I returned to Delhi on March 2 after more than a year.
Delhi is at its best in February and early March with flowers blooming in every roundabout and the Rashtrapati Bhawan opens the Mughal Gardens to the public for a month.
But it was a very different Delhi I was going back to.
Waiting for us at the airport was Amarjeet, our taxi driver who has been there at our taxi stand for more than two decades. He announced that he had left the taxi stand in Moti Bagh because he could not afford the extra charges being demanded by the taxi stand owner after the lockdown. Amarjeet said he had returned to his village and had come from Punjab just to be with us for ten days.
Amarjeet’s brother has been with the farmers protesting outside Delhi. The winter had been bitterly cold and now they were bracing themselves for the heat of the Delhi summer. The media had lost interest in covering what has been described by many as the biggest protest in human history.
Normally placid this time Amarjeet was seething with rage. He said he could not understand why this government was so determined on ruining the country, he said.
An underlying anxiety
Our home has damp patches from year-long neglect. It needs immediate repairs. The contractor promises to finish the waterproofing within three days. I ask him how his business was doing. He says it was not good; his sister’s marriage was cancelled because he could not raise enough to meet the boy’s dowry demands.
A family of acrobats with whom I have established familial ties complain that the ten kids we had got admitted into the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, at Najafgarh a free boarding school has still not opened because of the pandemic. The school has online classes but the family cannot afford to buy a mobile for each child. And the children are now left without schooling.
At my niece’s wedding, I enjoy meeting relatives. Despite the easy banter and jokes there is an underlying anxiety. The bride’s father has still not quite recovered from Covid-19. One relative wonders when the travel bans will be lifted so he can to meet his children in the US.
A friend of the bride shows me her mehendi. We start talking and her expression changes. She says her parents are activists and are expecting to be arrested any time soon. I am astonished at the calm with which she says this.
Another friend joins us. She says she has been taking part in protests and she has seen how activists have been arrested and their families are being constantly harassed. I ask whether she is not afraid for her own safety. She says the situation has gone beyond fear for personal safety, it is now a fight for the future of our country.
There is anger, a new kind of stoic determination to resist the onslaught of authoritarianism. And it cuts across class and community.
Just before returning to Goa, where I live now, I visit old friends at Said-ul-Ajaid, a lovely area of Delhi famous for the Garden of the Five Senses. My friends are Prabir Purkayastha and Gita Hariharan at the Newsclick office. They have been in the news after the Enforcement Directorate raided their office and their home a few weeks ago. But since then there is no news of what happened subsequently.
We sit outside under a tree and there is a slight breeze. For a passerby it would have looked like some senior citizens sitting and chatting enjoying the last of the winter sun. He may even have heard laughter.
A long ordeal
The Enforcement Directorate raided the Newsclick, an independent media office and homes of the journalists. But the longest raid, lasting 113-hours beginning on February 9, was in the home of Prabir Purkayastha and Gita Hariharan. Five officers of the Enforcement Directorate entered their apartment and went through all the files, computers and phone records.
The agency is supposed to act only after it receives a complaint. Was there a complaint and by whom? Purkayastha said they had not been told.
At the end of the raid that lasted five full days and nights, the Enforcement Direcotorate seized 31 devices, including computers and mobile phones. Newsclick issued a media statement stating:”We respect the sanctity of the legal process and do not intend to indulge in a media trial.”
The question was whether the law enforcers respected the sanctity of legal procedures?
Purkayastha sees the raid on Newsclick in the context of the move to control digital media as a whole. The Government has issued Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and the Digital Media Ethics Code), 2021.
P Sainath, a journalist known for his documentation of rural India has compiled a list of 52-media=related laws which have been misused by the state in the recent past to intimidate and arrest journalists. The laws include The Epidemic Disease Act,1897 the Disaster management Act , 2005; the list does not include Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.
Perhaps this is the first time the government is using the Enforcement Directorate, meant to investigate crimes relating to money laundering, against a media house. The raid on Newsclick was ostensibly to investigate such an offence.
What were the procedures for such a raid?
Money laundering allegations
I ask Purkayastha whether any of the 100 journalists employed by Newsclick had got frightened and resigned after the raid. He says not a single one had even suggested leaving. Just then a young woman journalist came to ask something about a story she was doing. She told Hariharan that she had come prepared to stay on after 7 in the evening, Pranjal, the editor who uses only one name came to report that he had personally checked the facts relating to a protest and found the Newsclick story was accurate. His home had been raided too.
I am amazed how quickly Newsclick has gone back to its job of reporting on the state of the nation, the effect of the government’s policies on people like Amarjeet the taxi driver, the street performer, the mason and of course the farmers. It is this deep concern for the people that is the inspiration behind Newsclick’s reporting. This is the strength of the news platform and that is the threat to a government so callous to the fate of ordinary people.
It is laughable that the government should try to frame Prabir Purkayastha or Newsclick for money laundering. Prabir, a highly qualified engineer had for decades used the money he earned to finance the projects taken by the Delhi Science Forum and later Newsclick. The idea that he would try to launder money from criminal activities is as absurd as saying reporting on farmers protest is a seditious act.
What is money laundering?
Money laundering is the process of making large amounts of money generated by criminal activity, such as drug trafficking or terrorist funding, appear to have come from a legitimate source.
Money laundering involves criminal activities like illegal arms sales, smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution rings, insider trading, bribery and computer fraud schemes produce large profits. Money laundering damages financial sector institutions that are critical for economic growth, promoting crime and corruption that slow economic growth, reducing efficiency in the real sector of the economy.
Misusing the Enforcement Directorate to persecute an independent media house like Newsclick is a serious waste of public resources, especially when the real cases of money laundering through nationalised banks is threatening to undermine the entire financial system.
Instead the Enforcement Directorate had asked Prabir Purkayastha to report every Thursday at their office. But that has stopped. Now everyone at Newsclick is waiting to see if the agency will go ahead and continue to misuse its powers and file false cases and make arrests or will it uphold the integrity of its office.
Newsclick is preparing for a battle while still hoping that the Enforcement Directorate officers too might decide not to misuse their powers. What was so inspiring was there was not a whiff of fear; all I could see was determination to carry on.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.