NEW DELHI ― Last week, policemen from Uttar Pradesh travelled to Delhi to summon Siddharth Varadarajan, a senior journalist and founding editor of The Wire, to a police station in Ayodhya on 14 April. That a global pandemic is afoot, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has banned all non-essential travel especially across state lines, did not seem to matter.
Ten days earlier, the UP Police had registered two FIRs against Varadarajan after he tweeted a remark made by Acharya Parmhans, the head of the Ayodhya temple trust , “Lord Ram would protect devotees from coronavirus,” and misattributed it to UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Varadarajan subsequently tweeted that he made an error and a correction was also made to the article in which the quote had appeared.
The UP Police’s action against Varadarajan comes at a time when the central and state governments have attacked the Indian media over its coverage of the coronavirus, and India drops further in the World Press Freedom Index.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Varadarajan says that he believes the policemen had come to arrest him, and discusses the far graver implications of the UP Police’s actions on free speech and Indian journalists. “The Covid crisis has become an excuse to double down on prejudices, authoritarian tendencies, secrecy, lack of transparency, and the use of communal politics to divide people,” he said.
“The Covid crisis has become an excuse to double down on prejudices, authoritarian tendencies...”
This would be nerve wracking at any time. How does it feel to get served summons in the time of coronavirus?
It was a bit surprising that they would consider the matter so urgent and pressing to send a posse of policemen all the way from Ayodhya just to serve summons to go to their police station. It was odd and I’m pretty convinced that the agenda they had in mind was not just a simple one of serving notice. I think they may have had other ideas of effecting an arrest. I wasn’t at home so Nandini (his wife) took the notice. We have spoken of the rest publicly.
Was it frightening?
The fact is that you always expect the state to exert pressure, politicians to exert pressure, and given the kind of noise they were making on social media one expected there would be some kind of move, especially after the FIR was registered. It was not unexpected. It was certainly not frightening. It should be seen as a wake up call for the media as a whole if you have state governments prioritise targeting the media at a time when even the Prime Minister has said that the only thing that governments should be doing is protecting people from the virus. It is a timely reminder to the media and to people at large about how vulnerable our democratic freedoms are.
“It is a timely reminder to the media and to people at large about how vulnerable our democratic freedoms are.”
There was not as much of a hullabaloo when the FIR (on 1 April) was registered as there was when the police came to summon you.
When the FIR was registered, that was widely reported and condemned by journalist organisations primarily, but in this country, cops register all kinds of FIRs. I suppose people did not imagine the government would be so brazen as to try to convert these FIRs into something they would try to effect an arrest on. People assumed that the Adityanath government had launched an attack on the press, but he did not intend to take it further. But when you send seven cops all the way at a time of the lockdown to demand the presence of an editor in Ayodhya ― knowing full well that he can’t be present ― that was intended to send an entirely different message and I think the media and civil society has correctly read that message.
The message is there will be no let up in the offensive against democratic rights and free speech.
It’s not just the government of UP. In Manipur, there is a case against a JNU scholar who had written an article critical of the Chief Minister’s policies with regard to Manipuri Muslims and they have proceeded against him. There has been an FIR registered against Prashant Bhushan in Gujarat for a tweet. So, there is no let up. I would even say that the onset of the pandemic and the lockdown is encouraging authoritarian state governments to resort to these kinds of tactics, knowing that it is more difficult to seek a remedy at a time like this.
“The message is there will be no let up in the offensive against democratic rights and free speech.”
You have called this “politically motivated.” Are you surprised that political biases, inclinations, differences and agendas have followed us from a pre-Covid world into a Covid world.
I would look at it this way. The Covid crisis has become an excuse to double down on prejudices, authoritarian tendencies, secrecy, lack of transparency, and the use of communal politics to divide people.
All the worst tendencies of Indian governance in the pre-coronavirus days have deepened. It doesn’t surprise me. It would have been great if the leadership at the Centre and the states had drawn the lesson that the pandemic is offering us ― for societies to deal with its problems openly, transparently, in a democratic fashion, treating all citizens as equals because the virus treats all citizens as equals. But frankly, all the worst tendencies of the ruling establishment have taken on even sharper features. This is a reality not just in India, but in many countries. The crisis has brought out the worst in some countries and allowed other governments to turn a leaf. By and large, it has deepened the crisis of democracy in those countries where democratic rights were already undermined.
“It would have been great if the leadership at the Centre and the states had drawn the lesson that the pandemic is offering us...”
And what about journalists? Are we able to leave our political biases, inclinations, differences from a pre-Covid world to assess how the government is handling the crisis.
Journalism is not about agreeing with someone or not. Journalism is about reporting what is happening on the ground and drawing people’s attention to the nature of government decision-making, the shortcomings if any, the advances if any. You have to accurately report for readers and viewers exactly what is happening. I don’t think whether being in agreement with or aligned with the government or not being in agreement with or not aligned with the government should make any difference in the nature of the reporting. If the state government in Rajasthan, which is ruled by a different party than the central government, if there is an issue that comes up there then we have to point it out. We should not be governed by someone’s political values. News is news. I don’t see the pandemic or any other crisis as a time when the media should suspend its critical faculties. The media has to be objective and ask questions to people in authority particularly when things have become even less transparent because of the lockdown. The duty of the media is to do its job without fear or favour. The media has a heightened responsibility at this time.
“We should not be governed by someone’s political values. News is news.”
You and The Wire have been hit by a defamation suit earlier…
Several, dozens, at least ten of them…
I was referring to the Jay Shah one. Does this case feel different?
This is the first time that a criminal case has been filed. We have had criminal defamation (the Jay Shah case), but that’s still part of defamation, so you don’t see it as major in the scale of crimes. The other cases are civil defamation. But this case is of an entirely different magnitude because they are alleging, the violation of serious sections of the IPC, violation of the Information Technology Act, violations of the Epidemic Diseases Act. Quite frankly, this is something new. They are going beyond what were the permissible bounds of criminalisation of the media. You could criminalise the media by alleging it as defamatory. You could then file a case and that was seen as part of the rules of the game. What they have done now is to actually go outside that circle and find new ways to harass and intimidate by filing these kinds of charges.
“They are going beyond what were the permissible bounds of criminalisation of the media.”
What’s the difference between the UP government trying to intimidate you, who are well-known and wield considerable influence, and someone like Pawan Kumar Jaiswal, who was slapped with an FIR for reporting poor children were served roti and salt in Mirzapur.
There is no difference. We are very clear that the intimidation against me or The Wire is not a stand alone event. It is a part and parcel of the attacks that are taking place on journalists for reporting whether it is in UP, Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir or Chhattisgarh. It is important to treat this as a broad offensive, but I suppose, in the eyes of many, if they are going after the editor of a publication then this represents an escalation. I suppose that would explain to some extent the depths of outrage. People in the wider profession feel unsafe.
Your ability to handle it is also more than Mr. Jaiswal’s.
Undoubtedly. Jaiswal’s is the one case we know about. There may be other cases in other states where cases are filed or people are intimidated in one way or another. It’s not just journalists, a whole bunch of individuals over the last few years, lay people, who have been proceeded against because of social media posts. This is all part of the chipping away of the free speech and media freedoms that have been going on for the past five or six years and it is essential that the fight against it also does not let up just because there could be relief in one or two cases. There is an underlying issue. Unless we demand that this stops, it may ebb and flow, but it will resurface and carry on.
After 10 defamation suits, does it get easier to process and handle the situation.
People react in different ways. For me, the only concern is that this is just a waste of time. I’m not fazed by a new case, but the fact is that you have to look at legal briefs, you have to do a certain amount of paperwork, there are logistics that are involved. In this country, it is not easy to deal with litigation. The whole idea is to punish you with process. I resent being dragged through unnecessary process. There were defamation cases filed against me when I was editor of The Hindu going back to 2012 or 2013, and I believe those may have been stayed, but they are still lingering on the docket. These cases never go away. They always remain as a source of harassment, as a source of intimidation, as a source of bother. That’s the concern. All of this detracts you from spending time doing the things we love, which is journalism.
“The whole idea is to punish you with process.”
So it does take a mental toll.
Not a mental toll, it takes your time.
What did you make of the letter from the Editors Guild? It was mostly about the Supreme Court’s observations on the media covering Covid 19, and then two lines about the summons against you.
I think it was important for the Editors Guild to take note of what had happened. The Editors Guild is an important body of journalists in this country. A condemnation of what had happened was needed from them. Whether they took two lines or ten doesn’t matter. I hope as the case proceeds and if there are escalations, the Editors Guild continues raising its voice.
200 journalists signed a statement supporting you, but there is no denying that there are journalists who feel you had it coming or may even be gleeful. Do you find it sad that we have become so (ideologically) divided that it gets in the way of making a joint stand.
It is regrettable that somebody would allow ideological or political differences of opinion to get in the way of being clear about law. To my mind, what has happened to me at the hands of a BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, if there is a pro BJP journalist who is very pleased about this, he or she shall reflect on the fact that people like him or her could be subjected to similar treatment by other kinds of state governments. If we allow the Indian political legal system to target journalists in this fashion, then who is to say which government, governed by which ideology, will target who tomorrow. We know that in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Kerala or Jammu and Kashmir, state governments of different political views have targeted people of different political opinions.
I remember going on Twitter when this actor Payal Rohtagi, who said some pretty crazy things about (Jawaharlal) Nehru and there was a criminal case and she had to spend three or four days in lockup, I publicly defended her and condemned the Rajasthan (Congress) government for what it did. For me, what she said, and whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant because proceeding against her in this fashion was a complete abuse of the law. When something like this happens, you don’t look at the politics of the government or the politics of the victim , you have to take a stand on principle in the sense of free speech, and in the sense of media freedom when a journalist is involved. It is regrettable that some people in our fraternity do not look at it like that.
“When something like this happens, you don’t look at the politics of the government or the politics of the victim, you have to take a stand on principle.”
I was hearing a discussion on Swarajya that seemed to say that the summons against you was comeuppance for drawing a “false equivalence” between what happened with the Tablighi Jamaat and Yogi Adityanath going to Ayodhya to move the Ram Lalla idol, which was not a public gathering.
You could argue that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering was not public in the sense that you and I were not there. The people who were there were invitees. There were Tablighis. The people who were there at this Ayodhya event were temple people, Adityanath’s entourage, other officials. It was a violation of lockdown norms. No one had a mask on. For him to have done that after the lockdown was announced shows scant regard for the social distancing norms. There is nothing false at all by pointing out that both of these gatherings were irresponsible gatherings.
When Yogi Adityanath’s media advisor Mrityunjay Kumar tweeted about the FIR on 1 April, he also made a remark about how you would not only have to ask donations for The Wire, but also for a lawsuit. Did you think that was appropriate?
I honestly haven’t given it much thought. I think it is an odd thing to say. In fact, my colleague tweeted yesterday that unwittingly the media advisor to Yogi Adityanath has emerged as a fundraiser for The Wire.
The Wire misattributed the quote and it took a while of time to fix it. What happened?
These things happen. When it was brought to my notice the next day, we put a correction in the story and the tweet.
You issued a correction. Why the insistence by the UP government that you delete the tweet and apologise.
I don’t know. There are two schools of thought on whether you should delete tweets or not. If you delete, they say you are destroying evidence. My view is that if you commit an error then you post a correction below. We believe we are following the best practices around the world. When errors are noticed, you correct them and you correct them in a way that the record is still available for readers.
What did you make of the Supreme Court’s order saying there can be no interference with how the media reports the coronavirus crisis, but also asking the media to cite the government version of events.
The Supreme Court’s order was unfortunate because it was based on the false premise that the exodus of migrants was caused by fake news. This was a claim the (central) government made in its oral pleadings, it did not make it in writing. It is an astonishing claim that has no factual basis. Fortunately, the court did not accept the government’s demand that there be some kind of pre-censorship. But journalists don’t need to be told that when you are doing a story to check what the official version is. That’s all it is, the official version. We are journalists because we subject the official version to scrutiny. Otherwise what’s the difference between a newspaper and a government gazette.
Do you think the government contributed to communalising Tablighi Jamaat?
I think the excessive fixation reeks of it, but I haven’t subjected it to a close study. Even if the government was not involved in active communalisation, the fact that it has become communalised is as clear as day. This communal virus has spread so far and wide. I think it requires the intervention of the Prime Minister, who revels in the idea that people listen to him. It would be important for someone of his level to tell people that all these hashtags that people are circulating about ‘Muslim virus’ and so on is damaging not just the country and national unity, but will also undermine the fight against the coronavirus.
Did you ever imagine that you would be booked under the Epidemic Diseases Act?
Not even in my most feverish state.