In Sept 2017, Indian journalist and editor of a weekly tabloid newspaper, Gauri Lankesh, was shot dead outside her own home. Lankesh had been highly critical of Modi’s BJP party.
This was not the first time and wouldn’t be the last time critical voices would be brutally silenced in India. Another commentator, Professor M M Kalburgi, was shot dead in 2015 following death threats from Hindu nationalists, who tend to be Modi supporters. The Al Jazeera report said, at the time, that 27 Indian journalists had been killed since 1992 and that none of their murder cases had resulted in any convictions.
It’s clear that Narendra modi’s leadership has seriously impacted India’s free press. Modi has used the covid 19 pandemic to dominate and stifle journalists and turned India “into one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.” What was once considered India’s free and liberal press is now no longer. This has had a domino effect on local journalists, now unable to do their jobs. The Washington post reports that India’s “Small media outlets are suffering financially. Restrictions on movement prevent reporters from getting to the story. And any journalists who dare to question the Modi government’s official line face threats and intimidation. All this is eroding what was once one of the world’s most vibrant media landscapes.’’
Modi is not a big fan of the Indian press, after all he recently tried to pass legislation to completely ban independent news coverage. Even though the ban was unsuccessful, Modi’s persistent dominance over India’s free press and news stations, as well as bloggers and journalists working in India, is likely to heavily impact the news coverage coming out of India. Free press in India is in grave danger and we now have reports of TV news station being cut off by an order from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The government decided to block Kerala based news channels ‘Asianet News’ and ‘MediaOne’ for 48 hours because they covered February’s biggest news story — the mob attacks on Muslims in New Delhi that flared into broader unrest. It was alleged that the coverage was “critical toward Delhi Police and R.S.S.,”. The RSS is a Hindu-nationalist social movement with close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.
More recently, the actions of the Modi government have seen activist being sent to prison and others shot dead. In June 2018, in Indian administered Kashmir, the prominent journalist and editor Shujaat Bukhari, was shot dead outside his office by an unknown gunmen. Bukhari ran 3 newspapers including the English paper ‘Rising Kashmir’ and was also a regular presence at secondary diplomatic initiatives envisioning better relations between India and Pakistan. He frequently wrote for international publications and broadcasters, including the BBC, as the voice that explained the complexities of the region to the rest of the world.
Tairah Firdous, a former Kashmiri journalist, described Bukhari’s killing as “a strong and saner voice, silenced a powerful story cut short too soon.”
Tension have been rising between India’s free press, local activists and the Modi government, especially after the federal government stripped Kashmir of its special status last August. This then allowed Modi’s forces to search 9 locations, including the offices of the Greater Kashmir newspaper and the home of AFP journalist Parvaiz Bukhari, as well as a number of NGOs (non government organisations) and the homes of leading activists in Srinagar city, the region’s capital. They claimed the raids were based on “credible information” that these organisations and people were receiving funds from abroad and that the funds were allegedly being used to support “secessionist and separatist activities”. However, critics claim the raids were part of a larger crackdown on free speech and dissent in the valley and at least 18 reporters have now been questioned by police, while over a dozen have been allegedly assaulted in the last year.
The Jacobin magazine published an article by Ashok Kumbamu recently in which he accused Modi of ‘Making Dissent in India a Crime’. Kumbamu explained how, in August 2018, five renowned academics and human rights activists (Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Satish Deshpande, Prabhat Patnaik, and Maja Daruwala) brought a petition before India’s Supreme Court, urging it to release all political activists and scholars on the grounds that their arrests were a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen under Articles 14 and 21 of the constitution. The court refused the petition, although one of the three judges submitted a dissenting note. Activists and scholars have been subjected to cruelty and ill treatment and even denied medical care whilst awaiting trial in prison.
One such man is Professor Saibaba, an English professor at the Ram Lal Anand College of Delhi University who, despite suffering from polio as a child and being paralyzed from the waist down, was an active member of a number of social justice movements during the 1990s and spoke out against the governments war on the ‘Adivasis’ and their efforts to dispossess these indigenous people in order to extract natural resources from their lands. Modi’s government decided they needed to stifle his voice so, in 2013, a magistrate granted a search warrant for ‘stolen property’. 50 police officers then raided his home on the New Delhi campus. The courts eventually granted him bail in June 2015 but only after he’d spent well over a year behind bars and his health had significantly deteriorated. Professor Saibaba was then admitted to an intensive care ward suffering from multiple health issues but whilst he was undergoing treatment in hospital, a trial judge sentenced Saibaba to life in prison on March 2017.
Prison authorities at Nagpur prison, where Saibaba is being held, continue to deny him any medical care or even access to routine medication and only conceded to allow him the use of his wheelchair after he threatened to go on hunger strike. Saibaba has described his deteriorating health and constant pain in letters sent from prison.
Poet Varavara Rao, known for his eloquent and electrifying speeches and for an extensive body of work spanning over five decades, was arrested in November 2018. When he was arrested by the police, Rao was smiling and defiantly thrusting his fist in the air. However, the abuse that Rao has endured in prison over the last 2yrs has left him unable to walk and struggling to articulate words. Prison authorities eventually transferred him to hospital after a public outcry, where he then tested positive for COVID-19. After a short stint in hospital, although not fully recovered from neurological problems, Rao was returned to prison. His family have pleaded with the courts to allow him to be released on bail but, so far, all pleas have fallen on deaf ears and Rao’s health has continued to deteriorate.
What has become painfully obvious now is that Modi and the ultra-nationalist BJP will not permit the revolution to be televised and if any journalists dare to raise a critical voice then they risk immediate retribution in the form of abuse, incarceration or, worst still and as the record has shown, they can even risk losing their own lives.