The Central Bureau of Investigation’s raids on 5 June on the residences and offices of Radhika and Prannoy Roy, the founders and promoters of NDTV, are troubling on many counts. For one, there are the technical flaws in the CBI’s justification for its actions. According to the agency, it was responding to a complaint regarding an alleged loss to ICICI Bank on the repayment of an old loan to the Roys. NDTV’s many regulatory and financial travails have been well documented, including in an extensive report published in this magazine in December 2015, but the foundation of the CBI complaint in this instance is conspicuously weak. The news channel swiftly published a letter from ICICI Bank, dated from 2009, which stated that the loan had been repaid in full. Even if the bank suffered a loss, as the CBI insists it did, there are questions as to why the country’s premier investigative agency should probe a credit issue between two private parties, that too with the heavy-handedness shown in this case, especially when the relevant complaint did not come from the allegedly wronged party.
Beyond this stands a larger concern, of the likely political motives that spurred the agency’s impetuous move. NDTV has been an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics and his brand of Hindu nationalism. The CBI complaint was filed on 28 April by one Sanjay Dutt, who NDTV claims is a disgruntled former consultant, and the First Information Report based on it was created on 2 June. Just the day before this, Sambit Patra, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was on the receiving end of the NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan’s on-air censure after accusing the channel of having an “agenda” on the issue of cattle slaughter. Many have read this as more than mere coincidence, and the deployment of the CBI as a calculated act of intimidation against NDTV, as well as against all media outlets that remain critical of Hindu-nationalist politics and the government’s policies.
For the BJP’s sympathisers and NDTV’s detractors, it is convenient to defend the raids as falling within the letter of CBI procedure and due legal process. But recent precedents from other countries under governments professing furious nationalism remind us that India’s proponents of democracy still have every cause to be alarmed.