Being a journalist in Gujarat is a tightrope walk over a sea of fire

Ahmedabad-based editor arrested, charged with sedition, reporters barred from reporting, sends 'sarkari' message loud and clear


One would think the Government of Gujarat would have no time left on their hands as they continue to deal with the rapid spread of the Coronavirus in the state. The health security of its citizens, specially in Ahmedabad should be its top priority.

However, the Gujarat administration has allotted time, and all the state’s might, to intimidate local journalists who are merely doing their job. Recently, the Ahmedabad police arrested Dhaval Patel, the editor of an independent  Gujarati website Face of Nation, which is said to have less manpower than the posse of cops working on the case. The state of Gujarat was reacting to Patel’s story on a possible change in the political leadership. Scores of such stories are done on a regular basis by political reporters and commentators because sources share information even before such changes are officially announced. If not confirmed in time, such a routine speculative story is just dismissed as mere political gossip. If there was no weight to such a story both politicians and journalists would have laughed it off, and the author at most would be embarrassed to ignore the incorrect source for the next story.

However, Dhaval Patel’s speculative story on his news portal stated that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership was considering appointing a new Chief Minister in Gujarat. It stated that Union Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandavia was the one who may be considered as a replacement for the current Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. According to news reports the changes were being planned as Covid-19 cases continued to rise in the state.

As expected, the state decided to arrest the messenger, when they could have just denied the story, or ignored it and let it fade away. The journalist’s arrest however, has exposed the system, more  than the initial story itself did. Senior Gujarat journalists stood in solidarity with Dhaval Patel and took to social media. “#DhavalPatel, editor of website Face of Nation wrote a speculative story on replacement of CM @vijayrupanibjp with Union Min @mansukhmandviya. Dhaval was arrested under Sedition charges. Today magistrate MMKhojjada okayed the cops’ remand plea. #Gujarat ofcourse Pix:Bankim Patel

,” posted Deepal Trivedi, editor Ahmedabad Mirror 



She went on to post: “Gujarat Is Not Safe For Journalists” as her new profile picture.



Journalist Kunal Majumder filled in the gaps and shared that Dhaval Patel’s lawyer Anand Yagnik was not allowed to meet him. 



The story of a possible change of leadership was carried on Patel’s  portal on May 7 headlined: “Mansukh Mandaviya called by high command, chances of leadership change in Gujarat.” It said that Mansukh Mandaviya, who is the Union Minister of State for Shipping (independent charge) and Chemicals and Fertilisers and a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, may be appointed Chief Minister, due to “criticism over rising Covid-19 cases” in the state. As expected it was followed up by many local media outlets. 

The traction of this story eventually prompted Mandavia himself to issue a clarification that Gujarat was not getting a new chief minister. His ‘clarification’ was translated by twitter thus (sic) : “Today humanity is fighting against Corona and Gujarat is also respecting Chief Minister Shri @vijayrupanibjp Spreading rumors of a change of leadership at a time when there is a resolute fight under G’s leadership is an act to the detriment of Gujarat’s interests. Citizens are urged to avoid rumors along with Corona.”



Why did Mandavia issue a prompt clarification at all is perhaps worth another story by itself. The question of who leaked the news tip off to Patel, in the first place is worth asking too. As any political journalist worth their byline will tell you, even such speculative stories do not come easy on most days, and even speculations need some kind of information from political party insiders.

But all that can wait. Apparently the story also disturbed a local police constable who filed a first information report against  journalist Dhaval Patel. Eventually, Patel was picked up by the crime branch on May 11. According to news reports the constable’s FOR stated that the story was “ baseless” and had the potential of unleashing “instability and atmosphere of fear” in Gujarat, a state which is faring poorly as the Coronavirus is spreading  and Covid-19 cases are on the rise. The police seem to have acted super fast, looking at the speed at which they arrested Patel, after ensuring he was free of Coronavirus infection. 

The news reports do not mention if any other local news establishment or journalist who followed up Patel’s story have also been arrested for carrying the speculative report. If not, then why did they rush to arrest Patel? Patel is by no yardstick the most well known, most powerful journalist in Gujarat, if there was ever such a thing. Most of his media colleagues have marveled how he himself manages to run his news portal almost single handedly. . “He is almost a one man show, he reports, he writes, he is not that big a name to have influenced any change,” said a now retired vetran journalist who asked, “why are they targeting him?” 

Dhaval Patel, was picked up from his residence on Monday, said news reports, he was booked under Indian Penal Code Section 124 A, better known as ‘Sedition’ and also Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (punishment for false warning) by the Ahmedabad Detection of Crime Branch (DCB) for “trying to create unrest in society”. The police, under the current protocol, had to ensure Patel underwent a Covid-19 test, and arrested him once he tested negative.

Jignesh Mevani, MLA took at dig at Vijay Rupani too and said: “ Dear @vijayrupanibjp bhai, we all know that what Mr. Dhaval Patel has written is hurting you a lot, but that does not mean you stoop to vendetta politics…” 

Mevani has demanded that  Dhaval Patel be released and the case be closed.



Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) president Amit Chavda lashed out at the police action. He said those who slapped sedition charges on the journalist who reported news of “failed” chief minister Vijay Rupani possibly being replaced by Mansukh Mandviya could also consider BJP leader, senior lawyer Subramaniam Swamy who tweeted something similar about the post of CM. 



For good measure he posted a screenshot of Swami’s May 8  tweet where he says: “Gujarat can be stabilised for coronavirus casualty numbers only if Anandiben Patel returns as CM.”



Patel is not the first journalist to be targeted under the cover of the Coronavirus pandemic. Ahmedabad Mirror reporters were ‘banned’ from entering Ahmedabad Railway Station, apparently on “orders from Delhi”. The reporter had recorded a video of an official preventing her from doing her job as a journalist. 

She was stopped from entering after the paper had carried a ground report on how migrant workers leaving Gujarat had to pay an inflated fare, for their own train tickets. This report had punctured holes in the political claims of the government sponsoring the migrants travel home on the special trains. The paper’s editor Deepal Trivedi stood by the report and her team. “We are proud that we @ahmedabadmirror exposed how migrants in #Gujarat had to pay money for their tickets, sometimes much more than the specified price.Today we were not allowed entry at Railway Station in #Ahmedabad , #Gujarat”



In fact this is not the first time a journalist has been charged with ‘Sedition’ for writing a news report. Prashant Dayal faced it head on as a young reporter way back in 2008. He was then covering the crime beat at the Times of India and had filed a story on the then police commissioner. The police were quick to react even then and booked him for sedition, the charge topping a bouquet of six FIRs. He had to secure an anticipatory bail order, and then fought the case for years in court. That he had the backing and legal support from his seniors at Times Of India, one of the most influential newspaper brands in India even now, helped him survive the ordeal. 

All Dhaval Patel has at the moment is virtual solidarity of his well wishers, and a statement of The Editors Guild Of India, and hopefully a good lawyer. 



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