Over 3,500 eminent civil society members including jurists, artistes, writers and many others, have slammed the Uttar Pradesh government for filing an FIR against Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire.
Two FIRs were filed against him and the online news portal under various provisions of the law on April 1, one on the basis of a complaint from a resident of Ayodhya and the other on the basis of a complaint by the Station House Officer (SHO) of Faizabad’s Kotwali Nagar Police Station, the letter by the jurists to the UP government noted, reported News 18.
A plain reading of the sections invoked in the FIRs makes it clear they cannot possibly apply to the article in question, the statement said. “The FIRs were followed up with a gross display of intimidation on April 10, when policemen arrived in a black SUV with no number plate at Varadarajan’s residence in Delhi to issue a legal notice, ordering him to appear in Ayodhya on April 14 at 10 am,” it said.
The decision of the UP government to send policemen who drove 700 km to issue summons during the lockdown, even when the postal system was still operational, spoke volumes of the government’s priorities the statement said. “The UP police’s action is just the latest in a series of attempts by the ruling establishment, or persons close to them, to entangle The Wire and its editors in legal cases in an effort to shut them down,” it said.
The police action against The Wire also came against the backdrop of the “demonisation of Muslims” in a section of the media as being responsible for the spread of the novel coronavirus in India, the statement said. A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency, the statement added. In their statement, the signatories expressed their shock at the action of the UP government under the Yogi Adityanath and police in filing criminal charges against The Wire and its founding editors, for an “entirely factual story of the Covid-19 and religious events.”
The statement said the target of this action was a factual story on the Tablighi Jamaat and its exposure to COVID-19.
“Towards the end, the impugned article merely pointed out that ‘Indian believers’ more generally have been late to adopt precautions and avoid congregation, recalling UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s plans, as late as March 18, to proceed with a religious fair at Ayodhya and his flouting of the national lockdown and social distancing norms by taking part in a religious ceremony along with others on March 25,” the statement said.
The FIR against him was allegedly filed for a tweet which read, “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Adityanath insisted a large Ram Navami fair planned for Ayodhya from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual and that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus.” In another tweet Varadarajan had said, “I should clarify that it was Acharya Paramhans, Hindutva stalwart and head of the official Ayodhya temple trust, who said Ram would protect devotees from coronavirus, and not Adityanath, though he allowed a public event on 25/3 in defiance of the lockdown and took part himself.”
The letter to the UP government stated that the administration used coronavirus as an excuse to curb press freedom and demanded that all criminal proceedings against him be dropped. They also called upon the media to not communalise the pandemic. “This attack on media freedom, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, endangers not just free speech, but the public’s right to information,” the statement said.
The signatories to the letter include former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur, former Madras High Court judge K Chandru and former Patna High Court Anjana Prakash. Other signatories include former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, former foreign secretary Sujatha Singh, former adviser to the Government of Punjab, former ambassador to Romania Julio Ribeiro and former CEC MS Gill among other senior journalists, bureaucrats, actors, etc.
In an article for The Wire, about the online publication, the police and beyond, economist Amartya Sen said, “Steps to undermine democracy in India are becoming increasingly common. The police action by the Uttar Pradesh government – ruled by the same political party that runs the Central government – against The Wire and its founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, shows how far-reaching the destructive stabs at democracy have become in India.”