'The entire operation was meant to have a chilling effect on independent journalists, those not completely subservient to the regime, the small section still doing what the Fourth Estate should do -- raising questions to those in power.'
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was the only Indian journalist referred to in the sensational Hindenburg Report published in January this year on the Adani group. Co-author of The Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, Thakurta is the only journalist who has doggedly pursued the theme of crony capitalism in India.
The most high-profile journalist to be picked up for questioning in the raids on 46 mediapersons in Delhi on October 3, talks to Jyoti Punwani about his experience with the Delhi police and the implications of the raid.
Can you describe what happened on October 3?
We had woken up earlier than usual to see off our son who was going back to university in Haryana. Suddenly around 6.30 am, the police arrived, 7 from the Delhi police and two from the Haryana police. (I live in Gurugram.) They said they'd come to ask me about NewsClick.
Were you expecting this kind of police questioning?
Not at all, I hadn't the foggiest idea about this.
What did they ask?
They asked me how I was associated with NewsClick, I told them I had been a consultant for them for since May 2018. I was neither an employee, nor a shareholder, nor a director, nor on the editorial board.
As an independent consultant, I raised invoices and the money they paid was credited to my bank account, which was in a public sector bank. It was part of my Income Tax returns. Everything was in the public domain.
I told them they were paying me Rs 1.5 lakh with tax deducted at source, till Covid struck. They then reduced my remuneration to Rs 1 lakh. It seems like a lot of money when taken cumulatively, but I wasn't raising invoices every month. When I didn't do any work for them, I didn't raise any invoice.
Then they asked me whether I'd covered the 2020 Delhi riots. I said No. Had I covered the farmers' agitation? I said Yes.
Did I know Neville Roy Singham (the American millionaire accused of funding NewsClick)? I said No.
I ended up answering these same questions for the next 12 hours.
They wanted my phone, but I told them to give that to me in writing. They said, you come with us to our office, and we'll give you a search memo. Pease cooperate with the investigation, they said.
At that point I called up a lawyer. He told me I should go with them.
All this while, your family was present?
No. My son had to leave else he would miss class. My wife had to go to her school.
What happened at their office?
I did cooperate, I gave my phone and my password, though doing so clearly meant they were violating my privacy, getting access to my sources, to my personal stuff, pictures of my family.
Later on I realised I was treated very well. My phone was returned, with my SIM card. Some of the others who were picked up, still haven't got their SIM cards or hard discs back.
So you had to answer the same questions at the Delhi Police Special Cell office?
Yes. But there were some additional questions too.
I was asked if I used (the app) Signal. I said I did. Why did you call so-and-so in Hong Kong, why did you call so-and-so in Australia, they asked.
I told them I write for a Web site named Adani Watch, so I need to talk to these people. Again, I raise invoices and they pay me for my writings.
Then I was asked a laughable question: Who's S Bhatnagar in the US whom you had called? I told them he's my wife's brother.
Were they intimidating?
No no, they were very polite. They kept offering me tea and coffee, even asked whether I wanted chholey with my puris or alu ki sabzi.
I just hope they are equally polite with Prabir (Purkayastha, editor-in-chief, NewsClick) who's been in jail since the night of October 3. He's 75. And with Amit Chakravarty (HR head, NewsClick) who's physically challenged.
I finally came out at 6 pm after they gave me a seizure memo for my phone, and checked my blood pressure for their medico-legal report. I was immediately surrounded by camerapersons, asking me what had happened.
As I got into my vehicle, two reporters from ANI and PTI put their mikes inside my car. I don't know what got into me. I told them Let me answer, you don't ask me anything. I then said: Modiji mahaan hai, woh bhagwan ke avatar hain. (external link) PTI put that clip out and it went viral.
Did this remind you of the Emergency?
This was different. In the Emergency, journalists were put behind bars and remained in for 19 months. That was the end of it.
Here, a few hundred policemen and women were asked to gather the previous night and sent early in the morning to pick up 46 journalists from the capital.
This was an unprecedented operation. Freelance contributors, young graphic designers and even probationers on the copy desk -- they were all taken for questioning.
All this was done on October 3 on the basis of an FIR lodged on August 17. There was a Delhi high court order preventing any coercive action against Prabir (after NewsClick was investigated in 2021 by the Enforcement Directorate). But all that changed when UAPA was invoked, a draconian law which gives amazing powers to the police.
I don't think this kind of operation has ever been conducted before.
Why do you think it was done?
In my opinion, it was not just an operation against NewsClick. The entire operation was meant to have a chilling effect on independent journalists, those not completely subservient to the regime, the small section still doing what the Fourth Estate should do -- raising questions to those in power.
The larger purpose was to send the message out that this is what we can do -- we can seize your phones and laptops. As journalists, we are dependent on these devices, they are the source of our livelihood.
The Emergency was for a limited period. But this kind of intimidation has been going on for the last 9 years. FIRs against journalists, sedition cases, defamation cases; media offices searched and documents seized...
I am the only journalist, actually the only citizen against whom the lawyers engaged by entities headed by the Adanis have filed six defamation cases. But it's not just me. Journalists working in small towns and in the rural areas have been targeted simply for asking questions to ministers and exposing the leak of exam papers.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, have documented all this. India's position is slipping right to the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index.
Were you surprised at the support you received from journalists?
I was overwhelmed. The next day at the Press Club there were more than 300 people. Not just every journalist in town, but activists, friends, writers, people like Ram Guha, Harsh Mander, Manoj Jha.
Yet, going by social media, a lot of people seem to believe that NewsClick and all of you are traitors.
I can't tell you the number of times I've been called 'Cheenee dalal' on social media. How many accounts can you block!
In the FIR, they've named Vivo. But Vivo was a sponsor of the IPL. Who heads the BCCI? The son of our honourable home minister. Some of the companies named by them have contributed to the PM Cares Fund.
The charges in the FIR are far-fetched, to put it mildly.
What is your stand on China? Do you have one?
Honestly I don't. I don't write on international affairs, I write on the political economy, on crony capitalism. Where China is concerned, I'm a consumer of news. I don't know enough to write about China.
With all the cases against you, and now this raid, you don't want to stop? Doesn't your family tell you to stop?
My family tells me so all the time.
When a non-bailable arrest warrant was issued against me by a first class judicial magistrate in Gujarat during the Covid period -- the warrant by the way, reached PTI before it reached my lawyer -- my family was traumatised. That can have a very major impact on you.
But I have one life to live. I've walked a particular road.
I chose to become a journalist in 1977 when I could have tried to become so many other things. And I've remained a journalist. I don't think I'm a crusader, what I do is the job of a journalist.
Now at 68 I don't want to change course.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com