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India keeps going after journalists like me. As Modi visits the U.S., it’s time to hold him accountable

  73 comments   |     by Rana Ayyub

On Sept. 7, a right-wing organization called the Hindu IT Cell filed a complaint against me with the police in Uttar Pradesh accusing me of misappropriating funds and tax evasion. The police promptly opened an investigation and booked me, just like I was booked in June on charges of creating communal disharmony, all for sharing a tweet.

The baseless accusations by the Hindu IT Cell — which stem from my work raising funds for victims of covid-19 — are meant to discredit me in the eyes of my readers and the country. The complaint has been reported as fact by numerous news outlets. This is because the group is very influential, followed on social media by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost his entire cabinet. It is known for targeting journalists and members of marginalized communities. Stamping out dissent is its main objective. A recent tweet read: “Hindus must remember ‘There is more power in unity than division.’ “

The “first information report” against me filed by the Hindu IT Cell was preceded by numerous interrogations from government agencies and the freezing of my bank accounts. The complaint alleges, without providing any evidence, that I didn’t use the money collected through an online platform. But I had given a check for $130,000 to a New Delhi hospital that was building a children’s ward ahead of a third wave of the coronavirus. The hospital management — under political pressure — returned the check, citing concerns over my criticism of the government. All the money, including the amount returned from the hospital, has now been redirected to other causes and is in the process of transfer. A big portion was paid in taxes, leaving less for the needy. Not a rupee has been misused.

But that’s not really the point, is it?

The accusations over the donated funds are the latest chapter in a months-long campaign to silence and discredit me. Ever since I began to report and speak up about India’s terrible mismanagement of the pandemic, I’ve been asked questions about my “international connections” and the supposed large sums of money I receive for writing for international publications. I’m routinely accused of trying to discredit Modi’s image on the global stage. But over the past month I’ve barely written or reported, because all my energy has gone to battling the latest accusations and clearing my name. I guess that was always the goal, and putting me in this position is the punishment.

Whenever I get a push to keep fighting, something new happens. On Sept. 14, a Twitter handle accused my father of being drunk and soliciting prostitutes. The tweet went viral among supporters of the ruling party — in part because a party spokesperson shared the defamatory and salacious post. After years of trying to defame me (a doctored porn video of me was widely circulated among Modi and BJP fan pages in 2018), now they’re going after my 75-year-old father. Recently, the amount of rape and death threats I receive has increased, but the police is no longer investigating them. Instead, the government deploys its agents to further intimidate me.

Of course I’m not the only one. Just in the past two months the Modi government has raided the offices of NewsClick, Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar and other publications that have been critical. Finance and tax investigations are also often involved. On Sept. 8, the Supreme Court gave two months protection to the news site the Wire after the police in Uttar Pradesh filed complaints against it for spreading “false information.”

The offices of actor Sonu Sood and human rights activist Harsh Mander, who has worked tirelessly during the covid crisis in India, have also been raided. Mander is responsible for starting a movement called the Karwan-e-Mohabbat (or Caravan of Love) to get justice for victims of mob lynching in India and to question the draconian policies of the government. When Mander left for Germany for a fellowship on Sept. 15, the Enforcement Directorate raided his office and a children’s shelter home started by him. 

I highlight these abuses as President Biden and the United Nations prepare to host the Indian prime minister. Will the world develop amnesia over Modi’s attacks on the free press and dissent in India?

Biden has made human rights the focal point of his foreign policy. But on India and many other fronts he has looked the other way. I now write knowing my words have consequences — but not the kind you might expect in a so-called vibrant democracy.

I will continue to fight accusations. Newsrooms and critics will continue to do so as well. Students will be jailed while hatemongers receive roaring applause from adoring crowds. Right now all I have is my truth, my name and my ability to speak up. At least that’s all I have for now.

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