The process becomes the punishment: NewsClick’s Prabir Purkayastha on the ED raids

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
16 February, 2021

At around 8 am on 9 February, the Enforcement Directorate launched simultaneous raids at eight locations associated with the digital news portal NewsClick. This included the website’s office in South Delhi’s Said-ul-Ajaib locality, and the residences of the editor-in-chief and founder Prabir Purkayastha, another editor, Pranjal Pandey and five staff members from the editorial and accounts teams. The raids at six staff members’ residences wrapped up on the same night, while the raid at the office continued for over 38 hours and ended on the night of 10 February. But the raid at Purkayastha’s house lasted 113 hours and ended at 1.30 am on 14 February. Neither Purkayastha, nor his partner Gita Hariharan, an author was allowed to leave the house for the entire duration.

Meanwhile, media reports quoted ED officials, who said that the raids were linked to foreign remittances and charges of money laundering. A statement released by the website on 15 February said, “We respect the sanctity of the legal process and do not intend to indulge in a media trial. That said, we wish to confirm that the selective allegations being made against us in a section of the media are misleading, unfounded and without basis in fact or law. We will respond to the relevant allegations in the appropriate forum.”

Shahid Tantray, a multimedia reporter at The Caravan spoke to Purkayastha the day after the raid. He talked about NewsClick, its association with the Left and its core focus, the media, the Emergency and the raids. “We are transparent in what we have done; everything has been done according to the law,” he told Tantray.

Shahid Tantray: Could you tell us about NewsClick, and your journey into journalism?
Prabir Purkayastha: I am not from the field of journalism; I’ve written articles but that’s about it. I do write a fair amount on various issues but I am not a journalist. So, why would I start something like NewsClick? That’s a legitimate question that needs to be asked and for me to answer. It started from my feeling that we, our generation, is missing out on the fact that this generation, your generation, my son’s [Pratik] generation, they are not going to get their content—what is happening in the world, how to look at it—from print, anymore. Text is something that’s not their primary way of acquiring knowledge or understanding.

Your generation is a much more visual generation than our generation, and there is a reason for it. When we were kids, our outer world was through texts, even cartoons and comic books were rare. Our primary information source and understanding of the world came from text. For your generation, we stuck you in front of the television even before you could read. You are much more visually literate as a generation.

I decided, therefore, that unless we [are willing to] lose the current generation, we need to shift to what is your primary way of generating your world view. The idea was that if you want to tell the stories of today, and if you want younger people to listen to us, we need to have a different medium that they are comfortable with, and text was not going to be good enough. That is how NewsClick started.

I said let me start small, do some small experiments, so that it’s not very expensive. I had a fairly high-end consultancy job at that time [around 2009]. I decided I’ll use a part of my salary to pay for the rent of a basement and create a small room, which was our studio. Pratik handled it, and he decided how to solve the problems of lighting, how to solve the problem of sound. Our key problem was how to kill the echo; how to frame things properly within that space, and so on. And that’s how we started our journey. At the time, if we got 500 to 1000 views, we would feel great. 

I also realized that the Left is somehow weak in this space. Therefore, we need to strengthen the Left’s presence in this space. Today, it’s probably not true. But at the time that I am talking about, it was not there. That was the other incentive, that we need to educate the Left on these kinds of technologies and bring that awareness to them.

ST: Was this inspired by the right-wing and its control of the media?
PP: No, at the time [right-wing media] was still very much an emerging phenomenon, I’m talking about 12 to 13 years back. [NewsClick] was a response, essentially, to the internet. The internet ecosystem, Google and Facebook’s digital monopolies, that was something that I was studying anyway as a technology analyst. The right-wing’s entry into this is post 2010, I would say. When we started NewsClick, the right-wing had still not become the force that it became. Because they took to Facebook and Twitter then—those became their primary platforms. But I was still going with the videos platform and that is not their primary platform. Their primary platform today, is still Facebook, Whatsapp and, to some extent, Twitter.

ST: NewsClick’s reporting and its focus is basically on people’s issues. How do you see this 113-hours raid in that context?
PP:  The increasing problem with Indian journalism is that most Indian press does not report on movements. If the workers have a strike, the only issue that comes up is traffic jams, that too on page three of the city pages. Why did the workers come into the city, why did they strike, what were the demands—that is not discussed. This is not something that existed earlier—there used to be a workers’ beat, there used to be a farmers’ beat, but now they don’t exist. Instead of the farmers’ beat, what you have is an agricultural-commodity beat. Agriculture has been reduced to commodity-price issues. The workers’ beat, it’s about the industry, and it becomes about the share markets.

It [media coverage] has been taken over by who can give advertisements; advertisers give the content for news today. People’s movements and issues largely disappeared from mainstream media. Therefore, NewsClick’s task was to bring that back, which is also why we chose the format of videos. And because we are seeing more and more movements breakout, that is why NewsClick is disliked by the current administrations.

ST: NewsClick has covered the farmers’ protests extensively and several of your reporters are on the ground, at the protests and the mahapanchayats. Do you think there is a link between your coverage of the protests and the raids?
PP: That is a conclusion others have to draw. I am not privy to what they think. You have to see, objectively, what is happening and draw your own conclusions.

ST: Could you describe the raid and the events of the past few days? Why do you think it happened?
PP: The raid itself got stuck because I never delete my emails. I have a huge number, probably over three lakh emails on my Gmail account. That was the real delay; they had a lot of problems downloading the e-mails. Though they have said that I did not let them seize my communication device and my laptop but reality is, my laptop, my tablet, and both my phones—I don’t have a phone right now—were taken away by them.

Let us accept that the officers who came might have come in good faith. They behaved very nicely with me but in India, the process itself becomes the punishment. The process continues and it is going to stretch us as an organisation.

Why did it happen is a question that you people have to answer because what am I going to say on that. I would believe that it has happened because of the kind of reporting we do and the Enforcement Directorate can claim that it happened for other reasons. All the information regarding our financial investments, transactions is there in public documents—every detail is available on the government’s websites. We are transparent in what we have done; everything has been done according to the law.

Every day there is some new allegation thrown at us. But this is not our game, to defend each and every allegation. I am not going to respond to allegations which seem to be coming from we don’t know what sources. Few media platforms claim it’s coming from the ED. I’m not going to respond to that because this is something that will keep us completely engaged and distract from what we really want to do.

ST: The Indian Express reported that the ED raids were related to “foreign remittances allegedly totalling Rs 30.51 crore,” including some funds classified as FDI. Could you respond to what are these funds and how did they come to you?
PP: The investments that have come are public—on the balance sheets of the company, and that have come through the Reserve Bank of India. Now, our income—today, foreign investment up to 26 percent is legal in digital platforms. Our foreign investment is much lower than that, around nine percent. There was nothing illegal about it in any case because till then [the cap on FDI in digital platform was enacted in September 2019], there was no bar on foreign investment in digital platforms. So, what is the issue I have not understood? Why is this being raised, even that I don’t understand.

Secondly, our basic revenue model has been that we sell good quality content to platforms abroad. One particular platform buys this from us and distributes it. All the transactions are open, returns have been filed. This is how companies do business, they have capital and they have revenues. Why is it a crime for doing business which is supposed to be entirely legal? We are able to generate revenue and we have generated some investments—why is that being considered a problem? There has been no violation of the law in anything that we have done and I am sure we can establish it any court of law, if it comes to that.

ST: What kind of content do you sell to this platform?
PP: Basic journalistic and international news content. One thing, which is missing internationally, is you have news content that is given by AP [Associated Press], Reuters, AFP [Agence France-Presse], which is extremely West-centric and meant for the audience in the West. That is not our interest. The West only looks at the Third World if there is a cyclone, a natural disaster, some coup—only then is it news in the West, otherwise it’s not news.

The people’s movements, the issues they are facing, the problems they are having vis-à-vis powerful countries, those are the things that we would like to cover. When the Press Trust of India was formed, one of the reasons it was formed was that it will give a point of view which will be independent of the western media. If we looked at the western media then, the Third World was a complete disaster. In fact, in those days, India was supposed to be a basket case which will never be able to feed itself. 

So, how do you not look at news through the lens of the West, is also what we were trying to do. There is a response among the people everywhere for this kind of news and that’s the revenue model we have. Today, according to the government it is promoting business, promoting foreign investments and more exports. Then why we are being accused of having succeeded?

ST: Can you give details of the transactions mentioned in the Indian Express report—one tranche of Rs 9.59 crore and another of Rs 20.92 crore? Were these monthly payments?
PP: I am not going to give the figures because I have to check the figures. But one came in as an investment, in one lump sum. The other is monthly billing and monthly income, and I think we have a three-months billing cycle—I think it’s for a period of almost two years.

ST: Some media reports said that there was a first-information report filed against NewsClick with the Economic Offences Wing of Delhi police a month ago. Do you have a copy of that FIR?
PP: We don’t even know there is an FIR.

ST: What was Gautam Navlakha’s association with NewsClick because some media reports have also tried to link the raid with him? [Gautam Navlakha is a journalist accused in the Elgar Parishad case, and has been in jail since April 2020]
PP: Gautam is a senior journalist. He was associate editor and then consulting editor with the EPW [Economic and Political Weekly], a magazine of impeccable credentials. I know Gautam for a long time. We worked in certain software companies together.

Why was he in NewsClick? He is a journalist and has a distinguished career in journalism. Has EPW been asked why Gautam was there for so long? Why are we being questioned about it? We have professors in Delhi University [involved with the Elgar Parishad case], have they raided Delhi University for that?

Having a belief is a fundamental right. But that does not mean that if a person may have a certain belief, he should not be allowed to work. If as a result of that belief you do acts which violate certain laws, then of course you can be hauled up in a court of law, and if the court agrees, punished. In fact, the Supreme Court has pronounced on this issue a number of times that having a certain belief does not mean that a person can be convicted based on this belief. It has to translate into certain acts and that’s what [Gautam’s] case is about. So, it cannot be that I pre-judge the case, which the government has not proved, and therefore sack a person because of his beliefs.

ST: Mainstream media does not usually report about crony capitalism but NewsClick has covered this aspect, and you have a lawsuit going on with the Adani Group. Do you see all this as an attempt to muzzle the media?
PP: We have a gag order in that case, so we are not supposed to speak about the Adani Group or what Mr Adani is doing [In September 2020, Adani Power Rajasthan Limited filed criminal and civil lawsuits against NewsClick for two reports, and sought damages of Rs 100 crore. The case proceedings are yet to start but an Ahmedabad court restricted the website from further reporting on Adani]. The broader issue involved is that this has always been an unfair battle between people who want to cover big business houses, and big business houses.

Big business houses have enough money, and muscle power in terms of legal people who can file cases after cases, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, against people. And if you file cases, the media houses will fight it. This whole process is what is called lawfare, where you use law as an instrument of shutting down criticism. That exactly is what the current scenario is, and that’s always been the strategy of big capital.

ST: You were in jail for a year during the Emergency. Could you take us through your experiences from then?
PP: I was in West Bengal, in an engineering college over there. There was the Naxalite movement but the CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] was also extremely strong at that time. And we, in fact, had troubled relationships with the Naxalites of that period. It’s quite public that there were physical clashes at the time between the two. It was difficult, how we negotiated this, and I don’t think either side did it very well.

But there were much larger forces operating at the time. There were mass movements springing up, not only in India but in different parts across the world. In Paris, the students were on the move [in May 1968, student protests led to civil unrest in France that last almost two years], there was the Vietnam movement [against the United States of America’s war in Vietnam from 1950s to the 1970s] which inspired our whole generation. In fact, if you go to the West, they still talk about the Vietnam generation. We were the ‘60s generation, and that’s where Left politics emerged for me. And I became a part of the Left movement, first in West Bengal, then I was in Kanpur, Allahabad. It was in these places where I participated both in the trade-wing movement and the student movement. This is my entry into student politics. And it ends up in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi] where I took admission in the School of Computer and System Sciences. I was the sole student. There was one fellowship and I got that fellowship.

Emergency had just been declared and we were opposing the expulsion of a student. The vice chancellor had thrown certain people off the admission list because of their politics and it was done on the instructions of the government. Those were dark times. The student who chaired the students’ union meeting at that time, she was my fiancé—she was expelled from the university because of a three-day strike. On the second day of the strike, Maneka Gandhi came to attend her class, I think, in the School of Languages, the German centre. The students’ union president, DP Tripathi, who was the National Congress Party general secretary till he died recently, I and Indrani Majumdar, who was also a student of JNU—three of us told Maneka that you shouldn’t go because there is a student who has been expelled and students are not going to class in solidarity. She went back.

Sanjay Gandhi, at the time, was the crown prince of Delhi, and there was PS Bhinder, who was the DIG [deputy inspector-general] rage. Bhinder is a well-known figure of the Emergency. Every morning he went to meet Sanjay Gandhi and these are details from the Shah Commission reports [a commission of inquiry established by the central government on 28 May 1977, to investigate the excesses committed during the Emergency]. Sanjay apparently pulled him up that, “What is this? My wife could not attend her class in JNU and you say everything is normal in Delhi. How is it possible?”

So, Bhinder came to the university, Tripathi had moved on [from the location] and they arrested me. It became big news, because JNU had a lot of international connections—the School of International Studies was there, the School of Languages, embassies had connections over there. It became international news that a student was kidnapped from the campus in broad daylight because they had come in plainclothes. I was charged under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, and taken to Tihar. I stayed for six months in Tihar Jail, and six months in Agra. In Tihar, I was in the same ward as Arun Jaitely and Nanaji Deshmukh, and many others, who people may not remember.

We had filed a writ petition for what is known as the ADM Jabalpur case [ADM Jabalpur versus Shivkant Shukla is a landmark judgment pertaining to Habeas Corpus and its suspension]. My lawyer was handling several of the MISA cases—he later on became a part of the Law Commission, and he was an RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] man actually. I think I was one of the very few people who got some relief from the court—I was taken to Allahabad for my masters’ viva as I had just submitted my masters’ thesis—even if it meant being taken under shackles in the train. And I came back also in shackles, well-guarded by the police. I must have looked a very dangerous criminal for the people who saw me. But this was the only time I travelled in an unreserved compartment and no problems. The minute I entered, the compartment emptied out immediately and I had a berth to myself.

ST: Since you have seen the Emergency, could you draw the parallels between now and then?
PP: It’s a question that I am asked often and there are similarities but there are also dissimilarities. At that time, it is true that the administration had powers by which the press had been muzzled. They couldn’t write what they wanted and whatever they wrote had to be submitted to censors. The Indian Express operated under these constraints, they still kept their integrity, and there were small organisations—a journal called Seminar, which was run by Romesh Thapar. They didn’t become servile or carry government propaganda, or become what is called stenographer journalism—take dictation and introduce it as your own news item, which is also what you see today. But they were few and far between. And even then what they could do was limited.

But this was out of coercive instruments; the MISA, the various press freedoms which were curbed, the Defence of India [Act of 1915]. There was a whole legal structure which was used to physically muzzle the voices of the people, protests were not allowed. The idea was that movements are dangerous; give all the authority to the administration and they will do all the things for you. A kind of mai baap sarkar [my father’s government] model.

It’s also true that the Indian middle-class was not anti-Emergency in the beginning because the Indian middle-class had sympathies with dictatorial governments. They thought that the poor in this country are becoming too uppity and if the middle class had a great model leader then everything in the country would be much better. There was a sneaking fascination which one could hear in the drawing rooms of the middle class, about the need for a strong leader, a military rule, dictatorship. It’s only when the Emergency happened that the middle class realised that the power of the constable was more than theirs. The class privileges they enjoyed did not operate when they came up against any official of the state.

It was a democratic renewal, when Mrs [Indira] Gandhi thinking she was secure, declared elections [on 18 January 1977, though the Emergency officially ended on 21 March 1977. Indira’s Congress lost that election, and Morarji Desai, nominated by the Janata Party, became India’s first non-Congress prime minister]. The Indian people, who appeared to be very passive and compliant with [the Emergency], showed their true feelings after that. It also was a shock to Mrs Gandhi and the ruling establishment that people may not say these things but it doesn’t mean they accept them.

This is the one difference—[Emergency] was something which did not have a solid organised force supporting the government and it was something which was imposed from above by the administrative machinery. Taking away rights et cetera was not supported on the ground except for Chatra Parishad, Youth Congress, who had come up with what we later called the “Sanjay Gandhi goon brigade.” But it was not an organised movement.

Second, Congress did not have an ideology of a kind where you decide that certain sections are outside the pale of Indian citizenship. That was not what the Congress ideology was, that was not what the national movement had built, and not what the Congress could publicly espouse. They could only say it’s a short period of discipline, what Vinoba Bhave at that time had said, “apaatkal ko anushaasan parv” [emergency as a festival of discipline]. The Emergency was short period [fix], it could not be translated into a structure within the state.

But what we are seeing now, is something different. The structure of the state is apparently the same but it is being hollowed. There is the rise of organised force, which compliments state power. There is a threat of organised force, and if there is resistance they come out against the resistance as well. There is a kind of a compact between the state and this kind of politics.

ST: You mean non-state actors or are they fringe elements?
PP: They are not fringe elements; they are a significant political force in the country. It’s a kind of sectarian politics—they decide that some are citizens and some should not be citizens, even if the Indian constitution accepts everybody is a citizen. That even if they are citizens, they should not have full representation; they should not talk about politics; they should preferably not even vote; and if they vote they shall not have any candidate that they can support. The Congress did not have all these exclusionary politics in its genetic composition, but the RSS has this as a part of its genes. That’s the difference.

And formally, we still have the courts. But what you have now is a kind of informal authoritarian regime in which the laws exist but the court does not enforce fully; it does provide partial relief but on a lot of issues, for instance, Kashmir, the courts prolonged the cases. Justice was really denied.

So, the formal trappings of the justice system are there, formally press freedoms are there, but then you have different instruments now, to silence the press, and also not to the silence the judiciary as much as to make the judiciary accomplices. And that’s the difference—[during Emergency] the formal structure to provide relief did not exist; formally people could not write what they wanted; their rights had been taken away.

But this combination today, is what makes rights relatively and increasingly inaccessible and therefore, this is a longer battle. And the more difficult battle because it is not only a battle for retaining our rights but also for the minds and hearts of the people.

ST: Since 2014, we have seen hate crimes increasing and minorities being supressed. Was it the same situation during the Emergency?
PP: Yes, there was oppression but it was secular oppression. Within that time there was the Turkman Gate scandal, in which the Muslim community was attacked. [In April 1976, the police opened fire during a demolition drive at Delhi’s Turkman Gate. There is no official record of how many were killed and displaced. According to a fact-finding committee, the demolitions, one among several, were based on political considerations and targeted the strongholds of the Jana Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s predecessor, and the Jama Masjid.]

But ideologically, Congress was not a minority-exclusionary government, definitely. What you see now, is the [VD] Savarkar thesis: minorities can stay in the country but essentially as second-class citizens. Formally, you cannot do that still, it is difficult. But informally you can do that in various ways.

And that is why the farmers’ movement has become so important. Like in western Uttar Pradesh, the Muslim and Jat farmers have come together. The fracturing [between the two communities] that took place during the Muzaffarnagar riots, with the farmers’ movement, with people coming together over there, those fractures have been papered over [in September 2013, riots broke out between Muslims and Jats in an area which had not witnessed communal trouble. Several BJP members were accused of instigating the riots and the BJP won the subsequent general and assembly elections from the region].

So, for them, movements are very dangerous, because then you build a different kind of unity. Caste and community divisions, which is where the BJP plays, that then is not possible. Therefore, the movements of farmers, movements of workers, they become threats to the ideologies of the RSS and the BJP.

This interview has been edited and condensed.