patiya and Gulberg Society cases, the letter concluded with these words: “As you can see, we know where you live and what you are upto. Get ready to meet the same fate as Dabholkar and Pansare.”
On receiving this threat, I complained to the Delhi police but they didn’t respond and I subsequently forgot all about it.
In May 2017, a year later, I received another threatening letter, written in Hindi, claiming that my death was imminent.
The time has come when just like the evil Shishupal you should also be killed for your evil sins. Reporters like you are the reason pious ladies like Sadhvi Pragya have had to spend so many years in jail. Virender Singh Tawde (a Sanatan member and now accused in Dr. Narendra Dabholkar’s murder) is in jail because of you… The death sentence is apt for miscreants like you in a Hindutva nation and we wish that with the god’s grace, this task is fulfilled very soon.
This time I decided to take it up with the police and the courts. When, despite several letters, the Delhi police didn’t respond, I approached the Supreme Court. The bench comprised of two judges. One said I should’ve first gone to the high court, the other said I should have first approached the local magistrate. A 2009 order of the Supreme Court directing adequate protection to Gujarat riot witnesses was ignored. The petition was dismissed. In times of crisis in our democracy, the higher judiciary is expected to read the wind and give the right institutional signalling. It’s a pity that in this case the court got stuck on technicalities.
Then I went to the high court. The police made a wishy-washy statement in front of the court. My counsel insisted that the Delhi police should give in writing that there was no security threat. It has been over a month and the Delhi police have still not provided anything in writing.
Living dangerously is what comes with being an investigative journalist. In my 15 years as a reporter – a few of which were spent undercover – I have had more than my fair share of close shaves. During the six months I spent among the mass murderers of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, posing as a hardcore swayam sevak, secretly recording their confessions of murder, rape and plunder, I came within a hair’s breadth of having my cover blown on more than one occasion. Yet, I never excessively feared for my life. So, in December 2004, when I – wearing a spycam – walked into the den of Madhu Srivastava, the muscleman of Vadodara, a BJP MLA, probing how much money he had paid to Zaheera Shaikh to turn hostile, I admit, I was nervous, but certainly not scared. Looking back, I think I had an innate confidence that the law was ultimately on the side of those who are right. That reassurance kept me, and other journalists, going. I believed that the extremism of the Hindutva brigade was an aberration. That the 2002 riots, the Best Bakery carnage, were aberrations. That right-wing elements indulged in violence only when they were part of a mob. They were cowards. That they were afraid of the law and the courts. That in truth, they were scared of journalists like me and even if they knew who I was, they’d be loath to harm me.
But today, I’ve learnt that the past was truly a different country. Today, I fear for my life and for the lives of my family members. Yesterday, Gauri Lankesh, a courageous and independent journalist, was brutally gunned down in the heart of the city of Bengaluru. There is an eerie pattern. The intensity of threats against rationalists, liberals and free thinkers has increased over the last three years. In some cases, threats have remained confined to social media. While in cases like mine, the threats have been more direct. Dabholkar, CPI(M) activist Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi were all killed in similar circumstances. They were repeatedly targeted on right-wing platforms, they received multiple threats and eventually, they were killed.
Several right-wing groups are active in the country today. Prominent among them are Sanatan Sanstha, Abhinav Bharat, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Hindi Rakshak Samiti, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Sri Ram Sene, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The cadres of these groups often overlap. What unites them is the ideology of hate and violence. On their radar are those who are ideologically opposed to them. The CBI raid on Sanatan Sanstha’s offices in Maharashtra led to the discovery of a hit list with names of many journalists and activists. But there was no follow up by the agencies. Several members of Sanatan Sanstha, who are suspected to be involved in bomb blasts in Goa and Maharashtra and murder cases like that of Dabholkar and Pansare, have been on the run for a decade. The bomb makers of the Malegaon and Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blasts have not been caught for ten years.
The UPA may have been incompetent but was not ideologically aligned with these groups. The present regime draws support from these groups. There is an unstated sense of impunity among the hate-mongers. Nothing will happen to them because the government is with them. I witnessed the same impunity among the riot-accused in Gujarat. But that impunity was not absolute. The Supreme Court-monitored investigation led to the arrest and conviction of the likes of Babu Bajrangi, Maya Kodnani and over 100 others. Killer cops were suspended and arrested. My testimony in three riots cases – Gulberg Society, Naroda Gram and Naroda Patiya – and that of hundreds of other witnesses were recorded in court over several weeks, under the protection of central forces. Five years down the line, I am running from pillar to post, pleading with the police and courts to take action against those who are sending me threats. I shudder to think of the plight of witnesses who are living in the same neighbourhood as the accused. They don’t have the means to write columns or approach the Supreme Court.
By brutally killing Lankesh, an outspoken critic of the Hindu Right, the forces of hate have announced – we are no more an aberration, we are the rule. Acts of threatening, violence and even murder are an extremely low-risk affair with almost zero consequences. BJP leaders have issued the expected platitudes. Attempts are being made to paint this as a failing of the state government. While that may be the case, the fact is that the BJP has unbottled a genie of communalism and malevolence, creating the space for lynchings, murders and gruesome crimes to take place.
Ashish Khetan is Chairman of Delhi Dialogue Commission in Delhi government.