Independent media and journalists in small towns have been subject to regular intimidation and violence. Harassment through police interrogation, spurious cases, arrests and assault has been routine, especially in conflict zones such as Kashmir and portions of central India affected by a Maoist insurgency. In 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered by Hindu nationalists, according to a police investigation. Three years later, India fell to its lowest ever rank on the Press Freedom Index – 142nd of 180 countries.
Attacks on The Caravan are also not new, but have become much more frequent over the past few years. In 2019, Vivek Doval, the son of India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, filed a “criminal defamation” lawsuit against the magazine for publishing an article that disclosed details of a hedge fund he ran in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. The case is still in court.
In August 2020, while reporting targeted violence against Muslims in Delhi, three staff journalists were assaulted by a Hindu nationalist mob, one member of which sexually harassed a woman reporter. In October last year, one of the writers of this article, Ahan Penkar, was viciously assaulted by a senior Delhi police official while reporting on a rape in the capital.
Civil liberties only for nationalists
The assault on free media has coincided with a deterioration of independent democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, law enforcement, investigative agencies and the Election Commission, a regulatory body meant to ensure free and fair elections. India’s rank on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, has slipped from 23rd in 2013 to 53rd in 2020, classifying the country as a “flawed democracy”.
A polarised environment has been created, where civil liberties are contingent upon proving one’s “nationalist” credentials, which essentially means whether one supports Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party or not. Police in the state of Uttarakhand, ruled by Modi’s party, recently declared that issuance of a passport would now depend on social media behaviour, and those putting up “anti-national” posts may not be issued one.
In such an environment, not just dissent, but reporting truthfully on what one sees around them is a dangerous prospect, as experienced by our contributor Mandeep Punia.
On 3 February, when Punia was released on bail, he told fellow reporters waiting for him outside prison that since authorities would not give him a piece of paper, he made copious notes on his shins, for a report he wanted to write on farmers he met in jail.
Later, he tweeted, “This incident has strengthened my resolve to continue with my work, that is reporting from the ground, the most dangerous and yet the most necessary part of journalism.”