Last year, while participating in a discussion on Social Media, Journalism and Free Speech at the London School of Economics, writer and journalist Rana Ayyub spoke to Laraib Niaz about what motivated her to write the Gujarat Files, what life is like as a female independent journalist in Modi’s India and why an alternative space for journalism is evolving in India.
One cannot help but marvel at the amount of risks and dedication required in conducting the sting operation on the Gujarat riots of 2002. But your struggle hardly ended there, what with the enormous complications you faced in writing and publishing Gujarat Files. What was the motivation behind writing the book?
The investigation was conducted between 2010 and 2011, and initially it attracted no takers as Tehelka had killed the story. In 2013, I signed a contract with one of the biggest publishing houses in India. The said publishing house, from January 2014 however stopped responding to my emails. I subsequently witnessed the worst kind of censorship where editors wanted me to take out Modi’s name from the piece.
What I did know was that the book contained damning revelations about Modi’s government. We started off with 500 copies of the book being sold initially, with the number now rising to 300,000. I must admit that I am exhausted, but I do believe this was the right step to take. The biggest challenge undoubtedly was to go undercover, and once that obstacle had been achieved, I knew that it was imperative for the book to be published. Yes, it has affected my life as well as the well-being of my family, but this is a life that I chose for myself.
Did you ever imagine the repercussions from the publication of the book to be of this degree or magnitude?
No, in fact I think what is happening to me right now should have happened way back. What is bothering the government is that I am speaking at international events and writing for international publications. For this government, their international image is of utmost importance. Things especially heated up when the UN intervened and the government did not know how to react to it. The fact that the book is doing immensely well and that people haven’t stopped talking about the book is a cause of great concern for them. This is certainly the worst thing that they could do to me, which clearly has not worked.
How do you think free speech and investigative journalism has been affected since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power?
The atmosphere is definitely more brazen now. You bring in a story and you know that it will experience rigorous censorship. However there has been a development of an alternative space for journalism that is independent in nature. What is happening now has never happened before; there is a backlash against the backlash. You have independent publications mushrooming against the opposition that are bringing to the fore stories that are not told by mainstream publications. I am glad that India is seeing that independent space evolve.
Are those stories being heard?
Yes. These journalists are being labelled as leftists and activists but one has to raise one’s voice. Even after all these damning revelations, there is a truth that they won’t believe. There is a truth that the public wants to believe. They want to believe that Modi is bringing the Hindu pride back that he has the magic wand.
What has been especially astonishing is the kind of threats that you have been getting, specifically targeting your gender. Do you feel that as a profession, journalism is harder for women?
My gender and religion have become two points that are especially affecting people. You can gauge a pattern when you look at the kind of hate coming my way. Jihadi Jane and ISIS sex slave are only some of the few choice names used for me by online trolls. Every name given to me gets more vicious than it is for other journalists. This is because firstly, I am an ex-Tehelka employee, which is a damned organisation because it was critical of the government, and secondly, because I am a Muslim, a woman and an outspoken critic.
When I initially joined the profession I was asked to report on entertainment and lifestyle because ‘women are not supposed to work on political stories’. You have to fight your way up. It is hard to ignore the fact that female journalists have reported some of the most damning stories in India.
In your field the experiences of women are seldom discussed. Do you think there is more that media houses can do to counter this situation?
India’s Me Too movement is in the making with most female journalists finally finding their voice. I know it took a UN statement and a porn video for the world to notice, which in itself is disturbing. The problem is that there is no solidarity and there is no empathy within the field. Complaining about harassment leads to generic answers like konsi nayi baat hai (It’s nothing new) or Trolling hi to hai (It’s just trolling). Now my question is that how can harassment of this sort be categorised as trolling anymore as it has reached my personal space? Burnt copies of Gujarat files are sent to my house. Porn videos of my image morphed in them are sent to people that also landed on my dad’s phone. How is this trolling?
What do you think is the future of free speech and investigative journalism in India, taking into account the upcoming elections and the political atmosphere in the country?
There are some of us that are raising our voices, and it would be cynical of me to say there is no space for journalism in India. Despite persecution, these journalists are fighting a lonely battle, a fact that gives me immense hope. Even if Mr Modi comes to power in 2019, the media will not be silent. Even if the mainstream media is complacent, independent journalists will not be silenced.
What do you think can be done to make journalism in India safer?
I feel the Government is not taking any steps to make journalism in India safer. Therefore, it is up to us journalists to make the space safer for each other, to become each others voice, to strengthen each others voice and to try to tell more stories. The most important thing is to keep doing journalism and not back down.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo: Printing Machine | Photo Credit: @bank_phrom, unsplash.
This interview was conducted while Rana was in London speaking at an event at LSE on Social Media, Journalism and Free Speech. The event was run in collaboration with English PEN and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). You can listen to a recording of that event here.