When the State attacks: Journalists under fire
Those who dare speak truth to power, don't just have to face a physical problem, a death threat but mental agony that no one talks about. They are made to feel like criminals, their families harassed
On the 8th of April, journalist Rana Ayyub gave the keynote speech at the International Journalism festival in Italy. She was in conversation with Julie Posetti, director of Research at ICFJ and she spoke about majoritarianism, Hindu fundamentalism and the attack on independent journalism in India. Edited excepts from her keynote address:
To get here, to this venue, and to Italy, I had no idea that I would be detained at the airport. I had to go to the Delhi High Court to get permission to fly out of the country as if I was some kind of fugitive. And then when I reached the airport for the second time, I was detained again despite a court order, and I was made to sit. A lot of Indians are familiar with me and my work, so they were taking pictures saying, “Oh! She’s detained again” because I was on the front page of all newspapers.
I am a Global Opinions Writer at the Washington Post. I am a journalist who happens to be a Muslim, who was born with a Polio in the left hand and the right leg. So, I was a cripple and I was miraculously cured. When I was 9, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Bombay. I was 9 and my sister was 15. A mob was getting to our house and we were saved in the nick of a time by a Sikh gentleman. That’s the first time, when I was 9, that I heard the word ‘refugee’ and a ‘Muslim’ being used explicitly for me. I had been made aware of my religious identity at a very early stage in my life. 10 years later I was in Gujarat, which was then presided over then by the present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He was then the Chief Minister when a thousand Muslims were butchered in 3 days under his watch.
I went there as a relief worker. I was only 19 and that’s when I decided I had to do something because I had to stop feeling helpless. When you were a child with a handicap, there’s so much sympathy that comes your way. I wanted to get rid of that sympathy and I wanted to speak my truth and that of the people in the country who had witnessed injustices for decades and that’s the reason why I got into journalism.
After a couple of initial gigs on television, I joined this publication called Tehelka, where my investigation sent the Home Minister of the state behind bars for extra-judicial murder of Muslims; that man now happens to be the second most important man in India. His name is Amit Shah, he is the Home Minister of the country.
So, after I did the investigation, I went undercover! I went undercover as this Hindu-American girl with a fake name, a fake identity and a fake American accent, with 8 cameras on my body. This was in 2010. I infiltrated the rank and file of the state government. For 8 months, I did a sting operation on all the top guys in the administration, where they spoke the truth about the genocide of the Muslims and the extrajudicial murder of Muslims. When I came back to my organization, they refused to publish the story citing political pressure. I was just 26 then.
It was a lot for a journalist to take, to put her in jeopardy, and for her investigation to not be published. I went through a lot including a nervous breakdown and that’s when I started seeing a psychiatrist. I went to every journalism organization back in the day and they refused to publish and then I went to publishers saying can you try to publish the transcript of the tape of my sting operation; and they said, “It’s too risky a book!”
So, Mom had some gold kept for me, like back in India it’s a tradition that when you are about to get married, the family gives gold. So, she had kept some gold for my marriage. So, I pawned the gold, took a gold loan, and self-published my book which was called Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up. There was no media coverage but social media, which too has been weaponized against us, has also democratized the space for us to speak. It became a great platform for my book to be an international bestseller; selling 750,000 copies in 14 languages. But, the courts in India have still not taken or asked me for my tapes for investigation.
After Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister, I became an independent freelance journalist because editors who wanted to offer me a job before 2014, now pretended I do not exist. Friends who would meet me for coffee in the cafeteria would prefer to meet me at home because they did not want to be seen with me in public.
Why is that? Because, I chose to tell a truth without sugar-coating it, unlike what you see of well-meaning people these days who refuse to call fascists by their name, who refused to call dictators by their name, who refused to call demagogues by their name. That’s what I am trying to do and that’s what many unsung journalists in India are trying to do right now in the face of everyday persecution of the Indian minority which is about 220 million. The third-largest population of Muslims in the world, where the Prime Minister of India, himself issues dog whistles against the Muslim community.
Yesterday, a Hindu Priest, in front of a massive crowd, asked the crowd to rape and abduct Muslim women. And cops were present and they didn’t do a thing. This is everyday life for each one of us. One of the reasons why the Prime Minister of India and his agencies did not want me to board the aircraft is because I am one of those journalists who are speaking this raw truth that the world needs to know. The world needs to act now!
When Kamala Harris was elected as VicePresident, we expected her as somebody of Indian origin to speak up. The world is silent about what’s happening in India because you want to have a strategic relationship with India viz-a-viz China. So, you ignore what’s happening in India. You cannot afford to ignore what’s happening in India. The Muslims in this country are at the cusp of a genocide and none of the journalists can afford to look away. If you look away, each one of us is complicit.
I stand here, not just as a journalist but also as a Muslim citizen who feels persecuted. I don’t know what will happen once I go back. I have been called by the investigating agency back again as soon as I land. I don’t know if I am going to be arrested.
Just before I got here on the 1st of April 2022, the investigating agencies that had gone completely silent, sent a summon to me after immigration officers detained me at the airport. While I was at the airport, the investigating agency sent me a summon while I was sitting there. I felt humiliated and had an anxiety attack.
I was at the Enforcement Directorate after three years. I was there at 10 in the morning and I left at 10 in the night, for 12 hours they made me sit on the 1st of April. I had an anxiety attack, I spoke to a psychiatrist and popped in three anti-psychotic pills but there was no empathy.
So many of us who speak truth to power, do not just have to face a physical problem, a physical death threat but the mental agony that no one talks about. When I was detained, the second time over, it felt like…I can’t explain, I can’t explain!
I was sitting in front of the investigating officer and she was asking me for details of a $3 bill for my food. They are trying to humiliate you; they are trying to trivialize everything that’s associated with you. I’m proud of the fact that the government is scared of my words because somewhere it’s impacting them, my truth is impacting them.
I would not like for me to be admired by any political party in India. Over my persecution, no political party in India has stood up in solidarity with me and I take it as a badge of honour – that no political party can ever, ever say this that I reported in their favour. There is an unpopular truth that each one of us must speak and I am here to speak that truth.
Just before I got here, on the morning that I boarded the flight, I had to be at the Enforcement Directorate, the agency that’s investigating me. I went to the agency and I had to submit a bond and I sent the e-mails informing this is where I would be staying (itinerary) like fugitives do, like criminals do. So, I sent all my details and my itinerary and I came back home, I was putting all my clothes in the bag, so much so that I did not even carry winter clothes with me while I was coming here, forgetting that I am going to a cold country.
But, at some point, I just broke down and my father came to me. My father has dementia, he has had two brain haemorrhages and he is also being accused of aiding and abetting my alleged money laundering and so is my sister, who is a housewife.
I have put my entire family in jeopardy with my journalism. A lot of my friends and well-meaning colleagues say, why don’t you take a step back and why don’t you just relax for your health. The unfortunate bit is I don’t have the luxury of taking a step back. I don’t have the luxury of staying silent because my country and my people need me and there are so many of them who have placed their absolute trust and faith in me and I cannot betray their faith.
Some people send me emails that they have named their daughters after me, how do I betray their faith? I can’t. It’s not a choice, I was never given a choice in my life to do this or do that. I was just born the way I am. I was just not given the privilege of choice but I am standing here and that is a big privilege. I am standing in your midst and that is a huge privilege.
I have been accorded the privilege of delivering the keynote speech, a privilege that the young journalists in my country do not have; which is why I speak on their behalf as well. Young journalists who just four days ago at a Hindu Rally, where they were out there to cover hate speech against Muslims, were beaten up, called Jihadis, and the cops filed complaints against the journalists. That’s the India, I am coming from.
It is going to be tough. When I go back there are going to be repercussions. But I think history, whenever it’s written, will record the unpopular truth and some of us and our work will be recorded.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)