Wednesday, September 21, 2016

India's officials shadow journalist writing book on 2002 Gujarat riots? Scribe's claim in PEN International report

By Rajiv Shah
Revati Laul, an independent journalist who is writing a book about the 2002 Gujarat riots, has made it know how she is being meticulously shadowed for the last 18 months during her investigation into the massacre that took place 14 years ago through the eyes of three men who were part of a riotous mob. Laul is known to have been attacked by a 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre convict in January during her probe in Ahmedabad.
Writing in the just-released “Fearful Silence: the Chill on India’s Public Sphere”, a joint research project by the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto, and PEN International, a high-profile non-profit organization promoting freedom of expression across the globe, Laul says, though she has still not written a word, “Gujarat’s state intelligence bureau has been monitoring me.”
Giving details, she says, “One day, they asked someone I’d spoken with earlier how they knew me and what had I been inquiring about. Irritated, my contact replied, rather aptly, ‘Aren’t you from the intelligence bureau? Then find out what she was doing, why should I do your job?’”
“Another time”, she says, “I was consulting a lawyer in a sessions court when she noticed someone watching us. Our eavesdropper hid behind a green cloth facade and then he ran away. I’ve had phone calls from unknown numbers, with strange voices asking me to identify myself.”
Laul notes, “I’ve also learned that the government is checking up on me as I go about my work. This could be because my book focuses on crimes that have given our current politics much of its heft. Any mention of the mobs in Gujarat affronts the present administration, and it specializes in harassing people like me.”
Calling her proposed book “The Anatomy of Hate”, as “it sums up the project rather well”, Laul regrets, midway through her research, when she sought funding for the project, she encountered “fear and silence within Indian institutions, and also some abroad.” She adds, “I’ve also learned that the government is checking up on me as I go about my work.”
Pointing out how even NGOs withdrew, she says, “Between 2014 and 2015, an international NGO agreed to support me so that I could work on the book full-time. A year later it withheld further funding due to the fearful atmosphere created by the present administration.”
Laul underlines, “Like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Gujarat’s violence cannot be named. Every institution I approached, both in India and abroad, politely declined to fund me. I won’t mention names because I can’t be certain why they rejected me. But off-the-record knowledgeable sources told me that my topic was considered too controversial.”
Much like Rana Ayyub’s book, “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up”, which she self-published (click HERE) following failure to get any support for publishing it, Laul says, “I haven’t let this shadow boxing interfere with my work.”
Pointing out how even crowd funding has not been easy, Laul says, “After knocking on every door I knew, I decided to crowdfund.” Using an Indian website for the purpose, Wishberry, she says, “The results were astonishing. I raised 25 percent more than my target.”
Yet, she says, even Wishberry “was being trolled by a pro-government acolyte who had copied Modi and his deputy on their twitter handles and demanded to know why a site like Wishberry was backing a ‘liar’ like me.”
Things went so far that the site got a “call from a top industrialist, one of the site’s main supporters, asking why had they endorsed the campaign in the first place, and shouldn’t it be taken down.”
This led to “heated exchanges with Wishberry”, during which, Laul says, she pointed out that she “had warned them that trolls and threats might come their way; that this is de rigueur given the kind of book I was writing, and it would be completely unfair, and a violation of their processes, if they threatened to scuttle my campaign one third of the way through.”
Laul says, “They dropped the campaign from their Facebook and Twitter feeds but left the original funding page intact, adding however that if at some point they felt the campaign was ‘hurting the sentiments of thousands of people’ and they had to ‘choose between the nation and me’ they’d choose ‘the nation’.”
Reporting how “an army of troll-rats”, meanwhile, stalks her on Twitter and Facebook, calling her “sickular – a portmanteau word for sick and secular – and a ‘presstitute’ (a journalist for hire)”, Laul says, “These commonplace insults don’t bother me, but they can affect the attitudes of potential funders and supporters, and here they cause real damage.”

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