In late February 2020, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread across the world, Delhi burned.
Shouting slogans while wielding guns, swords, iron rods, and stones, mobs of Hindus and Muslims turned parts of northeast Delhi into a warzone. Homes were destroyed, shops and cars scorched. A body was found in a canal with head injuries; another was stabbed several times. Many were shot, and some had their limbs cut. At least fifty-three people, more Muslims than Hindus, were killed.
The riots occurred after months of peaceful protests throughout India against a new citizenship law that was seen as discriminatory against Muslims. Demonstrations in the capital had become especially tense.
On February 23, a day before the riots broke out, a junior leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) issued a call to violence against protesters, many of whom were Muslim women, in a Delhi locality. In the inflammatory speech, Kapil Mishra, whose followers had come out in large numbers in northeast Delhi, gave an ultimatum to the police: if they did not remove these “traitors” within three days, his people would take matters in their own hands.
What happened next would leave its mark both on the journalists covering the riots and on press freedom in India.
On February 24, Fatima Khan, a reporter with the news website The Print, was reporting with a colleague from one of the areas where fighting had begun. At one point, she found herself suddenly surrounded by a group of women who seemed to be part of a larger crowd of government supporters. “Who are you? What are you doing here? What is your name?” some of the women asked Khan, shaking her arm violently.
Khan’s colleague Urjita Bhardwaj, a Hindu, took charge and showed her press card as identification, while Khan stood quietly. Bhardwaj answered for her Muslim colleague: “Mira.” (A Hindu name.)
A man from the crowd looked suspiciously at Khan because she hadn’t spoken up. To her surprise, he offered them food, led them calmly through the streets, and warded off other men who approached them. Khan was terrified because though he was being helpful, she knew he was onto them.
By this point, full-blown rioting had broken out in Maujpur, Jaffrabad, and other working-class parts of northeast Delhi that would only end several days later. The Delhi police, which is controlled by the central government, was later accused of standing by and even helping Hindu mobs. While the rioting was going on, Modi, whose BJP has been in power since 2014, was hosting Donald Trump on his first visit to India as U.S. president.
The Delhi riot was one of the worst instances of religious violence in India in recent years, but it was preceded by growing anti-Muslim bigotry in Indian public life—a trend that accelerated after the BJP was re-elected in May 2019. Emboldened by that victory, the BJP has moved swiftly to enact its far-right agenda. A few months into its second term, it revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which was India’s only Muslim-majority state, and enforced a brutal military crackdown. Soon after, the Supreme Court allowed a temple to be built on a disputed site where a famous mosque had stood before it was demolished in 1992 by Hindu extremists egged on by BJP leaders. In December 2019, the government passed the citizenship law that spurred mass protests. The legislation guarantees Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from neighboring countries; critics fear it could be used to disenfranchise Indian Muslims, who constitute about 14 percent of the population. (Hindus comprise 80 percent.)
These moves are seen as steps toward the establishment of a Hindu nation-state in India, a cherished dream of the radical movement that powers the BJP. The aim is to transform Hinduism—a diverse collection of castes, sects, and communities—into a homogenous, masculine monolith amenable to its ideology, which regards Muslims as archenemies. Resistance to this movement is rapidly weakening as the crackdown on it grows more severe.
Though India remains a nominally secular nation, Islamophobic rhetoric and other forms of discrimination are being normalized. Hate crimes against Muslims are rising. Radicalization is visible across institutions like the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, and the military, as well as in drawing rooms and on the internet.
No institution better exemplifies the transformation of India under the BJP than the media. Many newspapers, news channels, and online media outlets have become government cheerleaders. The Modi administration relies on them to push an image of power and competence, even as India’s economic performance has suffered under the BJP. Instead of subjecting the governing party to basic journalistic scrutiny, anchors have worked to find fault with the opposition and government critics. Dissenting editors have been fired by proprietors scared of retaliation and falling profits; many have self-censored, while more than a few are ideologically aligned with the BJP.
The mainstream media’s enthusiastic embrace of the BJP has increased the dangers of independent journalism for the few publications still willing to pursue it. Fearful of any efforts that challenge its propaganda, the government has sought to crush critics. Journalists at liberal publications like The Caravan and The Wire have been bombarded with police complaints, lawsuits, relentless online harassment, censorship, and, in one case, mob violence. Reporters have been arrested on dubious grounds.
In this environment, Muslim journalists are particularly vulnerable. Already underrepresented in mainstream media, Muslim journalists make for easy, conspicuous targets—as Khan and others like her realized last February.
Toward the end of the riots, Furquan Ameen, who was a reporter with the Telegraph’s online section, went to Maujpur, one of the worst-affected areas in Delhi. More than 200 policemen were deployed there, supposedly to keep the peace. Around them, Ameen says, were a few dozen Hindu civilians, chanting “Yeh andar ki baat hai, Police humaare saath hai” (“It’s an inside joke, the police are with us”). One of the men asked Ameen, “You’re Hindu, right?” Ameen ignored the question and distracted the man by asking him if anyone had been injured in the riots. “They were very hostile and aggressive and very visibly drunk.”
Next to Ameen, a Christian journalist was interviewing some of the men. As soon as they realized the reporter wasn’t Hindu, they became hostile. They told him to leave, warning, “We don’t want anything negative to happen. The police that you see here, they won’t do anything to help you.”
In the same area, journalist Gulam Jeelani saw large numbers of men with saffron bands around their foreheads. Some were wielding sticks, some iron rods. They jeered at him and his Hindu colleague and issued vague threats, as members of the Delhi police looked on. Though Jeelani has a decade of experience, he felt vulnerable as a Kashmiri Muslim journalist. Jeelani was surprised when he ran into a Muslim colleague who seemed to be moving around more freely—but only until the colleague showed him a fake identity card with a Hindu name.
Hindu journalists also faced serious threats while covering the Delhi riots. But their travails only highlight the greater dangers confronting their Muslim colleagues.
Saurabh Shukla and Arvind Gunasekar, reporters with the news channel NDTV, were badly beaten by Hindu rioters. The mob only stopped after realizing they were “our people—Hindus,” as the channel’s then executive editor Nidhi Razdan said on Twitter.
A reporter for a Hindi news website was beaten up by a Hindu mob and forced to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu hymn. He was also asked to drop his pants for proof he wasn’t Muslim (Muslim men are circumcised), according to a report in the Telegraph.
Arunabh Saikia, a Hindu reporter at the news site Scroll, reached Delhi a week after the riots. He found Hindu rioters who openly confessed to killing Muslims. One of them, who said he murdered three Muslims, was proud to reveal his name and participation in the rioting.
The rioters opened up to Saikia after they noticed the Hindu religious threads that he wears around his wrist. When Saikia asked one of them if, as a father and husband, he was scared to participate in rioting, the man responded, “What kind of a Hindu are you? If you can’t do it yourself, don’t discourage me.” Another man repeatedly said that he held Saikia in contempt. “If there’s a fight here, you’ll be the first to run, but we’ll fight back.”
The Delhi riots marked a new low for attacks on journalists, but in the preceding years, government critics in the media and elsewhere already faced intimidation—and worse. In Kashmir, Muslim journalists, who have been persecuted by the Indian state for decades, have complained of an increase in harassment since the military crackdown.
Gauri Lankesh, a magazine proprietor and journalist in Bangalore, was murdered outside her home in 2017. Hers was the fourth murder in four years of intellectuals who were well-known critics of Hindu extremism. An investigation found that a far-right Hindu organization was involved in at least three of the killings.
In 2019, the Indian government revoked the overseas citizenship of New York– based writer Aatish Taseer after he authored a scathing Time cover story on Modi. Overseas citizenship allows permanent residency to people of Indian origin such as Taseer, whose mother is Indian and father was Pakistani, as India does not recognize dual citizenship. The government said that it had revoked Taseer’s citizenship because he had attempted to “conceal” his father’s nationality, but the real reason was evident.
Ever since India’s independence in 1947, the mainstream press has pushed pro-nationalist views. Within the media, the English-language press has enjoyed a privileged position over regional-language papers. Journalists in areas like Kashmir and the northeast, which have harbored separatist politics, have been treated with outright hostility by successive governments. But no matter who was in power, the mainstream press generally condemned rioters and their political bosses. And though riot reporting has always been fraught with danger, journalists from English-language publications have been able to pursue on-the-ground stories in the weeks and months after the riots in relative safety, especially in large cities.
During the Delhi riots and their aftermath, these norms seem to have changed, according to Aakar Patel, a former newspaper editor and former executive director of Amnesty International India who recently authored a critical book on Hindu nationalism. “It was relatively easier to report out of Bombay after the 1992 riots. But, in Delhi, as we’ve seen, it’s become difficult for journalists to be able to reveal who they are and not face threats, not face hostility,” Patel said.
In August, over five months after the riots, three journalists for The Caravan were assaulted and threatened with murder in northeast Delhi by a Hindu mob when they were taking photographs of a lane festooned with saffron flags, a symbol of Hindu pride. Two of the journalists are from minority communities—one a Muslim, the other a Sikh. The third, a woman, said she was physically assaulted and sexually harassed by the mob. The Muslim journalist, Shahid Tantray, was attacked with communal slurs, strangled, and forced to delete pictures. Prabhjit Singh, the Sikh journalist, said in a statement to the police that if he weren’t present, the mob would have lynched Tantray. One attacker claimed to be a BJP member.
In another incident, a south Indian Muslim reporter Siddique Kappan was arrested late last year under terrorism charges while he was on his way to cover the gang rape and death of a young lower-caste woman in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The UP government accused him of having associations with the Popular Front of India—a social welfare organization that the government believes propagates a radical Islamic agenda. Kappan was granted a five-day bail to visit his ailing mother, but has otherwise been in jail since his arrest.
The scope for journalism grounded in secular or constitutional viewpoints that counters the BJP’s agenda has also narrowed in other ways, as early media scapegoating during the pandemic revealed.
In early March, members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group, gathered in Delhi for a scheduled conference. By the time it began in the first half of March (different reports record different start dates), India’s health ministry had advised social distancing in response to COVID-19 but stated that the pandemic was “not a health emergency.” After Modi abruptly announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, many early cases of COVID-19 were traced to Tablighi members who had traveled to several different cities after the conference ended. BJP representatives blamed them for the rising transmission rates, and mainstream media promoted this narrative with abandon. For weeks, newspapers and anchors raged about the “super-spreader” group. The hashtag #CoronaJihad trended on Twitter and was disseminated by many channels, laying bare the ideological thrust of the coverage.
Journalists largely avoided contextualizing their coverage, instead projecting the irresponsible behavior by many Tablighi members onto the entire Muslim community. It didn’t matter that testing was extremely low at the time, and the high positive rates among the Tablighi members were partly a result of the aggressive testing of the group conducted by the authorities. Other potential super-spreader events, including the late February rally featuring Modi and Trump with over 100,000 people in attendance, were ignored.
Out of 180 countries, India ranked 142nd on the Press Freedom Index last year, according to Reporters Without Borders, down from 140th a year earlier and 122nd a decade before that. As of December 31, 2020, according to the International Federation of Journalists, India ranks fourth in the list of countries most dangerous for journalists, with eight journalists killed in 2020.
In response, several journalists and publications are exploring forms of collective action against government repression. In the southwestern state of Kerala, journalists staged a protest demanding the release of Siddique Kappan. In October, eleven digital media publications came together to form an industry body to promote their interests, share best practices, and protect their independence.
Their journalists remain acutely vulnerable. In the past, most Indian publications have had no need to offer reporters hostile environment training, which many foreign media organizations require for journalists in conflict zones. Jeelani, who has reported from several sensitive areas in the last ten years, has received hostile environment training from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Others, like The Print’s Khan, haven’t been coached to deal with hostile environments.
That will have to change soon. For journalists, especially Muslim journalists, in the new India, this training may turn out to be as essential to their reporting.
Chandni Doulatramani is an independent journalist based in India. She writes on and at the intersections of culture, gender, tech, and politics.