Modi Criminalises Coverage Of his Party’s Rising Communal Violence
CJ Werleman responds to the criminal charges against him and other journalists under India’s draconian British colonial-era laws
Along with 101 other journalists, academics, lawyers and human rights activists, I have been criminally charged by Tripura Police under India’s draconian anti-terror law – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – for “promoting enmity between religious groups,” specifically Hindus and Muslims, across social media, including YouTube.
In reality, these charges amount to nothing more than a transparent but sinister effort by the country’s ruling party — the Bharatiya Janata Party – to criminalize protests against its rule and Hindu-committed violence against religious minorities, thus constituting another dangerous milestone in the country’s observable march towards fascism.
The charges relate to attacks carried out by right-wing Hindu individuals and groups, including Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), against mosques, Muslims and Muslim owned properties in the north-eastern state of Tripura since 26 October, which I reported two weeks ago for Byline Times.
Despite a trove of evidence, including numerous videos of the perpetrators chanting Hindu slogans as they set fire to mosques, homes and shops, the Tripura Police claim, without evidence, the videos are fake and meant only to harm the reputation of Hindus and, in turn, incite communal disharmony.
We firmly condemn the charges laid by Tripura Police against several journalists, including Shyam Meera Singh, Meer Faisal and CJ Werleman, whose only crimes were to cover the recent attacks against mosques in the North-eastern state of TripuraReporters Without Borders
A fact-finding team of lawyers, Supreme Court advocates and human rights activists, however, visited Tripura earlier this month to meet with aggrieved parties and gather facts on the ground.
Their probe found right-wing Hindu rallies were held in 51 locations across the state since 26 October, resulting in the vandalization and destruction of 12 mosques, 9 shops and 3 homes – and creating “huge panic situation” among Muslim communities. They laid blame solely and squarely on the BJP-ruled state and federal governments.
“The manner in which the situation has been developed after the incident of violence against Muslims in Tripura suggests that if the government had wanted, it could’ve saved such horrible incident from happening,” said the investigating team in a press conference.
“This is the complete failure of state government. The political interests of BJP and the ideology of violent patriotism have captured the state and have conspicuous support amongst the public. If the government had taken appropriate steps, the incident wouldn’t have assumed such a formidable form”.
In a functioning and flourishing democracy, the team’s findings would deliver the offending government a politically crippling blow, inviting all kinds of inquiries from journalists and a concerned public, but this is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, where jailing and threatening journalists and human right activists has become the new normal.
It’s not for nothing India is ranked among the worst countries in the world for journalists, and it’s worth remembering Amnesty International closed its operations in the country last year, fearing “reprisals” from the Government.
The Modi Government’s assault on democracy also explains why Tripura Police have responded to the fact-finding team by charging the lawyers, Supreme Court advocates and human rights organizations under Indian Penal Code Sections 153-A, 469, 503, 504 and 120B for “promoting enmity between different groups,” forgery, criminal intimidation, intentional insult and disturbing the peace.
“For the Tripura police to accuse Twitter users, Supreme Court lawyers, and activists of sedition—simply for speaking about violence—suggests a confidence that the police themselves be protected, not just by the regime that rules us, but also by a media (with a few exceptions) that would not dare question of them,” says prominent Indian journalist and Washington Post contributor Rana Ayyub.
“Tripura is burning with hate like the rest of the country, where communal polarisation is being used to win votes from the Hindu community by stoking fears of the ‘Muslim enemy’,” she says.
Since seizing power in 2014, the Modi Government has chipped away at the rights of Muslims, who represent only 14% of the total population, while stoking hatred among the Hindu majority by portraying them as a foreign other and weaponizing Islamophobic conspiracy theories, which falsely accuse Muslims of secretly plotting to transform India into an Islamic theocracy.
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Prosecuting journalists and activists who report anti-Muslim violence is the next phase in the country’s seemingly irreversible democratic backsliding, with the Government signalling to right-wing Hindu groups they now have a green light to attack Muslims whenever and wherever they find them.
As is the case in most failing states, particularly those seized by ultranationalist forces, the dirty work of the Government is outsourced to right-wing militias, a direction India is now headed, as unemployment and poverty rise to record levels and the Modi regime runs out of excuses.
For these reasons, international journalism bodies are speaking out, with Reporters Without Borders stating: “We firmly condemn the charges laid by Tripura Police against several journalists, including Shyam Meera Singh, Meer Faisal and CJ Werleman, whose only crimes were to cover the recent attacks against mosques in the North-eastern state of Tripura”.
The Editors Guild of India called the bogus charges “an attempt by the state government to deflect attention away from its own failure to control majoritarian violence…Governments cannot use stringent laws like UAPA to suppress reporting on such incidents”.
Ultimately, however, only India’s Supreme Court has the power to end the Modi Government’s abuse of the British colonial era UAPA-law, but with its recent siding with Hindu nationalist forces over the construction of a Hindu temple atop the ruins of the ancient Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, there’s little reason to be hopeful the protectors of the law hold much interest in protecting those who defend the rights of Muslims.
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