It's Not Possible To Fool People Forever: NewsClick Founder Prabir Purkayastha After 225 Days In Jail

07 Jun 2024 19 min read  Share

After being imprisoned for 225 days under India's draconian law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which makes it nearly impossible to obtain bail, Prabir Purkayastha, the founder of NewsClick, was granted bail, and the Supreme Court upheld his arrest by the Delhi Police as “invalid in the eyes of the law”. In this interview, Purkayastha discussed his time in jail during the emergency period and the BJP’s second consecutive term since 2014, press freedom in India, and the joy of being out.

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Delhi: “Sorry, I have forgotten how to put people on hold, so I had to disconnect your call,” Prabir Purkayastha, a journalist and political activist,  said during a phone conversation last week. 

Founder of the NewsClick news website, Purkayastha was released after 225 days of incarceration under India’s draconian counter-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), which makes it nearly impossible to get bail.

“Is that the effect of being in jail for over seven months?” we asked.

“Absolutely,” the 74–year–old chuckled. 

After the Delhi police raided Newsclick’s office in Delhi and the homes of its reporters on 3 October 2023, Purkayastha and his colleague Amit Chakravarty, the website's head of human resources, were arrested over allegations of receiving foreign money for “pro-China propaganda” and wanting to “defame India”. 

The Supreme Court on 15 May 2024 ordered Purkayastha’s release from custody, saying it felt “no hesitation” to declare the arrest and remand of him under the UAPA by the Delhi Police as “invalid in the eyes of the law”. 

The court, while granting bail, noted that the police had failed to inform Purkayastha of the grounds of his arrest before taking him into custody, and a copy of the remand application was not provided to Purkayastha or his counsel before passing the remand order on 4 October 2023.

Chakravarty, who turned approver shortly after they were arrested in October, was released on bail ten days earlier by the Delhi High Court. 

This was not the first time Purkayastha had been imprisoned in his long career as a senior journalist and public intellectual. 

Born in 1949, Purkayastha, an engineer and political activist in the literacy and free software movements, was arrested during the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nearly half a century ago. He was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), 1971, another draconian law intended to suppress civil and political unrest in India.

Critics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have said the Emergency era was revived under the Hindu nationalist party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi secured a third term for the BJP in the 2024 general election, albeit in a far more subdued victory where they fell far short of the 400 seats they said they would get and must now rely on their allies to form a coalition government.  

Journalists have reported increased pressure and harassment. India’s global press freedom index ranking plummeted from 140 in 2014 to 161 in 2023 before improving marginally in 2024 to 159. According to the Sweden-based V Dem Institute's Democracy Report 2024, India has remained an “electoral autocracy” since 2018. 

The Modi government has targeted, intimidated, and arrested journalists using draconian laws like the UAPA and other legislation to stifle dissent and critical coverage by independent media houses like NewsClick, which Purkayastha founded in 2009.

The government has raided independent and foreign news outlets and civil society organisations, scrutinised their finances, and clamped down on foreign funding.

Since 2014, the government has either charged or investigated at least 15 journalists under the UAPA.

Purkayastha was booked under UAPA sections 13 (unlawful activities), 16 (terrorist act), 17 (raising funds for terrorist acts), 18 (conspiracy) and 22C (offences by companies, trusts) as well as Indian Penal Code sections 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 120B (criminal conspiracy).

Coordinated raids at over 100 sites in Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurugram, and Mumbai on 3 October by 500 police personnel were some of the most extensive on India's media in recent years. 

The raids were connected to a case registered against NewsClick following a report in The New York Times on 10 August 2023 alleging that the website had received funds from American millionaire Neville Roy Singham to spread “Chinese propaganda”. The report claimed that Singham worked closely with the “Chinese government media machine” and used his network of non–profit groups and shell companies to “finance its propaganda worldwide”.

Tensions between India and China have been high since 2020 following clashes in a border area that resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese service members. 

Indian authorities registered a case against NewsClick and its journalists on 17 August 2023. 

Singham and NewsClick denied the charges. 

Newsclick said there was “no corroborative material” and the website would address the allegations in court. 

A month later, the BJP government banned 59 Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, and launched tax investigations into Chinese mobile phone companies.

NewsClick and its journalists have faced two raids: one in 2021 and the other in 2023l 

On 9 February 2021, the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crime, conducted simultaneous search and seizure raids at eight locations associated with NewsClick. The raid at the portal’s office in South Delhi’s Said-ul-Ajaib locality lasted over 38 hours, during which editors and management staff were not allowed to leave the premises, and other staff members were barred entry.

While he was jailed for more than seven months in Rohini jail, Purkayastha's book Keeping Up the Good Fight: From the Emergency to the Present Day was released, which details his experience as a student activist and scientist incarcerated by two authoritarian regimes in India. 

In this interview, Purkayastha spoke of his time in jail, the procedural lapses that led to his release, press freedom in India, the allegations against him, and the similarities and differences between being in prison under Gandhi’s declared emergency and what critics call an “undeclared emergency” under Modi’s regime. 

You were incarcerated for over seven months. How are you feeling after being released? 

Well, first of all, I feel it's not a very long period of time, given the UAPA case I was charged with, under which the bails are normally never before two to three years. So, in that sense, when the UAPA was imposed on me, I assumed that I wouldn't get out for at least one to two years. So yes, the Supreme Court verdict and the bail came as quite a pleasant surprise to me. 

What did you feel when you were first accused? 

If you are working as a journalist, you take it for granted that the rulers will not like your publishing reports on what the rich and powerful are doing or on people’s protests. So, I was not surprised that NewsClick and its coverage annoyed many, including the government. Since I have seen the Emergency of 1975 close-up, I can say that the challenges for the press and journalists are not new. NewsClick is not the only organisation facing government action, and I am not the only journalist against whom cases have been instituted, including the draconian UAPA. 

Even before they used the UAPA, NewsClick and I were investigated by several agencies—the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax Department, and now the Central Bureau of Investigation. So, I cannot say I was surprised by my arrest under UAPA, nor can I consider it an exception, given what many other journalists and news organisations are facing today.

Journalists have been raided and interrogated, and their electronic devices seized. For many, this loss included not only the financial loss of computers and phones but also invaluable materials collected over a long period, such as drafts of a book or M.Phil or PhD theses. This is in addition to losing their jobs and livelihoods. 

What do you feel about how the Indian media covered the proceedings against you?

Some asked the questions a good journalist should. However, a section of the media has been writing what the powerful want rather than speaking truth to power. We all recall what Lal Krishana Advani said after the Emergency: that the press crawled when asked to bend. I’m afraid that mentality persists in a section of the media, particularly big or corporate-owned media. 

What do you think of the New York Times article contributing to your ordeal?

Interestingly, the party currently in power dismisses all criticism in the foreign press, but it seized one line in The New York Times article about NewsClick as gospel truth. It shows how some of us have not shed our colonial mindset even while propagating India as Vishwaguru (global teacher). 

Could you elaborate on the procedural lapses in your case?

These things are better told by a lawyer than me because, after all, this thing with law, they know what the nuances of law are, but very broadly put, the grounds of arrest were not communicated to me in writing, which is what needs to be done at the law. 

As the Court has said, you have to separate the grounds of arrest from the basis of arrest because the grounds have to be concrete and specific to my case. The court judgement spells this out in several pages. 

The second part is that a lawyer of my choice did not represent me because I was produced at 6 a.m. 

The special cell knew that I had a lawyer. They had my lawyer's phone number, but despite that, they chose the legal cell to represent me, and I protested to the judge then that I had a lawyer. She said, no, your lawyer is there. I said I don't know him. I have not asked him to represent me. He's not even talked to me. So, at that point, she said you could give me your lawyer's phone number. Then, they called my lawyer. She said she didn't have time to wait for them for so long, and by the time he [my lawyer] came, it would be too late for her. 

But the point is that a lawyer of choice did not represent me, and the grounds of the arrest were not given to me in writing. 

What is your view of the court’s judgement? 

Let's put it this way: I'm an articulate, middle-class person who can say certain things. People who get into police custody don't even know it. So unless you ensure that by default, the police do what it is supposed to do under the law, there will be these kinds of problems. UAPA and Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) are draconian laws, and you can go under arrest for quite some time. Therefore, the need for procedural protection to be strong has also failed. 

Could you compare your time in jail during the Emergency period to now?

Critics have always been unwelcome for governments. And, of course, during the emergency 48 years back, we had what is called the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), which was meant to be weaponised against political opposition. That's when I was also arrested. 

Again, when Mrs Gandhi won the election, she never imposed an emergency. So, this is an aberration. What we're seeing now is not a declared emergency, but people would say that many of those things are happening. People are afraid to speak; if they speak, they get income tax raids and other things against them. But the point again is that this kind of weaponisation against any contrary voice or any criticism is more pervasive at the moment.

At the same time, because the Supreme Court and high courts are there, there are still some checks on the administrative authorities. However, it is also true that social media has changed the equation. And now, it's very difficult to stifle all the voices. So physically stifling voices is not enough.  And then, of course, the big business media doesn't look upon media as journalism; they look upon it as business. Their business interests are hurt, and then the journalists have to toe the line. 

I am often asked whether it's an undeclared emergency or a declared emergency. I believe this period differs from what you saw during the emergency long ago. Nevertheless, the attacks on various sections of the people continue, particularly those willing to speak. But the interesting part is that people still speak out, and we continue to see that people want to speak up.

The Maintenance of the Internal Security Act also did not have an end in mind. The arrest every three months would be extended. So, for a period, I did not know whether I would get out in three months or not in 30 years—complete uncertainty. That was one part of it.

It was easy to silence the press during that time because you had to disconnect the electricity. And that was it. They couldn't function, which was what happened on the night of the Emergency. The electricity was cut off for all the press clubs. Then, formal censorship laws required everything to be shown (to the government) before they could go into the paper. Initially, the press protested by leaving blank columns. The authorities said that no, you can't leave blank columns either. All of this meant that official information channels were choked.

Now, these things are not there. Officially, you can still read right, write and so on. But then various cases can be filed against you. So implicitly, the threat is similar but not the same. That also gives people a lot more leeway than earlier. 

Earlier, I was put in a better ward, presumably because I was arrested as a political prisoner and was kept in a separate ward and was treated differently. Now we are all put in the same wards with everybody. I'm not saying there is a special case to be made for us because UAPA is a criminal offence, according to them. 

A fellow in jail once told me that if ‘you have come inside, you must have done something’, the presumption is that you're guilty unless proven innocent. Prison inmates also looked at us that way. So, there was no differential stay, essentially differential treatment of political prisoners. Yes, you're partially protected. In my case, by my age, I was the oldest inmate in Rohini jail. 

Also, being a middle-class person connected to a news organisation meant that the normal prison population saw me differently, and that gave me some privileges. 

But I had this problem: Rohini jail is supposed to be for repeat offenders, and I suspect that they thought I, too, was a repeat offender. When I was asked whether I had been to jail earlier, I said yes, 48 years back during an emergency. Then they told the cops that he had to be taken to Rohini jail. This is a bitter jail, a kind of harder jail. 

Nevertheless, the food in jail for prisoners is a lot better overall. It was not tasty but healthy. Eating for the first few days was difficult, but I got used to it.

There is leakage in walls, as all government institutions have, and they all say it is a part of the system. You always get people inside the jail who talk to or help you. There was a UAPA Biradari (community), also known as those who are arrested under UAPA. So, we would often share notes on each other's cases. I met one civil rights lawyer from Kashmir, Khurram Parvez. He and I became friendly. Then, there was a journalist named Irfan Mehraj, who also became a good friend. So we had that going for us. 

What did you think of prison?

I am a political activist, apart from other things. Therefore, my ability to deal with different sections of people is relatively more than most other middle-class people. I didn't have that as a problem; I could relate to them, and I could talk to them as equals. And they also did talk to me, and they accepted me as somebody who was one of them. So that was not the problem. 

Otherwise, you know, if you behave like a saheb (boss), you get cut off from the population. That wasn't going to happen with me, and it never happened. So that is one part of it. They also saw that I read, knew certain things, wrote, etc. So there was that respect, which they always paid. 

The problem is, of course, you are with the population of all classes and all kinds. There are different kinds of people who have committed different kinds of crimes. You have to suspend your judgment because otherwise, you cannot really survive.

Initially, I was worried about whether I could handle all that at my age. I was quite surprised that the human body is resilient, so I could manage both the food and the kind of conditions we were in. This winter was harsh, and I am a patient with diabetes. I did fall ill about four times in the winter. But beyond that, I was physically fit. I kept myself as fit as I could. It hasn't gotten me physically or mentally down.

Did it not take any kind of mental or emotional toll on you?

I don't want to sound vainglorious. I will say that I've been able to handle this successfully. Also, thanks to all the people in jail who have supported me somehow—people like Khurram and Irfan, with whom I developed an equation and could talk about various things under the sun. Looking at all of this, I would say that I've returned physically and mentally as I was. But yes, I have passed a test, and I think this test has made me stronger. 

Tell us something about your recently published book.

I finished writing this book just a week before the special cell’s “visit” to my home and my subsequent arrest. The book describes the similarities and differences between the Emergency and the history unfolding in our own time. In both cases, the real actors of history are not the political parties or the opposition but the people of this country. 

My arrest experience, once again under a draconian law, made me feel the book had come alive. It was as if I was living out what I had asked in the book: does every generation have to face an Emergency?

How do you think your arrest has impacted NewsClick's operation? 

The organisation has virtually been shut down. The income tax department seized all our accounts. We can't pay our journalists. What's worse is that even the provident fund is held up, so we have not been able to pay the provident funds.

NewsClick, at the moment, is surviving by just voluntary labour and people voluntarily paying somebody or the other.  People are still working. That's a very small number of people, though. But the basic infrastructure is the problem. How do you keep that functioning? Hopefully, within a month or so, we can get something going beyond volunteering.

NewsClick has been very critical of the present dispensation. 

I would say that instead of being critical, NewsClick has been very objective for the present government. That is not the only trigger. Their main problem, I think, is that we cover people's movements, and that was what really bothered them.  

What is it like being out?

Of course, right now, it is a huge relief to be out. I hope my bail will also help others.

But I also feel unhappy that today, many others, journalists as well as civil rights activists, are languishing in prison. In most cases, the charges have not even been framed. This brings to mind what Dostoyevsky wrote: that the degree of civilisation in a country can be measured by observing how it treats its prisoners. If we keep that in mind, Indian prisons would fare quite poorly.

What have you been doing since you got out?

Well, the first few weeks have been time to catch up with family, friends, and well-wishers, whose support and solidarity helped sustain me in jail. I am indeed overwhelmed by the goodwill of my fellow journalists and others in civil society and various political parties. And, of course, I owe a special thanks to my lawyers, without whose efforts I would have been inside for much longer. 

How do you view the changing media landscape?

Every step taken against a journalist also reflects on the community, having what is called a chilling effect. The press faces those kinds of things because most of it is owned as a business. Therefore, the business interest takes precedence over the journalistic interest.

Are you hopeful?

Of course, always. There's no question. This cannot go on forever, and the people of this country have enormous faith that there will be a change. We saw it during Mrs Gandhi's Emergency, which taught her a lesson. When she returned, she did not impose an Emergency. 

I have faith that the people of this country, irrespective of temporarily being swayed by this or that, have their fundamentals clear. They understand their interests well, so it's possible to fool some people for some time, but not forever. Besides, there are too many digital organisations for the authorities to crack down on. It is easy to shut down a major media company, but small platforms are more edgy and willing to take more risks.

A picture of you with your partner was widely circulated on social media.

I don't want to give a sentimental answer. It is great to be out and to see so many friends and, of course, my partner. It was something which I had not thought would happen so quickly. I'm sorry I can't give a soft answer. All I can say is that it was great. And I know that's a very boring answer.

What did you think of the election result?

The election results are a clear victory for the people who have asserted that the Modi-led government did not address their issues of employment, fair wages and remunerative prices for farmers. They did not believe the myth of the rich pulling up the poor and knew that when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Neither is the stock market an indicator of the Indian economy. We also saw Maharashtra reject the use of various arms of the government being used against other parties. All of these combined to defeat the divisive politics that we have been witnessing in the country.

Do you think the agencies will go easy on your case? 

Again no comment on the case. 

Do you anticipate an easing in the pressure against journalists and dissidents?

I believe that with a coalition government and with the verdict of the people, the Modi government will not follow the path they have been following. It will probably also allow other voices in the BJP to be assertive. At the same time, the opposition parties will have to be more assertive to use the democratic spaces that have opened up with this verdict. However much the BJP voices in the media may claim nothing has changed and BJP has won with its allies, there is already a change we can see in the media. The various institutions in the country, civil society, and the media are responding already to the people's verdict that they want a change in the way they are being governed. I believe that this message that the people have given will lead to changes sooner rather than later. 

(Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in Delhi, and Hanan Zaffar is a writer and filmmaker.)

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