Published in Newslaundry on Feb 18, 2021
We should not have been surprised that the Delhi police arrested a young environmental activist, Disha Ravi, on February 13 for helping put together a “toolkit” in support of the farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s new agriculture laws. An early warning that something like this might happen had been given by no less an authority than the prime minister himself.
Speaking in the parliament, Modi who spent their time protesting and agitating. The country needed to be protected from such “parjeevi”, or parasites, he declared. Narrowing the definition further he said it was the Foreign Destructive Ideology – FDI – to which such people adhered that posed a danger to the country.
As the columnist rightly observed, young Disha fits the definition perfectly. She is an “andolanjeevi”, in that she is known to participate in protests, particularly those connected to the environment and animal rights. As part of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s movement in India, Disha has been active in campaigns around climate change. And her link to an international movement sets her up to be part of Modi’s version of FDI.
Given this statement by the prime minister, it is not surprising that the Delhi police went ahead with their far-fetched conspiracy theory. They were following the playbook, or should we say “toolkit”, that has now been publicly endorsed by Modi. Whenever there is dissent, agitation, protests against the government, seek out “andolanjeevi” and spin a conspiracy theory about what they had planned. It doesn’t matter if they were even present when the supposed crime took place. Moreover, in this era of “atmanirbharta”, or self-reliance, any association with a “foreign” organisation automatically makes you a suspect.
The international conspiracy theory, or the omnipresent “foreign hand” from Indira Gandhi’s days, is nothing new in India’s political discourse. What is new, and ominous, is the determination with which it is being pursued by the government. Even young environmentalists, expressing their concern for what ought to be non-controversial, that is the advent of climate change, have now come on the radar.
While the media has still to fully unravel how the Delhi police zeroed in on this “toolkit” to fashion its case over the January 26 violence at the Red Fort, the most remarkable story of the last fortnight has to be the investigation by of Newslaundry into the Hindutva toolkit. This is not a figment of the imagination. The two journalists successfully infiltrated chat groups set up by the BJP’s Kapil Mishra and exposed how that toolkit works. It comes as no surprise, but is worrying because it functions with impunity, confident that there will be no case against the perpetrators of this hate machine.
The media will also have to think about the real import of the 113-hour raid by the Enforcement Directorate against the digital news platform NewsClick. Was this a one-off action? Or is it a precursor to more such moves against the dozen or so other independent digital platforms?
In a media landscape where much of the mainstream media is either choosing to remain uncritical or believes wholeheartedly in this government, the few spaces left for dissenting voices, for reports that seek to present what ordinary people feel, and to raise critical questions are on a handful of digital news platforms.
Over the last decade, digital news organisations such as NewsClick, Newslaundry, Wire, Scroll, News Minute and others have carved out a space that’s different, and far more independent, than the mainstream media. Even with their relatively meagre resources, they are often ahead of their larger, older counterparts in print.
In some ways, these platforms have become the equivalent of the smaller newspapers and magazines that were able to question the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency of 1975-77 despite censorship. They could do so because of their ownerships. They were either run by small trusts or by individuals who were prepared to take risks. In some senses, they were islands of independence in an authoritarian sea. Today, that is what some of these digital platforms represent.
Their existence is always precarious because of their financial structures. Yet, so far, they have survived and even grown, suggesting that there is a demand for an independent and courageous media.
Although there have been hints that the government plans to bring in regulation that will restrict and control these outlets, so far this has not happened. In fact, it was this possibility that led some of them to come together to form the last year with the aim to “help ensure the creation of a healthy and robust news ecosystem for the digital age”.
The challenge posed by these organisations is neither their size nor their reach. It is the fact that they can choose not to toe the government line, as much of the mainstream media is doing. And they can also report on matters that are ignored or overlooked by the legacy media.
As a result, these portals have created an invaluable digital record of recent people’s struggles such as the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act through late 2019 and early 2020, and the ongoing protests by farmers.
Furthermore, these reports and records are available to anyone outside the country looking for an independent account of such movements. Researchers as well as mainline media platforms abroad regularly cite work done by these digital platforms. That is something this government does not appreciate as currently anything critical written anywhere in the world about it is considered an international conspiracy to tarnish India’s image.
You would think that a party with such a comfortable majority in the parliament and with a leader who apparently remains popular despite disastrous policies – demonetisation, the new citizenship law, the manner in which the lockdown to check the spread of Covid was implemented – wouldn’t worry about these news outlets.
Yet, as the events since January 26 have shown, the government is rattled. Its totally illogical actions, culminating in the arrest of a 21-year-old climate activist for an imaginary “international conspiracy”, suggest precisely that.
This is why the few remaining independent spaces as well as independent journalists have something to worry about. For there is no doubt that this government has a clear strategy to silence or subvert independent and critical voices, as outlined by in Article 14.
One way to rein them in would be by mounting the kind of attack that was used against NewsClick where, as the editor pointed out in an interview with Caravan, the very process is the punishment. Organisations with little to fall back on in terms of finances can be finished by protracted court cases. It’s the simplest way of dealing with them.
The last two weeks have made it clear that it is not just “andolanjeevi” that need to be worried. Any media platform that dares to interrogate, expose, or simply do the job of honest newsgathering is being closely watched. What NewsClick went through could be the precursor for more such actions given the heightened and visible paranoia of this powerful government.