The Crackdown on Newsclick Is an Attack on India’s Farmers’ Movement

On October 3, 500 Indian police officers detained almost a hundred journalists and researchers. It’s an attack on the Left and press freedom that must be resisted.

On October 5, 2023 in Bengaluru, India, people wave placards and chant slogans as they protest against the arrest of Newsclick’s founder and editor in chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and Amit Chakravarty, the firm’s human resources head, under a stringent anti-terror law. (Abhishek Chinnappa / Getty Images)

On October 3, 2023, five hundred Delhi Police officers fanned across India’s capital to raid and detain almost a hundred journalists and researchers. The Delhi Police — which is under the authority of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs — seized laptops, cell phones, and hard drives. The central target of this massive assault on the media was Newsclick, a news website founded in 2009. At the end of the day, the Delhi Police arrested Newsclick’s founder and chief editor, Prabir Purkayastha, and its human relations chief, Amit Chakravarty.

One issue, among others, had the Delhi Police investigators fixated: the Indian farmers’ movement, which culminated in a massive protest between 2020 and 2021. The police asked the journalists if they had covered this protest, when farmers occupied the roads into Delhi in protest of three laws passed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If they covered these protests, the police asked, were they given a bonus by their employer, Newsclick? The interrogations were blunt and harsh. The focus was on what they had covered — particularly the farmers’ movement and the Indian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — not on any infringements of the law by the journalists or Newsclick. In case there is any misunderstanding, while Article 19 (1) of the Indian Constitution does not mention the press directly, it offers Indian citizens “freedom of speech and expression.” This is notwithstanding the fact that India has slipped to 161 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index (2023). The Delhi Police’s intimidation of these journalists justifies India’s low position on this index.

Shortly after the arrest, the police’s First Information Report (FIR) — which the judiciary used to justify the arrest of Purkayastha and Chakravarty — laid out the argument used to bring the two men into custody. The FIR is a hallucinatory document, which fails to clearly lay out the crimes of those arrested. Newsclick reacted strongly to the FIR, calling it “ex facie untenable and bogus.” One of the most hostile claims is that Newsclick is funded by private and governmental Chinese money. As the publication said categorically, “Newsclick has not received any funding or instructions from China or Chinese entities.” In fact, shortly after Newsclick made this assertion, Jason Pfetcher released a statement on behalf of Worldwide Media Holdings, which had made the 2019 investment in Newsclick; Worldwide Media Holdings, Pfetcher said, is funded by money from the sale of an IT company to Apax Partners of the United Kingdom. The claim of Chinese money is part of the New Cold War mentalité, ungrounded in the facts.

In the midst of an almost stream-of-consciousness ramble, the FIR says the following:

The accused persons have also conspired to disrupt supplies and services essential to the life of community in India and abet damage and destruction of property by protraction of farmers’ protest through such illegal foreign funding. It is learnt that for this purpose a mutually beneficial nexus was established between some Indian Entities and inimical foreign establishments. The objective of above nexus was to promote, support each other for purpose of backing, supporting, funding farmers’ agitation with the objective of causing huge loss of several hundred crores [a crore is ten million] to Indian Economy and create internal law and order problems in India.

In the flood of unfounded accusations comes a set of serious allegations against Newsclick and its journalists:

  1. That Newsclick and/or its journalists took foreign funds from “inimical foreign establishments” not to cover the story, but to be agitators of the struggle.
  2. That Newsclick and/or its journalists prolonged the agitation to harm the Indian economy and to disrupt internal peace.
  3. That Newsclick and/or its journalists threatened the food security of India by sustaining the farmers’ protest.

Such claims by the government diminish the actual role of the farmers in the major agitation that took place in 2020–21, an agitation that has a long history that — in fact — predates Newsclick’s founding in 2009. To say that it is Newsclick that engineered the farmers’ revolt is to disparage India’s farmers, their families, and the almost one billion people, or 70 percent of India’s population, who live in rural areas, most of whom supported the ongoing struggle.

From Suicide to Protest

Between 1995 and 2018, almost four hundred thousand farmers have committed suicide in India (a fourth since Modi became prime minister in 2014). This is largely because of the high prices of inputs and the low prices of crops that have resulted from the neoliberal agricultural policies implemented since 1991, which have exacerbated other crises (including the climate catastrophe). The withdrawal of government-backed credit schemes to support the farmers, the attrition of the government’s agricultural purchase scheme (to offer fair prices to farmers and to provide reasonably priced food for the population), and the entry of mega-sized corporates into the agricultural economy pressed like a grindstone on the hopes of India’s farming communities. In this context, indebted farmers began to commit suicide by drinking fertilizer, one of the inputs that had become more expensive as the price of farm produce declined.

Over the past decade, however, farmers — led by a range of organizations, including farmers’ and agricultural workers’ left-wing unions — have fought back with major mobilizations across the country. One of the first emblematic events was in March 2018, when fifty thousand farmers — led by the All India Kisan Sabha — marched over two hundred kilometers from Nashik to Mumbai in Maharashtra to protest the lack of assistance when crops were destroyed by the 2017 floods and pest infestations. When the farmers entered Mumbai late at night on March 11, they heard that the students of the city had a major examination the next day. So, rather than rest and walk into the city during the day, the exhausted farmers walked through the night so as not to disrupt the students. When news of this kindness reached the city’s residents, large numbers of people joined the farmers at Azad Maidan. This long march followed a range of monumental protests: the nationwide agitation in 2015 against the new “Land Grab Ordinance,” as it was called by the farmers; the nationwide march to the Parliament in 2016 to demand loan waivers, land rights, and enhanced pensions; and the 2017 farmers’ strikes in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan for loan waivers.

In the summer of 2020, Prime Minister Modi’s government pushed three bills in the Parliament that would effectively Uberize the peasantry. The farmers rightly saw Modi’s three laws as an existential threat, and so, on November 26, 2020, they decided to take part in a general strike of 250 million workers and peasants and, from the next day, stay in encampments around Delhi on an indefinite protest. Reporters from a wide array of media projects came to cover this Delhi Commune, but most of them went home as the Newsclick reporters stayed on the scene, covering every aspect of the farmers’ protest. Visits to the Newsclick website increased geometrically, with millions of people coming to watch the short video interviews with the farmers, for instance. The protest would not end. It lasted through police repression, government hostility and attacks, and harsh weather. Seven hundred people died in the camps. On November 19, 2021, a week before the first anniversary of the protest, Modi surrendered and promised to withdraw the laws. This was only the second time in seven years that the Modi government had to retract a law.

Newsclick and the Farmers

In February 2021, the Enforcement Directorate of the government of India raided the home of Newsclick’s founder, Purkayastha, and detained him in his apartment for five days. The authorities removed his devices and seized an immense amount of material. It was clear then that the Indian government was targeting Newsclick and other researchers (including Tricontinental Research Services) for its coverage and analysis of the farmers’ revolt. A few days after this raid, professor Apoorvanand wrote in the Wire,

NewsClick has been very proactive in reporting the farmers’ movement. Its ground reports and analytical videos are being viewed by millions. A government hell bent on creating a bubble in which no information or thought is permitted, lest its nationalist character be breached, would take recourse to all means to prevent a breach in this bubble.

It was clear then that this crackdown had nothing to do with what the authorities had begun to suggest in whispers — money laundering, foreign influence, Chinese interference — but it was everything to do with the farmers’ movement.

A few days after the FIR began to circulate in October 2023, the farmers’ central organizational hub, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front, or SKM), released a statement about the disparagement of the farmers’ movement and the crackdown against Newsclick. Farmers, they wrote, created a “peaceful protest” under the leadership of the SKM:

No supply was disrupted by farmers. No property was damaged by farmers. No loss to the economy was caused by farmers. No law-and-order problem was created by farmers. . . . Farmers had to sit in protest for 13 long months, under the blazing summer sun, torrential rains, and freezing winter cold. It is the Union government and [ruling party] that created law and order problems by mowing down farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri under running vehicles, killing four farmers and one journalist. . . . To belittle such a sacrifice by alleging that the movement was foreign funded and led to acts of terrorism betrays the arrogance, ignorance and anti-people mindset of the Union government.

The SKM will hold nationwide mass protests against the government for its disparagement of the farmers and their ongoing struggles. That the SKM has linked its struggle to that of journalists, such as those at Newsclick, who want to tell the people’s stories of struggle suggests that Newsclick’s story will not only unravel in the courts. It will take place across India as farmers join others in being outraged by the raids and arrests, by the attempt to smother journalists who want to cover the great processes of our time.