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Tuesday, 6.30 am. I was woken up by an unusually early call from a close friend. I immediately picked up, slightly panicking. “Hey, can you please come over to my place,” she said in a hushed voice. “There are police at my door with a warrant.”
It took me a second to register the word “police”. I jumped out of bed and left.
Her rented flat is barely a few steps down from mine. Since she lives alone, I could imagine the panic she would have felt seeing a posse of police outside her door at that odd hour.
There were two uniformed policewomen and a policeman at her door and two men in plainclothes. They had landed to question her about her work for the news website NewsClick.
It is not every day that I have to deal with the police, so I didn’t quite know what to do.
I am aware, as a journalist of many years, of the risks this job comes with. These days in particular, police interrogation and detention of journalists isn’t uncommon. But since I am not a reporter who has to be out in the field every day, I had never prepared mentally for the kind of situation that I now found myself in. I was growing anxious.
“We should call someone,” I told my friend. But who? I had no idea. We did not know any lawyer and one of the plainclothes men told me not to call anyone at NewsClick. “Is there a rule against calling anyone from that office?” I asked, mustering whatever courage I could. “Can you show me in writing?”
He merely said they had a search warrant.
They kept insisting that we let them in so they could start their “search and questioning” process. But they wouldn’t tell us why they had come. All we knew was that they were investigating a new case against NewsClick.
I tried putting on my most convincing bold face, knowing that I was within my rights to ask questions. But I was tense. What if they took action against us for not cooperating?
A quarter of an hour went by and the other plainclothes man, who appeared to be the senior officer, was growing impatient. “Madam, itna time nahi hai hamare paas,” he said. “Please hurry up.”
“No, we can’t just let you enter our house without telling anyone,” I insisted.
“You can call a ‘gents’ if you want,” he said. I ignored him.
By now a few of our neighbours were out, staring suspiciously at us.
I called another friend. She asked me to stall them and wait for her to come. She soon called back, however. “Let them in,” she said. “The police are raiding every NewsClick employee right now. Just do what they say.”
We did just that.
The men entered, took out a questionnaire and started the process.
They wanted to know if my friend had received any foreign funds or if she had sent money outside India in the past decade. They named a few organisations and asked if she had any association with them. “No,” she replied.
I wondered why they were asking such questions of an employee who had nothing to do with the business side of her news organisation.
“Did you report on the farmer protests and the Delhi riots?” the official asked.
This question startled her as much as it did me. How was this related to the supposed purpose of the raid? My friend had done one report on the 2020 riots. They noted down the link of the story.
Then they asked her to hand over her laptop and cellphone.
What authority did they have to seize her devices, I asked? It was part of the procedure, they said. The devices would be returned after the investigation was done. At one point the official casually remarked that they had the authority to use force if we did not cooperate. It sounded like a threat.
My friend had her life’s work, and her personal files, stored on that laptop and the idea of just giving it away without warning seemed to rattle her. Afterwards she told me she had no hope of ever getting her devices back.
So, on top of everything else, she had to deal with the sudden pressure of finding money to buy a new laptop and cellphone at a time when she did not even know if her next salary would be paid. We learnt later in the day that the police had sealed her office and arrested the organisation’s editor and human resources head.
For a journalist who is barely a few years into their career, that’s a desperate, hope-sapping situation. More so, when we know now that they won’t spare even junior staff and freelance contributors if they decide to go after a news organisation.
It was my friend today, could it not be me tomorrow? That is all I have been thinking since that morning. They didn’t break a sweat throwing Siddique Kappan, Mohammed Zubair and now Prabir Purkayastha in jail, and I am nobody in comparison. The very thought is chilling. I suppose that has been the intention all along: to make us fearful so we would not dare say what needs said.