Rana Ayyub’s Fight for Truth and Journalism in Modi’s India

For the last several months, every time Rana Ayyub’s phone or doorbell rings, she has felt a pang of fear. Could this be the day the Indian government finally throws her in prison—or worse?

Ayyub suffered a suspected heart attack and was admitted to hospital early in October. She remembers screaming to doctors in her hospital bed: “I’m dying.” The scare turned out to be a palpitation, and she was prescribed blood pressure medication. “It happened because I was fearful of my life,” Ayyub, 37, says in a phone interview with TIME two weeks later. “I was just tired of this existence.”

Continue reading: The Indian Government is Silent to Critics Despite the COVID-19 Crisis.

Ayyub is one of India’s most famous journalists, and a thorn in the side of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After she published her own book, Ayyub rose to fame. Gujarat FilesA 2016 book, entitled ‘The Violence in Gujarat 2002: The Death of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. Ayyub’s work accused Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, and his allies of being complicit in the anti-Muslim violence and included undercover audio recordings of politicians in India’s now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. (Modi has never been formally charged and has said his government used its “full strength” to “do the right thing.”) Since then, Ayyub has struggled to find editors at mainstream Indian publications willing to publish her work. She joined Substack, an American newsletter platform this summer. Her regular column is also published by the Washington Post. Post, and has occasionally written for TIME, including a TIME cover story in April highlighting the Modi government’s mismanagement of the country’s devastating second wave of COVID-19. For the past few months, she was subject to an intensifying campaign of intimidation and harassment by Indian authorities as well as supporters of her ruling party.

“Of all the cases of journalists we work on around the world, at the moment Rana is one of my top concerns,” says Rebecca Vincent, the director of international campaigns at rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “The hate she’s facing has been escalating for years but it’s so intense at the moment. We have a history of journalists being killed with impunity in India, and frankly it’s very possible that could be repeated. When I receive urgent calls from Rana, my immediate instinct is concern for her life.” The Indian government should know, Vincent says, that the world’s eyes are watching out for Ayyub’s safety. “If something happens to her, it will be very obvious where it came from and why,” she says.

Although India is often called the world’s largest democracy, U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” in March, citing a decline in civil liberties since Modi came to power in 2014, including the intimidation of journalists and activists. Women and independent journalists are particularly vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and rape threats. Gauri Lankesh (a prominent journalist who was known for her harsh criticisms of Hindu nationalist governments) was gunned down in Bangalore. RSF notes that India “is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly” and the group’s annual World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 142 out of 180 countries. Modi’s government set up a committee in 2020 to improve India’s ranking; the committee said in March that the RSF methodology lacked transparency and identified a “Western bias” in the index. (India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not reply to a request for comment.)

Ayyub lives on the fringe. In 2018, for example, BJP supporters shared on social media a pornographic video doctored to include Ayyub’s face in an attempt to discredit her. She has been the victim of anonymous threats to her life and death via social media for more than 4 years. In the past few months she’s been subject to a series of intimidation campaigns by Indian authorities. This has surprised even her. Ayyub was among the Muslims being investigated by the Uttar Pradesh Police. They were tagging a clip of a brutal attack on a Muslim man. Police and government officials said the man’s claim was faked and police accused Ayyub and several others of attempting to “create animosity between Hindus and Muslims,” saying they did “not make an attempt to establish truth in the case.” In a statement at the time, the Uttar Pradesh government said it placed “absolute sanctity to rule of law, civil liberties and freedom of expression” and the investigation was not lodged “due to any witch-hunt.”

In June, the central government’s Income Tax Department sent Ayyub a summons, investigating her income in relation to her fundraising for COVID-19. (During the height of India’s pandemic earlier this spring, she traveled the country distributing humanitarian aid that she had raised funds for via her online following.) Shortly after, the Enforcement Directorate began investigating Ayyub’s foreign sources of income. Ayyub calls the allegations baseless. Ayyub claims she was followed on the streets by mysterious vehicles and has had to reveal to authorities sensitive information, emails and even her editor’s email addresses. She appealed against the Income Tax Department on Sept. 27. Her case remains pending. (The department did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)

Ayyub, who was followed by an unknown car for over 90 minutes through Mumbai, wrote a letter to one of her relatives for publication in the case of her untimely death. “It just says that in case anything happens to me, I don’t want you to let my death go in vain,” she says. “I want the future generation of journalists, writers, activists to know that even if my life is short-lived, it’s a fight worth fighting. While I’m alive, I’ll keep speaking.”

All over the globe, press freedom is being threatened. The Nobel Committee presented the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov (Russia) in October. These editors-in-chief were chief of independent publications, who had each been intimidated by their governments. Ayyub has had a conversation with Ressa. She finds strength in knowing that other people are facing similar trials. Recognizing Ressa Muratov and her country is a welcome thing. She sees similarities between India and theirs. The World Press Freedom Index ranks the Philippines at number 138, and Russia at number 150. “It has given so many of us the courage to fight,” she says of the Nobel Peace Prize going to embattled journalists. “It felt like it was for each one of us.”

Ayyub however isn’t an editor-in chief. Ayyub is an independent journalist who works mainly for international publications, with little support from institutions. This leaves her vulnerable and yet more determined. “If anything, what they are doing to me has made me realize that my words count, and they are having an impact,” she says.

After Ayyub’s heart scare in early October, her 75-year-old father suggested the family leave the country. He refused to let his daughter go. “I love this country more than I can ever explain,” she told TIME. “If I hated it, I would have left a long time ago. Our freedom fighters forefathers fought to make India independent and gave us the grand idea of democracy. And I’m fighting for this very idea.”

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