Journalist Siddique Kappan given a Standing Ovation in Kolkata
The audience gave Siddique Kappan, the journalist from Kerala who was imprisoned without trial for 28 months on dubious charges, a standing ovation on his first public interaction outside Kerala
You call this freedom, asked Siddique Kappan to a packed auditorium in Kolkata. The journalist from Kerala was speaking to an invited audience for the first-time outside Kerala after his release on bail.
He was released on bail in February this year after spending nearly three years in jail (851 days to be precise). His crime? He was travelling to Hathras from new Delhi to cover the uproar following the hurried midnight cremation of a Dalit girl raped and assaulted by men from her own village she had named. She had succumbed to her injuries and trauma at the Safdarjung hospital in New Delhi.
But Kappan was stopped at Meerut and detained by Uttar Pradesh police. He was interrogated by central agencies, sometimes by multiple agencies nine or ten times a day, repeating the same questions. No food, water or toilet were provided in the initial days. A bucket was kept in the room for him to relieve himself.
The questions he was asked made it clear to him that there was no case against him. The clueless policemen asked how many times he had visited Pakistan (his reply: he had never travelled beyond Indian Punjab); Did he eat beef? (he did eat both beef and pork); did he know Urdu and Arabic (he did know a bit of Urdu) and was he from JNU (he had flunked the entrance test to JNU). Did he know Zakir Naik? Was he a member of the Democratic Students Union? Was he a Maoist? A communist? Did he have a girlfriend? Well, no, no and no.
He was also asked why he wanted to report on the particular rape and murder at Hathras. Didn’t rape and such tragedies happen everywhere every day?
His answers did not matter because the dreaded Enforcement Directorate (ED) booked him for money laundering, ostensibly to fund terrorist activities. Kappan wryly recalled that the ED’s case was based on five thousand Rupees credited to a friend’s bank account.
Kappan believes he was targeted because as secretary of the Delhi unit of the Kerala Union of Journalists he had been part of anti-RSS and anti-BJP protests ever since the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru in 2017 and in protests against Delhi riots etc.
Now out on bail after 28 months in prison, Kappan laments at the ‘freedom’ he has been allowed by the court. Every Monday he has to report to the local police station in Mallapuram, his home district in Kerala, and every fortnight he has to travel to Lucknow by train to make his appearance before the court mandated by the Supreme Court of India.
“Kerala to Lucknow by train takes me three days each way. Three days to go, three days to return, two days in Lucknow,” he recalled without any trace of emotion in his voice. Nor did he speak of the expenses incurred. You call this freedom? The process is the punishment. He still feels he is in jail. “I am still in jail, an open jail this time,” he quipped.
This was the first time he was interacting with people at large outside his home state of Kerala. The event on Sunday, July 16, was organised by People’s Film Collective, which facilitates interactions of people with filmmakers, authors and activists.
Kappan was arrested in October 2020 first under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Information Technology Act, and later under Sections 3 (offence of money laundering) and 4 (punishment for money laundering) of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
“Indian mainstream media has now become side stream and does only PR work for the government. There are exceptions. But now the only hope is alternative independent media. Else we will turn into Myanmar or Afghanistan,” said the former Azhimukham journalist.
His wife Raihana Siddique also spoke at the event, addressing the audience in Malyalam, which was translated into English by her husband. “I did not give up, not only because he was my husband but also because he was trying to report on the brutality inflicted on a helpless girl. If journalists like Kappan don’t go to Hathras, then who will come to report if something were to happen to my daughters or yours?”
Siddique Kappan’s hour-long talk was ‘as moving as it was scary’, recalls Kasturi Basu, one of the founders of People’s Film Collective. She told National Herald, “Kappan’s story is a reminder of the ongoing attacks on journalists and the impunity with which the government has weaponised the UAPA to punish people it doesn’t like with imprisonment without trial.”
The Calcutta audience gave Kappan and his wife a standing ovation. His words continue to resonate with many of them as they recall him saying, “Don’t forget anything. One tool works best against fascism: it is memory. We must remember everything that has happened to us”.
The imprisonment has also been a blessing. It has helped him overcome fear.