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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

In My Own Voice: And then they came for me . . .

Friday 12 February 2021, by Sagari Chhabra

On 30th January I drove to Gandhi Smriti to pay my respects to Bapu – a man who led the freedom struggle and laid down his life for us. I was denied entry as it was being ‘visited by VVIPs’. So I drove on to the Press Club of India where there was a large gathering to protest against six journalists being charged with sedition; including Caravan editors, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, and journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod Jose, Zafar Agha and Mrinal Pande. Also Shashi Tharoor well known author and MP has been charged with sedition. Tharoor has just published a major book, ‘The Battle of Belonging’ on the rise of Hindutva which is a must read for all concerned about the idea of India.

The father of the nation had also been charged and tried for sedition and he had argued that it was his duty to oppose the Empire and that he was indeed therefore guilty. But those were the days of the British Raj; to charge journalists with sedition today is a travesty of the freedom of the press which is now in a state of peril. The journalists had tweeted that Navreet Singh’s family had declared that he had died from a police bullet and not from his tractor over-turning at the barricade. They had shortly afterwards deleted their tweet when the police had released a video footage of the tractor running into a police barricade.

Not only that but Sidharth Vardarajan, founding editor of ‘The Wire’ has had an FIR filed against him; all this brouhaha is regarding a tweet to an article written by Ismat Ara on The Wire based on the Navreet Singh‘s family’s detailed declaration. Should not the media discuss the other point of view?

Has George Orwell’s 1984 come to life for the thought police arrested a cartoonist, Munawar Farouqi for jokes he had not made but was perhaps ‘planning to do so’ asked advocate, Sanjay Hegde; or perhaps the joke is on us?

Independent journalist, Neha Dixit has not only been viciously trolled but had her house broken into and the police had not lodged an FIR against this despite her demanding it. They have now done so since the IWPC issued a strong protest but note, no arrest has been made so far in this case. The Indian Womens’ Press Corps, the Press Club of India and The Editors Guild have issued a strong protest and demanded the squashing of FIRs against the journalists.

The list is endless; earlier 3 Manipuri journalists were arrested under the UAPA and charged with sedition and let us not forget the killing of journalist, Gauri Lankesh because someone found her fearless and bold writing in the publication , ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ one of an ‘anti-Hindu’.

While Gandhi was able to bring out the ‘Indian Opinion’, ‘Navjivan and ‘Young India’ detailing his ideas and strategies of the freedom struggle against the Raj, in free India the press is in peril, with an acquiescent press being stroked and molly-coddled and those who dare speak truth to power – the onerous duty of a journalist – have various FIRs lodged against them.

In a democracy the free press is what making salt was during the Empire; something true and intrinsic to our very existence which cannot be controlled, taxed and tied to labels such as sedition.

Mandeep Punia who is an independent journalist was arrested along with Dharmender Singh as they were doing their duty - recording the farmers’ protests on the Singhu border. Punia reports the police beat him, broke his phone and camera saying ‘aur leh, kar report’ - take more, do more reporting - and while he pleaded to be able to make a call to a lawyer, he was told to do it from the Tihar jail. Inside the jail he wrote notes on his legs as he planned to file the report on the farmers as soon as he was out. He was granted bail.

While Rajdeep Sardesai has moved the Supreme Court with Rajiv Nayar as counsel for Rajdeep, is this recourse available for all other journalists who are perhaps not that well connected or well off? At the time of writing this, the other journalists have also approached the court for squashing the FIRs but the process itself is the punishment. Rajiv Nayar, it may be recalled is the son of Kuldip Nayar, the amazing journalist and man rights activist who was incarcerated during the Emergency along with many other journalists, Sumanta Bannerji, academic Subba Rao and the actress Snehlata Reddy who died shortly after her release from jail.

Here I must add something of my family history: my father, Viren Chhabra then with ‘The Statesman’ was having dinner with Kudip Nayar and his wife, Bharati where they discussed the state of affairs in the country. On leaving, my father noticed a policeman outside the house who was pretending to read a newspaper in the dark and who also noted his car number. He called up Bharti in the morning telling her what he had seen and warning her that ‘Kuldip could be arrested’. She replied, ‘after you left, they came.’ They later came to arrest my father, who was responsible for printing ‘The Statesman’ a newspaper critical of the Emergency. He thought fast knowing no bail was possible during the Emergency and started showing him the body of work he had printed and published. One of the books, was a book of photographs by staff photographer, Raghu Rai, ‘A Life In The Day of Indira Gandhi’. The policeman left with the book and not him however have we learnt any lessons from the Emergency when the midnight knock happened to so many journalists, trade unionists and academics? Is the Emergency being repeated or is this an undeclared Emergency?

The future itself is history but at the time of writing this the police have filed a case against ‘unknown persons’ who have uploaded a ‘tool kit’, something that was forwarded by Greta Thunberg the Swedish student activist in her tweet in support of the protesting farmers.

Perhaps Martin Niemoller’s words are coming true:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist ,
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist,
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
As I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew,
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Speak up before it is too late!


(Author: Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author & film-maker. She is director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’archives)

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