On Thursday, May 16, 2024, senior journalist, author and consultant with ‘NewsClick’, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, was on his way to the District Jail in Rohini, to welcome ‘NewsClick’ editor, Prabir Purkayastha.

Purkayastha was being released in the late hours of the evening. He was arrested on October 3, 2023, and charged with multiple charges by the Delhi Police, under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Waiting outside the jail, among others, was also Githa Hariharan, eminent writer and novelist.

Purkayastha was released on Wednesday, May 15, by the Supreme Court which said that his arrest under the anti-terror law was “vitiated” and “invalid” in the eyes of law. Significantly, earlier, unprecedented in the history of democratic India, scores of journalists of this multimedia portal, including freelancers, consultants, and others, were arrested or questioned by the Delhi Police in October.

Hundreds of policemen descended on their homes in the wee hours of the morning. Those picked up included well-known Hindi journalists, Bhasha Singh, Urmilesh, Abhisaar, among others.

Even youngsters in the profession, and those not directly in the profession of journalism, were raided. Almost all journalists had their devices seized. They have not been returned till this date, reportedly.

Talking to ‘The Citizen’, Thakurta pointed out two crucial things regarding the case. He said: “One, the Supreme Court has called the bluff of the Delhi Police. It is now crystal clear that the manner in which they arrested a 76-year old editor, under the given circumstances, was brazenly illegal. All the allegations, including that of being a Chinese agent, the conspiracy to change the map of India, and instigator of the farmers’ protests, Northwest Delhi riots in 2020, the farmers’ protests, etc, have proved to be equally fake. Preposterous, to say the least.”

He recounted the horrible morning of October 3 when a “few hundred cops” descended at the homes of ‘NewsClick’ staffers and freelancers all over Delhi. “They raided the homes of a freelance journalist like Anuradha Raman, and historians Dilip Simeon and Suhail Hashmi, who had nothing to do with the portal.

“They even raided the homes of freelancers in Bombay, Hyderabad and Kerala. Besides, they seized the devices of the journalists – laptops, mobiles, pen drives, hard drives, etc. I and one other person were lucky to get their devices back.

“Others have not been so lucky. Seizing the devices of journalists boils down to stealing their livelihood! This is totally unprecedented in the history of Indian media and democracy.” Thakurta said.

The senior journalist said that in February 2021, Purkayastha was interrogated for many days and nights, totally disrupting the functioning of the media organisation, and demoralising the staff. Nothing was apparently found then.

Thakurta said, “Now, the portal’s account has been frozen and employees have not got a pie for months. There are 45 staffers, 15 consultants, including me, and there has been no salary or remuneration. The media outfit is just about able to function minimally. How do these journalists manage to survive?”

In its release order, the apex court pointed out that the grounds of Purkayastha's arrest were not conveyed to him or his lawyer, which violated his fundamental right guaranteed under Article 22. The move to produce him before the additional sessions judge without informing his lawyer was termed “clandestine”.

“We have carefully perused the arrest memo and found that the same nowhere conveys the grounds on which the accused was being arrested. The arrest memo is simply a proforma indicating the formal ‘reasons’ for which the accused was being arrested,” Justice Mehta said.

“From the detailed analysis made above, there is no hesitation in the mind of the Court to reach a conclusion, that the copy of the remand application in the purported exercise of communication of the grounds of arrest in writing, was not provided to the accused-appellant or his counsel before passing of the order of remand dated 4th October, 2023, which vitiates the arrest and subsequent remand of the appellant…

“Accordingly, the arrest of the appellant followed by the remand order dated 4th October, 2023, and so also the impugned order passed by the High Court of Delhi dated 13th October, 2023, are hereby declared to be invalid in the eyes of law and are quashed and set aside,” the Supreme Court said.

According to lawyer Naren Singh Rao, “After this judgement, the case of Prabir Purkayastha is poised to go down in history as a classic and contemporary example of the persecution of ‘citizens of conscience’ with the full might of the repressive State apparatus.

“This case is a living testament to the ongoing tyranny — that the ‘process is the punishment’— unfolding in full swing in India today. At another level, the judgement unravels the utmost impunity with which the investigators and prosecutors, these days, abuse the process of law.

“Indeed, the judgement has held the arrest and remand of Purkayastha as wholly invalid. However, it has squarely failed to hand out punitive action against the cops who pursued this case in a downright mala fide manner, while utterly flouting basic procedural law.

“If they had been aptly punished for their sins by the apex court, a strong message would have gone to the people of this country. And, more importantly, this would have worked towards deterrence in the future! On this count, the Supreme Court has clearly missed the opportunity.”

Ratna Raman, author, columnist and professor of English at Venkateswara College, Delhi University said, “Not informing a distinguished senior citizen and a prominent member of the fourth pillar of democracy about the reasons for his arrest is wrong on so many counts. Where is the tradition, purportedly Indian, of respecting the old and treating them as living monuments?

“Prabir Purkayasta has now been released, seven months after his wrongful incarceration and confinement. Such viciousness, perpetuated by a brute state, damages the idea of a plural and vibrant India for our future generations. We are relieved and thankful that he is out of jail. Perhaps, the Indian civil society needs to frame laws reiterating respect for due process, in all cases.”

Kerala-based cultural commentator and author, Shahjahan Madampat, said, “The Supreme Court’s order to release ‘NewsClick’ founder-editor, Prabir Purkayastha, is a most heartening development. So is the decision to grant bail to Gautam Navlakha.

“Both these defenders of India’s pluralism and human rights were put behind bars on flimsy, fabricated charges. The charges were so absurd and laughable, and without a shred of evidence, but the fact that both these patriotic intellectuals/activists had to languish in jails for long periods of time, was reflective of the total collapse of the rule of law, and the callous vengeance unleashed on dissenters in our republic.

“Many other public-spirited voices of sanity continue to spend long jail terms as under-trials, such as brilliant Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) scholar Umar Khalid, and despite this temporary relief, we can rejoice only when sanity, individual dignity and sanctity of life are fully restored in the country. India has had many shortcomings, but the past ten years (hopefully, not more) will be remembered in history as the only period in which the four adjectives drawn from the names of authors – Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Dickensian and Machiavellian – applied to our country in no small measure!”

The charge-sheet, reportedly, is 169 pages, with 7,382 annexures, with a wide range of charges. They include the charge that Purkayastha, along with American industrialist, Neville Roy Singham, who is allegedly currently based in Shanghai, had hatched a conspiracy which was “nothing else but to forcibly replace Indian democracy, with the Party-State system, like the one that exists in present-day China”.

It said that the editor got funds from China to inflame the Delhi riots of 2020 and the farmers’ protest. It claimed that he was allied with, funded by, and backed Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri terrorists and Maoists in India. He was also allegedly actively supporting the anti-CAA-NRC protests, and was integral to China’s propaganda machinery during the pandemic.

It is well-known that Purkayastha has been a legitimate, card-holding member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) for decades. He was an active member of the Students' Federation of India (SFI) in JNU, the students’ wing of the party, when he was a student.

Significantly, he was arrested during the Emergency and spent 19 months in jail. Purkayastha is well- known across the academic and Left-liberal circles in Delhi and elsewhere, and has never ever been accused of having any Maoist links, or links with Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups.

‘NewsClick’ had then squarely rejected the charges and maintained that its editor has never had any track with any terror group, nor is there any evidence to prove the same. It reiterated that he has been a long-term member of the CPI-M and his political views have been in the public realm. This was an attempt to target independent journalism, it said.

Said Kochi-based Binu Mathew, editor of independent media outfit, ‘Countercurrents’, “It is very heartening to see that the Supreme Court of India has struck down the brazen manner in which Prabir Purkayastha was arrested. It is all the more disconcerting that the arrest was made following the publication of an article in the ‘New York Times’!

“It is a very dangerous tendency that the mainstream media is adding fuel to fire, and even acting like a kind of lynch-mob, against intellectuals and independent journalists. The US has geopolitical interests in making allegations against China, but independent journalists in India don't have to be the victims of US interests. “

Predictably, Purkayastha’s release became headline news, and was welcomed widely with great relief, by the civil society across India. Journalists’ unions hailed the decision to release him and others. In a joint press release by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ), and the Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists Federation (APWJF), said: “Purkayastha, founder editor of the Delhi based news portal ‘NewsClick’, was arrested in October, 2023, under UAPA on charges that he had received Chinese money to destabilise the country.

“‘NewsClick’ has been repeatedly raided by different authorities including the Income Tax, the Enforcement Directorate and the Special Cell of the Delhi Police. In October, the homes of 46 persons were raided at dawn and 480 electronic devices, including personal mobiles and laptops, were seized.

“Purkayastha has now been released since the grounds of arrest were not provided to him in writing at the time of arrest. The Supreme Court has held that this is a violation of the ‘fundamental right guaranteed to the arrested person’ to be able to defend themselves and also apply for bail.”

The three unions have also pointed out another instance, which has not been covered by the mainline media: “Asif Sultan, a Kashmiri journalist, 36, was arrested in 2018 under a UAPA case for alleged links with militants. He was granted bail in 2022 by the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, as no links had been established, but he faced the phenomena of ‘revolving door’ arrests.

“He was immediately held under the Public Safety Act. He was incarcerated for six years. He has now been granted bail again in another UAPA case, but with stringent conditions on his use of electronic communication devices, including mobiles …

“The NAJ, DUJ and APWJF welcome the bail granted to journalists and other citizens while severely condemning the numerous politically motivated cases filed against them in recent years. We call for the quashing of all such FIRs and cases and an end to malicious prosecution of media persons. “

According to N. R. Mohanty, Director, Jagran Institute of Management and Mass Communication (JIMMC), Noida, and former resident editor of the ‘Hindustan Times’ and ‘The Times of India’ in Patna, “Prabir Purkayastha's release by the order of the Supreme Court is a big booster for Indian democracy. We know so well that this diabolical government will arrest him again if it comes back to power on June 4. For this government, the process itself is the punishment. I appeal to the apex court to come to the rescue of all innocent victims of this government, sooner than later.”

Karen Gabriel, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English, St Stephen's College, Delhi , said, “The release on bail of Prabir Purkayastha is a welcome sign that the Indian judiciary remains capable of delivering justice.

“His wrongful arrest by the Delhi Police under UAPA shocked many of us, and it is a matter of grave concern that the case had to reach the Supreme Court, before the patent injustice of it could be cognized and addressed.

“Even now, because charges have been filed, he has to be released only on bail, and cannot be considered a completely free man, until the charges themselves are dismissed in court. The question that is becoming more and more urgent, however, is who will compensate Purkayastha, and so many others like him, who have been the innocent targets of malicious intent by our institutions of law and order? Who will recompense them for the loss of time, money, mental and physical health, as well the damage to their reputations? The recent exoneration of Hem Mishra and G. N. Saibaba is an even more damning indictment of a system that punishes the innocent without impunity.”