Dramatic scenes flashed on India’s TV screens on Wednesday morning as Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of the Republic TV network, was arrested from his home in Mumbai.
Goswami has played a big part in changing India’s media landscape, pioneering a loud, jingoistic brand of journalism that does not shy away from flaunting its leanings towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. One former Republic reporter has gone on record to accuse the channel of turning its employees into “stooges of a particular political party”.
Expectedly, Goswami’s arrest saw a wave of condemnation from top BJP leaders. From the Union cabinet alone, Home Minister Amit Shah, Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Law Minister RS Prasad and Minister for Textiles Smriti Irani condemned the TV anchor’s arrest.
Goswami was arrested in a case of alleged abetment to suicide from 2018. It relates to the death of an architect, Anvay Naik, and his mother because Republic TV allegedly failed to pay its dues. Naik’s suicide note explicitly mentions Goswami. However, the Maharashtra police closed the case in 2019 – only to reopen it now on, what they claim, is the direction of a court.
While the case has nothing to do directly with Goswami’s journalism, given India’s murky political environment, it is not impossible that both the police actions in 2019 as well as on Wednesday was driven by partisan considerations.
It is thus not surprising that many people have warned of Goswami’s arrest as being a “slippery slope” – a course of action likely to lead to something disastrous. In fact, Union minister Smriti Irani said it in as many words: “You may not like him, you may not approve of him, you may despise his very existence but if you stay silent you support suppression. Who speaks if you are next?”
Slippery slope chronology
The problem with this argument is is that it lacks an understanding of the chronology of how politics has developed in India over the past few years.
Goswami’s arrest – even if politically motivated – is not plumbing a new depth. Partisan action against journalists is a regular part of Indian politics and much precedes November 4, 2020. In fact, many instances of partisan action have been prompted by the ruling BJP – even as they protested Goswami’s arrest on Wednesday.
Currently, for example, Siddique Kappan, a reporter from Kerala, is in prison in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh. He was arrested on October 6 while on his way to cover the gangrape and murder of a teenage Dalit girl and charged with India’s draconion Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as well as sedition.
Given the absurdity of the charge as well as the allegation of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath that asking for justice in the case was a “conspiracy” with “international funding”, it would not be difficult to claim that Kappan’s arrest was a rather murky instance of partisan politics.
On October 28, the Modi government raided the offices of the Greater Kashmir newspaper as well as AFP’s Kashmir correspondent Parvaiz Bukhari based on allegations of funding secessionist groups.
Prashant Kanojia, an independent journalist has been arrested twice in the past year for sedition by Uttar Pradesh. What the Adityanath government found “seditious” were tweets published by the journalists on his Twitter handle.
In May, India’s colonial sedition law was used by another BJP-ruled state – by Gujarat to book a journalist Dhaval Patel for publishing a report about the chief minister’s health.
Unsurprisingly, India is currently ranked 142nd in the World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries.
In fact, if one widens the scope beyond journalists and includes activists, matters get even darker. Starting 2018, the police in Maharashtra – then ruled by the BJP – followed by the National Investigative Agency, have prosecuted activists under what is now called the Bhima Koregaon case, accusing them of of sparking caste violence as well as trying to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With little proof for either accusation and the list of arrested including some of India’s most committed workers for human rights, it is not surprising that the Modi government has come in for severe censure for using a seemingly contrived case to stifle out any voices that could oppose its politics.
Similarly, the Modi government has sought to use draconian laws to arrest people involved in the protests against India’s new religion-based citizenship law, accusing them of a shadowing conspiracy to launch riots in February in Delhi.
So blatant is the BJP’s anti-democratic turn that even academic research shows that it now closely resembles a “typical governing party in an autocracy”.
The real precedent
Ironically, given Goswami’s close support to the BJP, he has supported much of this authoritarian action. In fact, Sudha Bharadwaj, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, has explicitly blamed Goswami for making “false, malicious and defamatory allegations” against her by sharing a “fabricated letter”.
Bharadwaj – one of India’s most respected human rights activists – has now been in prison without trial for over two years now.
Allegations by Naik’s family against Goswami’s role in the suicide will of course work their way through the legal system. But it would be inaccurate to argue that the Goswami case is somehow unprecedented. Cases like Bharadwaj and Kappan’s show that India has been in this dark place for some time.