The Audacity to
Late in the afternoon on 11 August 2020, three journalists working with The Caravan, an independent news publication based out of New Delhi, were brutally attacked by a Hindu mob while reporting in North East Delhi.
Late in the afternoon on 11 August 2020, three journalists working with The Caravan, an independent news publication based out of New Delhi, were brutally attacked by a Hindu mob while reporting in Subhash Mohalla, in North East Delhi’s North Ghonda neighbourhood. On 5 August 2020 – the day of the bhoomi pujan for the construction of Ayodhya’s much contested Ram Mandir – many Hindus celebrated in public space across the city. Saffron flags were hoisted, diyas lit and fire crackers burst. After nightfall, in Lane 2 of Subhash Mohalla, saffron flags appeared at the entrance of the street, which led up to a mosque. Residents also allege to have overheard ‘communally charged’ rallying cries.
The three journalists were in the neighbourhood for follow-up reporting on a story they had published the day before. When they started taking photos of the saffron flags tied in the locality, a mob of about fifty to one hundred local residents surrounded and assaulted them. Shahid Tantray, assistant photo editor at The Caravan, was asked to show his ID card. When they realised he was Muslim, he was badly beaten, threatened with murder and had communal slurs hurled at him. The situation escalated to such a degree that journalist Prabhjit Singh, who was present at the scene with Tantray, said that had he not been there, ‘the mob led by that saffron-clad man would have lynched Shahid for his Muslim identity.’ This saffron-clad man from the mob identified himself as a BJP ‘general secretary’ and told the journalists, ‘I have seen many wretched journalists like you. I am a BJP general secretary, you can’t do anything to us.’
Tantray recounted at a press conference on 13 August that when they reached the police station, a senior cop declared to him, ‘Azadi was given [to India] in 1947, but we got our true azadi five to seven years ago.’ Tantray asked – like any curious journalist would – what he meant by such a statement. The policeman elaborated, ‘This is azadi. People are saying what they want. People are beating up whoever they want.’
Hindu women in the mob threatened to break the camera the journalists were using. Tantray offered to delete all the photographs he had taken. When the mob persisted with their threats, Tantray was forced to give up the camera’s memory card. With that card, the stories Tantray and Singh had captured were lost – crushed under the boots of the cruel mob. ‘[The women] strangled me with the strap of the camera while others hit me,’ Tantray explained afterwards in a press conference held at the Press Club of India in New Delhi on 13 August. In a statement, Tantray wrote, without mincing words, ‘It is a difficult time to be a Muslim in India and it is a menacing time to be a journalist reporting on the majoritarian violence that this Hindu nationalist regime has birthed […] My colleagues at The Caravan and I will continue doing the only thing we can—to report the truth and not be the mouthpiece of any political party.’
The third journalist present that day with Tantray and Singh was a woman. She has chosen to remain anonymous. First, she was sexually harassed, and when she tried to flee her attacker, members of the mob followed her, and hit her. On 13 August, she released a powerful statement with regard to the attack, ‘This incident won’t deter me from pursuing many more stories like this,’ she said, adding, ‘I am not afraid.’ She had been a regular visitor to the neighbourhood, researching a story on the assault of two Muslim women and a teenager, whose assailants were policemen of the Bhajanpura police station (the same police station whose officers now refuse to file an FIR regarding the attack on the three journalists, despite them submitting a detailed complaint regarding the same).
In her statement the journalist reminds us of the bravery of the women who were molested by the policemen, and she recounts how even the young girl was ‘not afraid of speaking out the truth.’ She reminds us how this is a great courage, and especially highlights how in the face of the attack, it was the Muslim women residents of North Ghonda who came to her aid, asking the Hindu mob to stop their violent abuse. ‘I urge all the journalists out there, who are not afraid of taking on this increasingly fascist government, to report more on Muslims of North East Delhi and document their bravery.’ Hers is a call to arms that we must indeed take seriously.
These are critical stories that the mainstream media has altogether ignored. The reporting done by such courageous journalists should be celebrated for the insight and texture it brings to our understanding of the violence in New Delhi. That journalists of their calibre were attacked with such impunity is shocking and deeply worrying. An event of such intensity, to have taken place in the national capital, symbolises a devastating truth: there are no press freedoms in India.
Press freedoms in India have never been made absolute. The Indian Constitution does not outline any special protections to maintain the freedom of the press, but journalists are thinly protected under the – highly conditional – right to freedom of speech and expression.
When press freedoms are not recognised as an absolute and fundamental right; when journalists who are only asking questions are threatened and beaten – their right to explore and to follow their curiosity, for not only the truth but also complexity and nuance, is forcibly taken away. The stories these three journalists have been bravely covering are anything but trivial; they are, instead, the wheels upon which a healthy democracy functions. They have been painstakingly recording experiences, Hindu or Muslim, culprit or victim. In doing so, they offer critiques of our country’s governance grounded in human experience. Few things are more precious to an informed electorate.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, also addressed the Press Club of India about the incident. He said how it is important for us to understand exactly what has led us up to the moment of this attack. Our current government and administration cannot abide by a media that critically examines its role, or that holds it accountable for its actions: a media that does so is already considered to be ‘anti-national’. By this logic, the three journalists were, Bal explains, ‘anti-national people wandering on to a street which is owned by nationalists. Their flags profess their nationalism, their political affiliation professes their nationalism.’ That Tantray is Muslim is a key layer of his assumed anti-nationalism. According to Bal, it is the very element of the story that ‘triggers off the curses, the violence, the accusations’; that a woman is present among the journalists, is an added provocation of gender. The mob is ‘aggravated by the audacity of a media wanting to go there and report on them… to question them.’
Asking questions, is indeed what the three journalists had been doing till long after it was safe to do so. Before the violent attack against them began, a Hindu man asked them why they were in Subhash Mohalla. Tantray told him that they were working on a story involving the saffron flags. The man replied, ‘What’s the problem with putting up saffron flags?’ Tantray then offered to interview him, asking, ‘Can you say that for me on camera?’
Journalism, when done right, does not omit. It includes. It says, ‘Can you say that for me on camera?’
Under the watchful eyes of the Hindu Nationalist government, there is no place for stories that imagine a different India, or that lament a lost one. In contemporary India, telling real stories about the pain of ordinary citizens pushed to the fringes of society is considered to be anti-national. Then, in the tranquil ignorance of not having to imagine the pain of others, we can light diyas, bang on plates and rejoice over our fascist government.
Speaking at the Press Club of India on 13 August was also novelist, activist and journalist Arundhati Roy, who began her address by saying how she has been present in that same room many times previous, but how so many of the people who have sat next to her in the past are now in prison. Her remark points to just how many casualties this state-mobilised assault on a free press has left in its wake, and just how many of our brave reporters, thinkers and academics have been wrongfully incarcerated. Roy also said how what is essentially a ‘hate-feud’ has been converted into ‘actionable public policy that includes the annihilation of every kind of opposition.’
Roy articulated how fascist regimes are led by, and pivoted upon, successful propaganda mechanisms, and how in India today, this propaganda mechanism is the mainstream. In such a climate, she pointed toward the fundamental need for independent news organizations like The Caravan and The Wire, and others, and how they are holding up pinholes of light in our dark times. To take away their clarity, Roy said, is the same as someone visiting a prison and saying, ‘Oh, you have a little skylight up there, let me just nail it in.’ We must actively resist this erasure of our stories, and preserve our few skylights. Someday, armed with audacious questions, we will tear down the prison walls.