Subhash Mohalla locality in North East Delhi, is like all others in the densely populated area. Narrow lanes that form a maze only locals seem to be able to navigate, houses built wall-to-wall, so close that conversations from next door can sometimes be heard. The crowds take minutes to gather in these lanes. Here, rumours spread fast, as do fear, hate and violence.
On Tuesday, August 11 afternoon, a frenzied group of men and women came out into these lanes and violently assaulted three journalists of the Caravan magazine. The journalists, Prabhjit Singh, Shahid Tantray, and a woman journalist who wishes to remain anonymous, were in the area working on a newsreport when they were surrounded, beaten, communally abused, harassed, and threatened with murder by the mob. The woman journalist was also sexually harassed by a mob of men when she escaped into a bylane, in an attempt to reach the local police station.
The mob threated to kill photojournalist Shahid Tantray, on learning that he was a Muslim, they verbally abused him and Prabhjit Singh, a Sikh, with communal slurs. In the mob was a saffron clad man who identified himself as a “general secretary” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The three journalists narrowly escaped the worst, and somehow reached the Bhajanpura police station. By late night, the news broke on social media and it was being said that the mob had also gathered outside the police station too. The journalists spent hours writing a detailed complaint by hand recording the sequence of violence they had just survived.
In his detailed complaint, Prabhjit Singh has put on record that if he was not present, “the mob led by that saffron-clad man would have lynched Shahid for his Muslim identity.”
Local police personnel subsequently managed to take the staffers to the nearby Bhajanpura station. In his complaint, @Prabhtalks wrote that were he not present, “the mob led by that saffron-clad man would have lynched Shahid for his Muslim identity.” pic.twitter.com/7XLpzmscwv
— The Caravan (@thecaravanindia) August 11, 2020
According to the reporters, when the mob heard Shahid’s name that identifies him as a Muslim, they began to physically attack, verbally abuse and threatened to kill him. Local police personnel subsequently managed to take the staffers to the police station. The third staffer of Caravanindia, a woman, was sexually harassed and physically assaulted. According to the information shared on social media, after the mob began attacking her, and her colleagues, she managed to extricate herself and escape to a neighbouring lane.
a man in the mob that attacked @thecaravanindia reporters identified himself as affiliated with the BJP, members of the mob then collected at the bhajanpura police station and even followed the reporters to the hospital where they were taken for a medical examination. https://t.co/WBBsjabf2b
— Hartosh Singh Bal (@HartoshSinghBal) August 11, 2020
As the woman staffer ran and attempted to reach the Bhajanpura station, the mob attacked her again. The attackers beat her on her head, arms, hips and chest. The man in the saffron kurta was among them, as were two women. pic.twitter.com/GgZk3Zs8is
— The Caravan (@thecaravanindia) August 11, 2020
It was there that she was once again surrounded by a group of young men who started clicking photos and filming the woman journalist, without her consent. This mob also verbally harassed her. It got worse from there, and a middle-aged man exposed his genitals to her, shook his penis and made lewd facial expressions at her. She tried to run away and try to reach the Bhajanpura station, when the mob attacked her again. They hit her on the head, arms, hips and chest. The man in the saffron kurta was among them, as were two women.
A group of young men encircled the woman reporter, shooting videos and images of her, while passing lewd comments. One man pulled down his dhoti in front of her, another demanded access to her phone, a mob of men and women hit her. The cost of journalism in India’s capital.
— Nikita Saxena (@nikita1712) August 11, 2020
The Caravan reporters have covered the North East Delhi scores of times since communal riots broke out here in February this year. This time too they were visiting for follow up reportage, when they were attacked. According to a nching which is a serious threat to life. The mob tried to force the team to reveal their source and delete their video footage and pictures they shot while reporting.
The Caravan reports that “at the lane where the attack had begun, Singh recounted that a crowd of around twenty people had already assembled at the area even before the saffron-clad man asked to see Tantray’s ID card. He informed the crowd that the three journalists were members of the press and were not doing anything illegal. “We are only taking photos of the lane, not inside anyone’s house,” Singh told the crowd. “Any journalist would take these photos if they saw so many saffron flags.” But the crowd did not relent. The man in saffron told them, “Tumhari tarah fattichar patrakar bahut dekhe hai” (I have seen many wretched journalists like you). “Main BJP general secretary hun, humaara kuch nahi bigaad sakte tum” (I am a BJP general secretary, you can’t do anything to us).
Tantray said that when the man saw his name on the press card, he exclaimed, “Tu toh ka**ua mullah hai”—he identified Shahid as Muslim, and used “ka**ua,” meaning circumcised, and “mullah,” meaning a Muslim man. Both terms are commonly used as slurs against Muslims. The man immediately began calling other locals, and within minutes, the crowd had swelled to around fifty people. “The crowd became really aggressive and numbers increased rapidly after seeing Shahid’s ID,” Singh said. They began hurling communal abuses at Tantray.
For nearly ninety minutes, the mob surrounded the two journalists and shouted communal slurs at Tantray, while also repeatedly and aggressively manhandling, slapping and kicking him. When Singh tried to intervene, they kicked him as well, stated The Caravan. Tantray also told Newslaundry the group of men who had initially started questioning the journalists why they were reporting in Subhash Mohalla, “swelled to a larger group when one of the men, dressed in a saffron kurta and with a fractured arm, contacted others and asked them to show up.”
“When I said that we were reporting on the August 5 incident, he said that nothing happened here. I asked him to say this on camera but he refused. Then he called the police and others and the crowd began swelling,” NL quotes Tantray.
On the August 5, a group of people, apparently celebrating the foundation laying ceremony of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya 6, had planted saffron flags on the gates of Muslim-majority gully in Subhash Mohalla, which also has a mosque called Auliya Masjid written on the area’s road sign outside. Even months after the riots, most of North East Delhi remains a communally sensitive area. Journalists, especially women journalists, often find themselves surrounded by crowds in seconds, as they talk to people to gather information for their reportage.
Journalists have to be extra careful and alert when covering these areas, usually done on foot. Many, especially photo journalists, have often continued to wear helmets in the area even after dismounting their vehicles.
According to eyewitnesses from Subhash Mohalla who spoke to Newslaundry, the woman journalist was pleading with locals to take her to the police station and when someone tried to help, “a group of 15-20 people, including women, entered from the gate and began dragging her away.” The eyewitness said while the local police had arrived they were “ not actively attempting to pacify the crowd” which dragged the woman journalist by the hair and beat her up. This mob included women.
As stated by The Caravan, the woman journalist has noted in her complaint that, “a middle-aged man in a dhoti and a white t-shirt, with a bald head and a slim pony-tail stood in front of me. He then opened his dhoti and exposed his genitals while looking at me. He proceeded to shake his penis with his hand and started making objectionable and lewd expressions, while laughing at me.”
The woman journalist has filed a separate complaint, in addition to the one already filed by her male colleagues. Women journalists remain the most vulnerable, especially when out reporting from the ground.
According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, violence against women, including against women journalists, comprises any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI), condemns the attack on Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh, and a woman journalist (identity withheld) of The Caravan magazine. “The physical attack on all the three journalists and the sexual harassment and of the woman journalist, while reporting, are serious assaults and represent a setback to press freedom. This incident is a chilling indicator of the grave risks to on-ground reporting that journalists in India have been facing, even in the national capital,” stated NWMI.
The network has demanded that, Delhi police immediately file an FIR including all relevant sections on physical assault and also sexual harassment, and a credible investigation into the incident is launched. They have also demanded immediate action against the attacking mob. “The attack on the three journalists once again raises major concerns over the safety of journalists in India. Despite the fact that press freedom has been recognised as part of freedom of speech and expression under the Constitution, journalists in India are being repeatedly subjected to physical assaults. According to a report collated by Rights and Risk Analysis Group, between March and May, 55 journalists have been targeted for doing their job.
“The pattern of aggressive mobs targeting journalists on the basis of their religion and gender was also seen recently during the Delhi violence in February. This is a grave and serious threat to the Indian media and the democratic ethos of the country. The fact that such incidents continue also demonstrates the lack of political will to create a climate for free expression and press freedom,” stated the NWMI.
NWMI has pointed out that this latest attack on journalists, “demonstrates the impunity enjoyed by political groups. These physical attacks are part of the ongoing trend to promote self-censorship, as it could act as a deterrent to journalists from seeking the truth, reporting from the ground, and doing their duty.”
In the past few months, scores of journalists have been attacked for covering riots and violence that has targeted minority communities. Senior journalists have been named in FIRs and summoned to join police investigations, because they reported on the original events, attacks, and situations that are a matter of public record.
Senior Journalist Aakar Patel, who himself has been attacked by right wing trolls, has demanded that the The Editors Guild take the matter up with Delhi Police. The guild, he says “needs to engage with Delhi police on the issue of the assault on @thecaravanindia journalists. It is unacceptable.”
Have asked Editors Guild of India to engage with state re assault on @thecaravanindia journalists and media restrictions in J&K. Need to work with government to ensure journalists can report unmolested and without fear.
We are 142 on world press freedom index.
— Aakar Patel (@Aakar__Patel) August 12, 2020
Delhi Police, of course, is yet to respond online, to this attack which is being discussed by many. While this is one of the most serious, and vicious attacks on journalists, and journalism, there has been a deafening silence from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Information and Broadcasting minister and Delhi Police Commissioner. Even the usually voluble Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too is yet to take notice.
Silence from the authorities is perhaps what has emboldened the man in saffron who allegedly led the attack.