The special cell of the Delhi police on 3rd October raided homes of 46 journalists and writers connected with the online news-portal News-click. The raids were carried out in 30 locations and ones raided were journalists Bhasa Singh, Prabir Purkayastha, Abhisar Sharma, oral historian and activist Sohail Hashmi, writer Geetha Hariharan, Senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Urmilesh, Aunindyo Chakraborty, political satarist Sanjay Rajoura. Police took away their Mobiles and Laptops. The police sealed the Delhi office of News-click. Editor Prabir Purkayastha and administrator Amit Chakravarty were arrested under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Similar raids by NIA were carried out in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh on 2nd October on political activists. A raid was carried out on Sanjay Singh of AAP and was arrested on 4th October. The series of raids against journalists, writers, activists, and political opponents may only increase during the coming days and months.
While the autocratic and criminalizing tendencies against opposition voices have been present ever since 2014, it is the 2024 elections that has been bothering the current regime now. The political opposition has been taking a more organized form in the form of INDIA alliance. There are increasing tendencies of coming together of civil society voices who are playing their critical role in electoral space as was seen during Karnataka elections. Similar formations seem to be emerging at the national level. While the state has converted the mainstream national electronic media into godi media, it at the same time has resulted in the emergence of alternative media such as newsclick, newslaundry, newsminute, quint, the wire, countercurrents, the scroll which are playing the role of raising questions against the government. Many journalists have come out and started their own youtube channels which are receiving wide acceptance from those interested in serious journalism. The youtube channels of Ravish Kumar, Abhisar Sharma, Sakshi Joshi, Ajit Anjum, Faye D’Souza, Prasun Bajpai and many others are quite popular. Their viewership is far ahead of the Prime Minister’s youtube channel. In social media space, while 2014 and 2019 facebook and whaatsapp played an important role in deciding political fortunes, Youtube is expected to play a critical role in 2024 elections. It is this space occupied by independent voices which the government aims to attack.
The government aims to exercise ‘thought control’ by restricting ‘thought freedom’ and thus conduct ‘thought policing’ to restrict this freedom. While the stated reason against Newsclick could be that of Chinese funding or a newyork times report pointing of promoting Chinese interests, the intent is to pass on a message to independent media space that the government would be policing spaces that question the government. The Chinese connection, UAPA are only means to criminalise independent news. An youtube video of Abhisar Sharma shows that he was questioned about his possible involvement in Anti CAA protests, Anti farm law protests, Delhi riots, JNU student protests etc. The questions asked only clearly shows that what it is worried about is independent reporting related to various developments in the country and its potential influence on voters. What is being done by whaatsapp university, BJP IT cell, godi media is something not being done by these voices and hence the need to criminalize them.
The attacks may not remain restricted to intellectuals, human rights activists, journalists, writers and political opponents, but may extend to common citizens in the coming period. A social media post in facebook, twitter critical of the government could even attract policing and criminalizing. This is despite the fact that Supreme Court in an earlier ruling had pointed, that criticizing the government per se does not constitute sedition.
The prime minister has been stating that India is a mother of Democracy. No Democracy can be built on the foundations of ‘thought control’, ‘thought restraint’ and criminalizing ‘thought freedom’. If ‘thought freedom’ based on people centric issues even at the cost of questioning government is seen as a ‘crime’, the New India or New Bharat that it is trying to build is not one where people are citizens but one where people are subjects who would be under 24 hour surveillance of the state because it believes people may get involved in ‘thought crime’.
Welcome to New India / New Bharat, where ‘thought freedom’ is a crime. As pointed the Chinese connection of Newsclick is only a stated reason. If such were the case, the prime minister’s relief fund has received funding from Chinese companies and so too in the companies owned by Adani as pointed. The real reason is to crush free voices.
The raids on newclick has been criticized by international media. Reporters without borders has declared it as an attempt to intimidate and silence critical voices. Committee to protect journalists has stated that the authorities must cease their harassment and allow journalists to work freely without fear of reprisal. International federation of journalists has called authorities to drop charges against journalists. Similarly Editors guild of India, Press club of India, Indian journalists union and South Asian federation of journalists have described it as intimidating tactics to suppress critical voices.
In an emergency like situation, only a greater challenge exercised by citizens against the current actions of the government can free those spaces. It might not stop with journalists but would extend to every possible section of society. INDIA alliance and also many of those outside it need to raise this issue as a serious threat to press freedom in India. A joint statement was submitted by 18 Journalist associations to the Chief Justice of India. Hopefully it will trigger some movement in a positive direction.
T Navin is an independent writer