‘Geo… Jeeoh.’ The constable from the Special Cell of the Delhi Police who was interrogating me that afternoon was finding it difficult to pronounce his proper name.
I gently butted in. ‘It’s spelt Geoff but pronounced Jeff.’
‘You have been speaking to this person in Australia?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Of course, I have,’ I explained. ‘He runs a website called AdaniWatch and I am a contributor to the website.’
The constable had earlier asked me two questions: ‘Do you use Signal?’ I promptly replied ‘yes’, for I had indeed been using this supposedly secure, internet-enabled messaging and conversation application for years.
I was also asked whether I had spoken to a certain person based in Hong Kong, to which I replied in the affirmative, saying this person is a journalist who has co-authored a book on the subject of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was coming to India. I had spoken with him to fix the logistical details relating to when and how I would interview him in the studio of NewsClick, a news and current affairs portal in English and Hindi.
The journalist is Debasish Roy Chowdhury who wrote ‘To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism’ with John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, Australia – the interview is available here.
Then came another question from the constable. I didn’t know then whether I should laugh or cry: ‘Who is this S Bhatnagar who is in the US?’
I said he is my brother-in-law, my saalaa, or my wife’s younger brother.
My wife and I had nine surprise visitors at 6.30 am on the morning of Tuesday 3 October 2023. The previous weekend was a long one as 2 October is a public holiday in India – it’s the birth anniversary of the ‘father of the nation’ Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
We were seeing off our son and a fellow student who were on their way to the educational institution where they study. That’s when the surprise visitors entered our home: three were in plain-clothes while six others, including a woman, were in uniform. The leader of the team from the Delhi Police said they had come to ask me questions about my association with NewsClick. I answered all their queries over a span of almost two hours. My wife offered them water, tea and biscuits.
Among the questions they asked me were whether I had reported on the Hindu-Muslim communal riots in north-east Delhi in early-2020 and whether I had reported on the farmers’ agitation that started later in the same year during the Covid pandemic. I said ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the second. More questions were asked, questions I would be asked again and again during the day.
They then said they wanted my mobile phone and my laptop for investigation. They added that I should cooperate with them. I called a lawyer who was familiar with police procedures. I learnt that the investigation of NewsClick was being conducted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), arguably one of the most (if not the most) draconian of all laws in India’s statute books. The UAPA is a law ostensibly aimed at curbing terror. It is a law that makes it especially difficult and time-consuming for an accused person to obtain bail if she or he is arrested.
I told the police personnel that I would not hand over my personal electronic devices unless I received an instruction from them in writing. I was told I should accompany them in their vehicle to the office of the Special Cell in south Delhi where I would be provided with a ‘seizure memo’. The lawyer I had spoken to earlier told me that ‘cooperating’ with the investigators included providing passwords and codes to allow the police personnel to extract all the information in the innards of my cellphone.
The leader of the police team shared his number with my wife and said he would be available to take her calls. She left for work, with more than a bit of trepidation. A neighbourhood friend agreed to accompany me, little realising that he would be stuck outside the office of the police for the next ten hours. I am lucky to have such a neighbour.
As we travelled through the National Capital Region, I understood that my interlocutors – I would meet my interrogators later in the day – were terribly sleep-deprived. They dozed off as we snaked through rush-hour traffic. It was around 10 am by the time we reached the office of the Special Cell. As we entered, our vehicle was surrounded by journalists and camerapersons clicking away. There were lawyers, friends and relatives. My neighbour was told by the police to get off. I was taken inside the building. It was then that I saw that several people associated in some way with NewsClick were there: journalists, camera operators, anchors of popular programs on YouTube, video editors and those who were part of the administration of the portal. I also noticed individuals who were not associated with NewsClick but knew its editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha – senior citizens who are retired academics and political activists.
Until around 5.30 pm, I was interrogated by eight policepersons, from the ranks of sub-inspector, inspector, assistant commissioner of police, deputy commissioner of police to the senior-most among them, a deputy inspector-general. All of them were politeness personified. They asked me every now and then: Do you want some tea or coffee? With sugar and milk or black? Water? Fruit juice? What would you like to eat, bhature (a kind of pita bread) with chholey or aloo (a gravy dish made from chickpeas or potatoes)?
I had lost my appetite for food and settled for bottled H2O.
When the police were examining my mobile phone, I asked them to give me the hash-value (a unique numeric value of a fixed length that identifies data in a gadget and is akin to a digital fingerprint) before and after its contents were extracted to ensure nothing was inserted in my phone. I had some experience in this regard as the innards of my phone had been taken out on five occasions in the past to ascertain whether Pegasus – supposedly the world’s most dangerous spyware (made by an Israeli firm) – had been used to compromise it. The technical ‘expert’ examining my phone assuaged my fears: ‘Worry not. Everything is being done in front of your eyes.’
I took his word at face value. I was more than a bit restless, having spent almost 12 hours in the company of police personnel. I wanting to get out of there. The top cop had said that my phone and the SIM (subscriber identity module) inside it should be returned to me after examination. I did not realise then that I was part of a privileged few.
It was nearing 6 pm. A medico-legal examination was done by a group of young doctors. For the first time in many years, I saw large sheets of carbon paper being used for making copies of a hand-written report. This was an unfamiliar sight. Why only carbon paper? I thought I had left behind the clickety-clack typewriter for the laptop, the photocopying machine for the document scanner. We live and we learn. It was certified that I had no marks of injury before I left the premises of the police.
What happened thereafter blew my mind. As a journalist of over 46 years, I had become used to asking questions of others. Suddenly the interviewer became the interviewed. Never before had I had to face some two dozen journalists with cameras and camera-phones who had been waiting for someone to give them a few sound-bites. By then I instinctively knew that this was the biggest news development of the day in India’s capital, if not the country. I braced myself and made two matter-of-fact statements, in English and in Hindi, in anticipation of the questions that would be asked.
Between the statements, I saw a woman journalist from a television channel named Republic TV, headed by Arnab Goswami, an anchor stridently supportive of the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was the same reporter who had called me a few days earlier, recorded our conversation without informing me, and then put it on air. She asked me twice what I had been asked about NewsClick. I gave her the same response: ‘Once upon a time, Arnab Goswami used to be a journalist but today he has become a monstrous caricature of what a journalist should be.’
I moved to the vehicle which would be taking me home. My neighbour, who had been waiting for me patiently, got into the car. I spoke to my wife and said I would be returning in a couple of hours. Just as I was preparing to leave, two microphones were thrust in my face through the still-open window of the car. One was from ANI (Asian News International), a multimedia news agency that offers syndicated text and video feeds, that, like Republic TV, is a favourite of the ruling regime. The other was from another news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI).
I don’t know what got into my head that moment. I told the reporter in Hindi: ‘Modi-ji mahaan hain, bhagwan ka avatar hain (Mr Modi is great; he is God’s avatar).’
‘Do you have any other questions?’ I asked and without listening for a reply, drove off.
Little could I have expected that my off-the-cuff remarks would go viral on the social media. But they did, for days thereafter.
I learnt that evening that NewsClick’s founder, Purkayastha, who is nearly 75 years old, had been arrested together with his colleague in the portal’s human-resources department, Amit Chakraborty, who is physically challenged and walks with crutches. They remain behind bars, in police custody or in judicial custody. As I write this account in the first person, nearly two months after the unprecedented police operation on 3 October, it is not clear if, and when, the country’s courts would grant them bail. (On 4 October, NewsClick issued this statement.)
The following afternoon I spoke at a jam-packed gathering of over 300 persons from different walks of life who had gathered at the Press Club of India. Over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by over two dozen news outlets from different parts of India and the world. But this account is not, and should not be, about myself. The episode has raised a host of important issues about the media in India, about freedom of expression, and about democracy in the country.
Now why would the readers of AdaniWatch be interested in what happened to those associated with a portal that was set up in 2009 and is not exactly among the biggest or most visited multi-lingual, multi-media news-and-features websites in India? One reason could be that NewsClick has published several articles and videos on the sprawling corporate conglomerate headed by Gautam Adani, once one of the world’s richest men. Even before the police action on 3 October 2023, the representatives of NewsClick were facing legal action initiated by lawyers acting on behalf of the oligarch, who is widely perceived to be close to Prime Minister Modi.
Among the articles and videos on Adani published by NewsClick are one on how the changes in shipping policies helped the group, another on how rules were tweaked to enable it to become the biggest private operator of airports in India, and yet another on how a judge of the Supreme Court had given a series of rulings in favour of the conglomerate before he retired. For the last-mentioned article in the series of three articles, a ‘gag’ order was issued against this writer, his co-author, and representatives of the portal. Coincidentally, the day the order was issued I had interviewed Australian activist Ben Pennings, who had won a legal battle against Adani in Australia – read Geoff Law’s article on him here.
Then, after a summons was issued against us by a court in the southern part of the western Indian state of Rajasthan for one of the articles in the same series, we (including Purkyastha and another senior associated with NewsClick but who had no role to play in the publication of the article) travelled more than 800 kilometres by train and car to the court to furnish bail bonds and sureties (a person who takes the responsibility for somebody else in case they do not appear in a court of law.)
All these cases remain pending in different courts.
To return to the police action against those associated with NewsClick, never in the history of independent India have over 300 police personnel visited the homes of at least 80 persons in Greater Delhi in a coordinated manner at 6.30 am, as they did on 3 October 2023. Eight more people were questioned by the police in other parts of the country. During the ‘Emergency’ of 1975-77 imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when journalists and political opponents of the then ruling regime were incarcerated for periods up to 19 months, including Prabir Purkayastha, founder of the NewsClick website, what acquired notoriety was the government’s ‘midnight knock’. That has changed to an ‘early morning alarm’.
Among the persons who received unexpected visitors that morning, were not just popular anchors on NewsClick’s YouTube channel, such as Abhisar Sharma, Urmilesh (he uses one name), Bhasha Singh, Aunindyo Chakravarty and Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay (who has written several books, including an unauthorised biography of Prime Minister Narendra Modi). The individuals who woke up to a rude shock included probationers and trainees who were learning how to become copy editors and graphic designers; camerapersons; video editors; at least one freelance contributor who had contributed less than a handful of articles published on the portal; former employees who had worked with NewsClick before moving on to other jobs; consultants (like yours truly); not to mention individuals who have known, or been associated with, Purkayastha.
In the last-mentioned category were Sohail Hashmi, an oral historian of Delhi, social activist, film maker and heritage conservationist, and Dilip Simeon, retired professor of history from the University of Delhi, among others. Representatives of the Delhi Police visited homes in Mumbai in western India, Hyderabad and Kerala in southern India. In Mumbai, the police visited the residence of Teesta Setalvad, her husband and daughter – she is a journalist and civil-rights activist who has set up a non-government organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace, that advocated for the victims of the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the state and who was jailed.
This is the second time Purkayastha, a qualified engineer who studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University, has been incarcerated – the first was in 1975 when he was jailed by the ‘Emergency’ regime of then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi. His most recent book is titled ‘Keeping Up the Good Fight’. For decades, he has been a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI-M.
On 5 August 2023, a detailed article was published by the New York Times with the headline ‘A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul’ by the name of Neville Roy Singham. The subtitle adds that the publication had unravelled ‘a financial network that stretches from Chicago to Shanghai and uses American nonprofits to push Chinese talking points worldwide’. The NYT article is over 3000 words. Only two sentences are about NewsClick: ‘In New Delhi, corporate filings show, Mr Singham’s network financed a news site, NewsClick, that sprinkled its coverage with Chinese government talking points: ‘“China’s history continues to inspire the working classes,” one video said.’
The NYT never once said that Singham or NewsClick had done anything that could even remotely be construed as illegal. But the right-wing in India described everyone associated with NewsClick as ‘Chinese agents’. A social activist who had been approached by NYT reporters while they were ‘investigating’ the portal unsuccessfully tried to dissuade them, arguing that its report would be weaponised against Indian journalists and it would ‘become a tool for authoritarian propaganda and criminalisation of journalism’. Writing in Scroll.in on 6 October, Kavita Krishnan stated that her warning was not heeded.
After Scroll contacted the New York Times, a spokesperson for the publication said: ‘Independent journalism follows the facts where they lead. We published a thoroughly reported story showing the network’s ties to Chinese interests. We would find it deeply troubling and unacceptable if any government were to use our reporting as an excuse to silence journalists.’
A month and half before the police action, on 17 August, a first information report (FIR) – the first step in a criminal investigation in India – had been lodged against NewsClick’s editor-in-chief alleging that he was part of a larger conspiracy against the integrity and sovereignty of the country. It added that the conspiracy involved the ‘illegal infusion of funds’ by Chinese companies operating in India, including telecommunications equipment suppliers such as Xiaomi and Vivo, who have been accused by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) of money laundering, charges that are yet to be proven in a court of law. Incidentally, the FIR was not provided to the accused persons until a court ordered the police to do so.
In the FIR, the police say a ‘large amount’ of Chinese funding was used to publish ‘paid news’ which criticised the policies of the Indian government and promoted the policies of the Chinese, without providing details. This is what is written: ‘In furtherance of this conspiracy to disrupt (the) sovereignty of India and to cause disaffection against India, large amount of funds were routed from China in (a) circuitous and camouflaged manner and paid news were intentionally peddled criticising domestic policies, development projects of India and promoting, projecting and defending policies and programmes of Chinese government’.
The FIR also names a now-defunct WhatsApp group that was formed several years ago as being part of a conspiracy with Purkayastha to ‘sabotage’ the 2019 general elections in India. The FIR also accuses Purkayastha and Singham of exchanging emails which ‘expose their intent to show’ Kashmir (in northern India) and Arunachal Pradesh (in north-east India’ as not part of the country. The police alleged the email exchanges point towards a ‘conspiracy to peddle a narrative both globally and domestically that Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh are disputed territories… to tinker with the northern borders of India and to show Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as not parts of India in maps (that) amount to an act intended towards undermining the unity and territorial integrity of India.’
Vehement denials by NewsClick and Singham against the allegations of the police can be found here and here. The American billionaire who resides in Shanghai, China, has denied that he or the entities associated with him had broken any law and sought to refute point-by-point all the claims made by the Delhi Police. Purkayastha used to work in a company (ThoughtWorks) that had been founded and led by Singham that was later sold. Nevertheless, the ED has summoned Singham for questioning in India through the country’s Ministry of External Affairs.
One of the worst aspects of the police action was that at least 300 personal electronic devices (cellular phones, laptops, hard drives and pen drives) and other belongings (such as passports and property documents) of more than 80 individuals were seized and have remained in the custody of the Special Cell since 3 October. This is a way of depriving journalists of their livelihood. The Supreme Court has asked the Indian government to frame a set of guidelines on seizure of personal electronic devices by the first week of December.
‘It is dangerous all powers are with the agencies... it is very, very dangerous,’ remarked a bench of Supreme Court Judges Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia while hearing a petition filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) demanding regulation of the police’s power to search or seize digital devices. (This writer is a member and a former president of the FMP.)
I mentioned earlier in this article that my mobile phone was returned to me on the evening of the same day that the police visited my home. I realised later that I was among a handful of persons whose phones (with the SIM inside) had been returned. Why? I don’t have a clear answer. Perhaps it’s because I had been questioned by the ED earlier in connection with my association with NewsClick, and there was little I could add. Besides, I was not an employee, a shareholder or a director of the private company that owned the portal, nor was I a member of its editorial board. In other words, I was at best peripheral to the so-called ‘investigation’. Or maybe it’s because I was aggressive in asserting my rights before the cops. I asked each policeperson and medical doctor I met on 3 October for his or her name and jotted down their phone numbers on a scrap of paper.
So why were the Delhi Police so kind and considerate towards me? Your guess is as good as mine.
Before the anti-terror law was used to arrest Purkayastha and Chakraborty, the ED, the economic offences wing of the Delhi Police and the Income Tax Department, had conducted search-and-seizure raids on those associated with NewsClick from February 2021 onwards. Subsequently, the ‘premier’ police investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has lodged a new case claiming that the funds that have come into PPK Newsclick Studio Private Limited that have come from the US were not in the nature of foreign direct investment (FDI) approved by the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank and apex monetary authority, but ‘grants’ that come under the purview of a different law, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.
As I conclude this article, Delhi remains enveloped in toxic smog. Whether the above allegations will stand up to judicial scrutiny and whether and when Purkayastha and Chakraborty will come out of prison remain to be seen. But some things are clear. The entire episode has already had a ‘chilling effect’ on the independent media in India in general and in the national capital in particular. At least one person who was supposed to work with me has gone back on her decision citing ‘security concerns’.
The author is an independent journalist who is a consultant with NewsClick.