Attacks Increase Against India’s Journalists

The attack last week on the residence of Kumar Ketkar, editor of the popular Mumbai newspaper Loksatta, is the latest in a series of growing incidents of intolerance and violence in India against members of the media.

Ketkar's residence was vandalized by a little-known political outfit, Shiv Sangram, after his newspaper questioned a recent decision on the part of the state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital. The state government had okayed – at a cost of Rs3 billion (US$70.1 million), the erection of a gigantic 94-meter statue of the much-revered warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji astride a horse in the sea off the coast of Mumbai. Shivaji, who died in 1680, wrested a major piece of territory away from the then-dominant Mogul Empire and founded the Maratha empire.

In an editorial in Loksatta, Ketkar, one of Mumbai’s most respected journalists, asked why the state government was being so profligate when it was already strapped for cash and embarrassed by a spate of suicides by debt-ridden farmers. In the piece, Ketkar satirized the operation, writing that visitors to the statue would get snacks named Shiv as well as tee-shirts and knickknacks named for the warrior king. Some 70 to 80 men belonging to the splinter party participated in the attack, police said..

Ketkar and his wife were at home but were unhurt in the attack, which started a little after 10 am and lasted for about 15-20 minutes until police arrived and dispersed the mob. The police said seven men were arrested and one policeman was injured in the violence.

“What is disturbing about such incidents is that the state appears almost indifferent at best and complicit at worst,” wrote journalist Kalpana Sharma in South Asia Media Net. “Little is done to stop such incidents or to prosecute those involved once they happen. Ketkar had apprehended the attack and alerted the local police. Yet nothing was done. The incident…is also illustrative of a deeper insecurity that inflicts the National Congress Party in particular and the ruling coalition in Maharashtra in general. With elections due at the end of next year, the Congress-NCP coalition appears to be flailing about, looking for a way to hold on to its support.”

Many other Indian media professionals in addition to Ketkar have borne the brunt of attacks, a growing trend in Maharashtra particularly since the populist Shiv Sena party, headed by Hindu nationalist Balasaheb Thackeray, came to power in the state in 1995. Although Thackeray and Shiv Sena are now out of power and played no role in the latest attack, he has often issued calls to violence, particularly against immigrants including non-Hindus and Bengali migrants. In 2002, Thackeray issued a call to form Hindu suicide squads to counter alleged Muslim violence.

In 2004, Nikhil Wagle, owner and editor of the Mahanagar newspaper, was attacked by Shiv Sena activists for making what they described as “derogatory” remarks about party leaders. Sajid Rashid, editor of another paper, Hamara Mahanagar, was stabbed in the back twice. In 2006, Shiv Sena workers ransacked the Zee television studio in Mumbai over a satirical skit concerning the Thackerays. Last year, they attacked the office of Outlook in Mumbai after the publication called Thackeray a villain.

To complicate matters, Raj Thackeray, Bal Thackeray’s nephew who has modelled his political career after his uncle’s, broke off from the Shiv Sena a year ago. He has been repeatedly targeting north Indian migrants, so much so that Raj Thackeray’s party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sangh, incited violence and drove away north Indian laborers from the industrial belts of Nashik and Pune near Mumbai three months ago, thus affecting the economy of the region.

In other violence against journalists, six months ago a politician's goons in the north Indian state of Bihar badly beat the reporter and cameramen of a TV channel when they asked the politician about his reported involvement in the rape and murder of a minor girl. At around the same time, Ratan Luwangcha, the bureau chief of Poknapham, a mass circulated Manipuri daily in the northeastern state of Manipur, was shot and critically wounded by gunmen in the capital Imphal for his anti-Communist writings.

Earlier, Arun Narayan Dekate, a rural correspondent with the daily Tarun Bharat, died from injuries sustained after he was attacked with stones in Nagpur, also in Maharashtra. Dekate paid the price for exposing an illegal gambling racket. The murder was condemned by the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world's largest union of journalists with 500,000 members in over 110 countries.

In the most recent incident, Ketkar was luckier. He had been tipped off about the attack early in the morning and did not leave his home at around 10.30 am, the time he normally left for his office, about an hour away by train. He and his family barricaded themselves inside the house. There attackers broke the window panes of his ground floor residence and blackened the main door with tar after he refused to open it.

A widely respected senior journalist for his political writings, Ketkar writes in English as well as Marathi, the local language. He has a wide fan following and also has a group devoted to him on Orkut, the popular social networking site.

Speaking to the media later, Ketkar said he stood by the opinion in his editorial about the statue of the Maratha warrior. Known for not mincing words, Ketkar said the people who attacked him must not even have read his words. "I never said anything denigrating to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and I stand by my opinion on the proposed statue."

Maharashtra respects Shivaji Maharaj and the column is not defamatory in nature, he added.

"I have merely questioned the importance being given to the statue of Shivaji while the state has other problems to tackle," Ketkar said.

Seven persons were arrested in connection with the incident and have been booked under non-bailable offences.

The Press Guild of India and the governor of Maharashtra, S C Jamir, condemned the attack on Ketkar. So did R R Patil, the state's Home Minister in charge of security although media and political observers termed the minister's words as mere platitudes as Shiv Sangram is backed by the National Congress Party (NCP), Patil's party.