Jalandhar: While the Punjab police’s efforts to arrest pro-Khalistan leader Amritpal Singh have been in the headlines for the past week, there is also a parallel crackdown on journalists, lawyers and rights activists in the state.
The Punjab police launched an operation to arrest Amritpal and other leaders of Waris Punjab De on March 18. While hundreds of people have been detained, Amritpal remains at large – and is believed to have slipped past the state’s border.
Initially, there was concern about the social media accounts of Punjab-based journalists, intellectuals and politicians getting blocked by the police. A week later, these accounts remain suspended and the net has been widened. Not only residents of Punjab but the social media platforms of lawmakers, journalists and news organisations based in Canada – where the Sikh diaspora is influential – have also been targeted over the past week.
While similar action was taken during the farmers’ protest against the three farm laws, the police have also raided homes, seized mobile phones and detained activists – some of whom have reported on the Amritpal episode and others who seemingly have no connection with the development. Activists and media organisations have slammed the move, accusing the government of silencing anti-establishment voices.
Journalists, lawyers targeted
On the morning of March 24, a Mansa-based female journalist’s house was raided by the police. Harsharan Kaur told The Wire that she was not at her house when the raid took place at 5:30 am. “As I was not at home, they informed my brother that I was wanted for questioning in connection with Amritpal’s case. Later, they asked my brother to appear before the police,” she said.
Kaur runs Khalas TV, a YouTube channel from Mohali and earlier worked with mainstream News channels like ABP Sanjha, PTC News and Zee News Punjabi. She said, “I have not even interviewed Amritpal or for that matter any of his family members. I am shocked, as my team has been doing research-based ethical journalism with a special focus on human rights violations.”
Among Twitter handles which have been blocked in the past week are Kamaldeep Singh Brar, senior staff correspondent of Indian Express in Amritsar; independent journalist Sandeep Singh, who shot to fame with his round-the-clock coverage of the farmers’ protest; Akal channel’s reporter Tajinder Singh; Sikh religious leader Baba Banta Singh; and SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann; and author Rupi Kaur.
The Twitter account of Gagandeep Singh the bureau head of the Chandigarh-based Pro Punjab news channel was also blocked. He said, “I received a message that says, ‘This account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand.’ My Twitter account, like others, was blocked under Section 69 of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000.”
Noted human rights advocate Jaspal Singh Manjhpur shared a list of the 154 people who have been arrested in connection with the crackdown on Amritpal on his Facebook page. He was detained by the Ludhiana police on March 22 and released on a personal bond the same night.
Talking to The Wire, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur said that he had shared the list with the aim of providing legal assistance to the families of the accused, but the police picked him up from his Ludhiana residence at around 5:30 pm. “The SHO of Ludhiana Sadar informed me that I was taken into preventive detention under sections 107 and 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). They wanted to keep me overnight at the police station but when I informed other lawyers, word was and I was released,” he said.
Manjhpur, who has been vociferously fighting UAPA cases, said the action against him shows that there is a “clear attempt” to create fear among people. “Journalists who are supporting the state narrative are being spared while others speaking against the establishment were being targeted,” he added.
The Wire has learnt that the Punjab government had initially asked for 75 social media accounts to be blocked. That number may have increased over the past few days. It was also learnt that the police have asked many vernacular journalists to appear before the crime investigation agency for questioning.
The police, however, are unwilling to comment on the matter officially. The Wire asked additional director general of police (cyber crime) Parveen Sinha how many Twitter and Facebook accounts have been blocked in the wake of Amritpal’s case and the criteria for taking such action. He said, “I would not be able to share anything over the phone. Please file an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.”
Even deputy inspector general (cyber crime) Nilambari Vijay Jagdale said in a WhatsApp message, “Please apply for this information officially.”
Canadian MPs and journalists face action
The Twitter handles of Canadian Sikhs like New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh, his brother Gurratan Singh, Tim S. Uppal, Khalsa Aid Canada volunteer Jindi Singh, BaazNewsOrg co-founder Jaskaran Sandhu were also blocked in India.
Talking to The Wire from Toronto, Jaskaran Sandhu said that a journalist’s task is to speak truth to power, hold the government accountable, scrutinise its actions and remain unapologetically true to their work. “India takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. But no serious democracy in the world would ever behave like this [blocking accounts of journalists]. This authoritarian behaviour is unbecoming of a democracy,” he said.
Sandhu pointed out that in the index prepared by Reporters Without Borders, India’s press freedom ranking has slipped to 150 and is in the company of countries like Afghanistan and Russia. “I can see them silencing and threatening more journalists and writers in the coming time,” he added.
The Twitter account of Vancouver-based senior journalist Gurpreet Singh Sahota was also blocked on March 20. It was restored within two days after he tagged Twitter owner Elon Musk. Speaking to The Wire, he said, “It is an attack on freedom of the press. Those talking about human rights are under attack while others speaking about Hindutva ideology are being spared,” he said.
Letter sent to Editors Guild and Press Council
Parmjeet Singh Ghazi, the editor of Sikh Siyasat News, wrote a letter to the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council of India (PCI), seeking support in the light of police action and raids against journalists.
Ghazi, who is also a criminal lawyer, said that one journalism student in Amritsar and another journalist in Sri Muktsar Sahib district were called to the police station for questioning. “In both cases, the police released them later but held their phones. The police also seized the phone of the journalist’s wife,” he added.
“This harassment is expected to increase in the coming days. We expect the PCI to take notice of this harassment and suppression of free speech and raise your concern against it,” Ghazi shared.
Jagdeep Singh Thalli, who runs Punjabi Lok Channel, said, “My YouTube channel, its Facebook page and my personal page on Facebook were blocked in the last three days. I was targeted for doing a phone-in interview with Amritpal’s paternal uncle Harjit Singh. It is nothing short of an undeclared emergency in Punjab. If we cannot even speak, how can we expect justice for the common man?”
Bhavjit Singh, who lives in Sydney, Australia, runs the Tractr2twitter account, which became one of the most followed during the farmers’ protest. His personal Twitter account was blocked on March 20. “This is out and out Punjab government’s action. By doing so, they got an opportunity to stop voices critical of the government. In fact, even during Operation Bluestar, the government had asked that the entire media to move out of Punjab. Even now the message is clear – either keep quiet or face the consequences,” he said.
Human rights advocate Navkiran Singh said that blocking social media accounts amounts to a violation of Article 19 of the constitution, the right to freedom of speech and expression. “The journalists can approach us for free legal assistance in this case. I think in another week or so, things will become clear if this was a preventive measure or part of some serious action by the police,” he said.