In a stunning upset, India’s voters surprised the media and the world by rejecting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalism in favor of the secular Indian National Congress party in general elections in May. However, despite the general disavowal of extremism at the polls, ethnic and religious tensions persisted in the world’s largest democracy, posing onerous threats to journalists in 2004. The contested northern territory of Kashmir continued to be a particularly dangerous beat.
The Indian media played an active role in the spring elections, according to local journalists, providing strong campaign coverage and monitoring for irregularities in the vast electoral process. (More than 370 million Indians voted across 28 states during a three-week period, according to the official vote tally.) But journalists and poll-takers at first erroneously predicted a BJP victory, based on recent economic growth and progress in peace talks with Pakistan, which one analyst characterized in the respected English-language daily The Hindu as reflecting a “huge disconnect … between the mass media and the mass reality.”
The election results were in some respects positive for the press. Jayaram Jayalalitha, chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu known for her intolerance of media criticism, suffered a massive defeat when her party failed to win a single seat in the general election. Days later, she axed several controversial proposals and withdrew the estimated 125 criminal defamation lawsuits her government had pending against local and national news outlets, including 20 criminal cases against The Hindu alone.
In September, journalists hailed the newly formed government’s decision to repeal the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). The tough antiterrorism legislation, passed in 2002, was intended to fight separatist Islamic militants in Kashmir, but critics argued that it was used instead to suppress minority communities, politicians, and journalists. At year’s end, an appeal was pending before the Supreme Court in the case of R.R. Gopal, editor of the Tamil-language magazine Nakkheeran, who served eight months in prison in 2003 on a POTA charge of illegal arms possession.
Journalists covering war-ravaged Kashmir were targeted or caught in the crossfire between Indian government forces and Islamic militants throughout 2004, especially during the elections. Despite a November 2003 cease-fire signed by India and Pakistan, fighting flared in March, when militants stormed the Indian government’s media office in the summer capital, Srinagar, sending it up in flames. Dozens of journalists and their families who lived in buildings adjacent to the information center had to be evacuated, but no one was injured.
Days later, Indian security officers at a police checkpoint beat and harassed Rafiq Maqbool, a photographer with The Associated Press based in Srinagar, after they noticed cameras in his car. Then, in September, police again attacked Maqbool, as well as photographer Amin War of the national newspaper The Tribune, while the journalists were covering a militant Islamic group’s violent rampage against businesses it considered “obscene.”
Two Indian journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2004. Veeraboina Yadagiri, a staff correspondent of Andhra Prabha, a Telugu-language daily newspaper, was murdered on February 21 in Medak in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. Four people attacked and stabbed Yadagiri, a journalist with 20 years’ experience, in retaliation for his reporting on the illegal liquor business, according to local journalists. Police arrested four suspects—who were awaiting trial at year’s end—but they also arrested a colleague of Yadagiri who witnessed the murder, Siddaram Reddy. Local journalist groups have protested Reddy’s detention, and the government is investigating his arrest.
The second journalist killed in 2004 was Asiya Jeelani. Jeelani, a freelance journalist, was traveling with election monitors on April 20 on a rural road in northern Kashmir when a land mine detonated, killing her and her driver. Another freelance journalist traveling with the group, Khurram Parvez, suffered serious leg injuries.
Two other journalists were wounded in the crossfire of grenade attacks on local politicians running in the elections. Freelance photographer Habib Naqash suffered shrapnel wounds in his chest and hands when a grenade exploded near a parliamentary candidate’s home on May 3; Sheikh Tariq, a cameraman for New Delhi Television, sustained minor injuries during a grenade attack on Mehbooba Mehti, head of Kashmir’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, on April 25.
Journalists contributed to peace efforts in Kashmir in October, when reporters from rival Pakistan were invited to visit their counterparts in the Indian-controlled territory for the first time since partition in 1948. The groundbreaking visit by 16 Pakistani journalists was part of the people-to-people exchanges agreed upon during peace talks earlier in the year between the Indian and Pakistani governments. Members of the delegation said they hoped the visit would break down information barriers between India and Pakistan, according to local news reports. Control of Kashmir is the main point of dispute between the two countries, which have gone to war twice over the territory, and which both now have nuclear weapons.
The Marathi-language daily Mahanagar (Big City), in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, was the target of attacks stemming from religious and political tensions over the summer. In June, militant members of the BJP stormed the newspaper’s offices, shouting BJP slogans, and accusing the paper, which is known for its secular editorial policies, of having an anti-BJP editorial line. Two months later, unidentified assailants stabbed one of the newspaper’s editors, Sajid Rashid, twice when he left the office. Days after the attack, on August 28, Editor Nikhil Wagle and two of the paper’s reporters, Yuvraj Mohite and Pramod Nirgukar, were beaten and doused with gasoline by Hindu militants in the town of Malvan, Maharashtra State, in western India, after holding a local press workshop, according to the journalists.
For the second year in a row, the Central Board for Film Certification, India’s powerful censorship board, tried to ban a documentary film about the 2002 sectarian riots in the western state of Gujarat. Later in 2004, the board reversed its ruling and allowed the release of the film, “Final Solution.” Long-standing tensions between Muslims and Hindus flared in Gujarat in February 2002, when an estimated 1,000 Muslims were killed in sectarian violence after an allegedly Muslim group set a train on fire, killing 59 Hindus. Public discussion of the riots remains sensitive. In 2003, the board banned “Aakrosh” (Cry of Anguish), a Hindu-language film about Gujarat that contained interviews with survivors and witnesses, because it was “negative.”
After a devastating tsunami hit much of India’s eastern coastal regions on December 26, the media helped provide news and support to the relief efforts. The state-run All India Radio broadcast updates about the storm and information about survivors and missing family members to the stranded residents of the remote Nicobar and Andaman islands, whose telecommunications were disrupted after the disaster. An estimated 10,000 Indians died in the tsunami.