The news about a police team from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh presenting themselves at the home of Siddharth Varadrajan, one of the founding editors of The Wire, on Friday is a matter of concern. The group travelled 700 km from Ayodhya to Delhi in an SUV during the 21-day lockdown to contain the coronavirus, apparently to perform the “essential service” of serving a summons to Varadrajan for making an allegedly objectionable remark about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.
It was clearly an attempt to intimidate Varadrajan, whose news website is perceived to be critical of the present regime. But more than that, it is a blatant attack on the people’s right to know.
It is quite extraordinary that the Uttar Pradesh government placed this task on the top of its list of priorities and put several police officers at grave risk by making them travel together in an SUV in a time in which physical distancing is insisted upon legally. People are being rounded up and even punished if found to be violating lockdown norms.
Business as usual
While the government has demanded that we suspend all our normal activities, it continues with business as usual, going after after journalists, writers and human rights activists, intimidating them by implicating them in criminal cases, arresting them if possible and disabling them from doing their duty.
When the single-point agenda of all the government agencies is to enforce this lockdown, a task that requires deployment of all resources, for a group of officers to knock on the door of an editor is an act we cannot keep silent about. It is not only about Varadarajan. It is about how we as a democratic and civilised society will ride out this pandemic.
To survive the crisis, we need journalists to keep us informed about what is happening. People need information about everything – and not only from state sources, which often seek to conceal more than they reveal. We need to know about the scale of the spread of the infection, about the government’s preparedness to protect the people, about how the state is responding to the pandemic.
The alternative media
Varadarajan believes that the job of a newsperson is to report and help readers understand the situation so that they can make informed decisions and have critical conversations. The tribe to which Varadarajan belongs is now known as the “alternative media”. It mostly works on the internet. Yet, it has become a force to reckon with and a voice of conscience that the state does its best to ignore. This alternative media keeps puncturing the narrative forged by the mainstream media in favour of the government and the state.
The situation is especially dire in the Hindi-speaking areas. The Hindi media has become a source not only of misinformation but also disinformation. Since the time of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1990s, it has created and deepened the biases and hatred against the minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.
Portals like The Wire and Scroll.in disturb these status quoist attitudes. When the mainstream media was hellbent on presenting the Tablighi Jamat – and by extension, all Indian Muslims – as the chief source of the coronavirus spreading in India, Varadarajan pointed out the event at the Markaz in Delhi’s Nizamuddin was not the only irresponsible gathering at the time: Hindu religious leaders were also planning a large Ram Navami congregation in Ayodhya. (The plan was called off on March 21.)
These are facts. There are photographs and statements. How does reporting them or criticising them become a potentially criminal act?
It is also a fact that Varadrajan in a tweet on March 31 mistakenly attributed a statement that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus to Chief Minister Adityanath thought it had actually been made by Paramhans, the head of the Ayodhya Ram Temple Trust. Varadrajan later clarified that the quote had been wrongly attributed to Adiyanath and The Wire article to which he was referring was also corrected.
That the Uttar Pradesh government thought it fit to lodge a criminal case against the journalist even after this makes it amply clear that its intent is malafide. Besides, this error, corrected later, was irrelevant to the main point of the article, that irresponsibility was not a sole prerogative of the Tablighi Jamat.
The Uttar Pradesh government seems to believe that one of the most important tasks at this moment is to shut the mouths of these reporters and critics – which would mean shutting the eyes of the people.
Noam Chomsky once said that the job of the intellectual is not to speak truth to the power because the power knows the truth. It is the people who don’t know. They need to be told the truth. That is what Benaras journalist Vijay Vineet was doing when he wrote about Musahars surviving on wild grass and shrubs. He was served notice by the district administration for doing so. Just before I wrote this, I read about the arrest of Mohammad Chingiz Khan, a PhD Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University for a republished article about the persecution that Pangals or Manipuri Muslims are facing, and the detentions of at least four others in the state for question the BJP-led government’s handling of the crisis.
Shockingly, Varadrajan has been asked to appear before the authorities in Ayodhya on April 14, when the lockdown will still be in force. Why this rush? One cannot forget that the day of arrest of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha is also inching closer. These respected activists have been accused of being part of a conspiracy to instigate Dalits to riot in Maharashtra in 2018 and to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though Teltumbde and Nvlakha are not reporters, they also present a picture of society to people that the state would rather have hidden.
Unfortunately, the long period of collusion between majoritarian politics and the mainstream media has created a public that no longer wants to be informed. Viewers and readers are so enamored of the current government’s claims, they are offended by what they view as “negative news”. It is seen as an obstacle in the path of the making of a new nation. And yet, there is a discerning audience for such information. For them, the reportage and perspectives of the alternative media are vital. It is critical for such people to rise against the blatant attacks on independent sources of information.
Apoorvanand is a professor in the Hindi Department, Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi.