The Indian Media’s Shrinking Space for Dissent: Q&A with Neha Dixit

By M. Clark | TMP Guest Contributor

Neha Dixit, an award-winning independent Indian journalist, spoke to The Media Project about her investigation that exposed Hindu nationalist groups, which illegally trafficked tribal children across the country for ideological training with cooperation from state governments. The pushback to her story and lack of support from the mainstream media illustrate a shrinking space for dissent and the need for more reporting on the growth of Hindu nationalist ideology fueling the current central government and the resulting injustices faced by religious minorities and the poor. 

TMP: Your investigation for Outlook Magazine, published in July, reports that Sangh Parivar groups cooperating with state governments illegally relocated children. You’ve received a lot of criticism for this story and have even with your colleagues been accused of inciting hatred, a crime in India. Can you tell us about the story and the pushback?

The story was about 31 tribal girls between the ages of 3 and 11 who were taken by three RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) groups from Assam (Northeast India) to Punjab and Gujarat (North and West India). The parents thought they were taken away for education and the schools were providing a formal education. But the parents have not able to contact the children for the last year. And they are still not able to. 

I spoke to the government officials, and I got all the documents that called it “child trafficking.” They were exactly calling it child trafficking by violation of the UN Convention and the Indian laws. A week after the story was out, we heard this case was filed against us… to say we were inciting hatred. 

The state (Gujarat), instead of investigating into the trafficking of these 31 cases, filed a case against the people who reported it. So it shows how certain fundamentalist bodies are emboldened by the government, and the government is completely ignoring the constitutional rights of the young tribal girls. The police have still not contacted us about this case. 

The problem is that the whole issue became about freedom of speech instead of looking into the criminalities by these RSS bodies. What kind of education is this that violates a Supreme Court order and takes away children because they’re poor and from remote rural areas and not allowed to meet their parents? And there’s a complete ideological training going on, and that is not addressed at all. While we are being harassed and tortured, the larger problem is the constitutional rights of these tribal girls. 

TMP: You’ve written follow-up pieces on your investigation, but why has the mainstream media largely ignored them? And in their response, how do you see the Indian media and its space for dissent changing?

To get any piece of news out there is becoming increasingly difficult. Because political outfits were involved in the trafficking of the girls, none of the mainstream media wants to touch this issue, because of their corporate owners. They only want to write about people who are going to generate some profit for them.

There’s a corporate-political nexus. The same corporates funding media are funding political parties. So then there is a kind of reporting out there which is not so objective. We have something called the Right to Information Act, but under the same Act, the political parties are exempted from that law. So you can’t actually find out who is funding whom.

But the penetration of smart phones has democratized the forum. Citizen journalism has exponentially risen. Even if the mainstream media is not covering an issue, people themselves are putting it out for public consumption. So it’s no longer possible to ignore what is happening on the ground, and it will only grow. 

TMP: Do you see these non-profit bodies like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) successfully supporting independent journalists like you?

In my case, while I’ve been in touch with a number of senior journalists who have supported me morally and tactfully, none of the Indian media bodies came up with even a single statement, including the Press Council of India, or the Editors Guild, or the IWC Press Corps. The only one was a statement signed by several intellectuals and writers and the Network of Women in Media in India. The other two statements that came out were international (one was CPJ).

Because of the pressures Outlook Magazine is under, I haven’t even been paid [six months later]. It’s kind of funny that I’m accused by trolls of being paid by Congress or someone when in fact I haven’t even been paid my professional fees to do this. I don’t know how feasible it is for me or anyone else to keep doing this without being paid for it, without proper practices in place. 

Because I’m a privileged person and can write in English for national and international media, people still know about my case. But there are lots of journalists in smaller rural areas who are constantly receiving threats, and nobody takes up their case or talks about it. 

TMP: What do you think media in India and especially foreign media needs to improve on to report the religion and caste elements in many stories?

What often happens, and this doesn’t apply just to foreign media but to any upper-middle-class person in India, is that we don’t acknowledge our privileges when reporting. And various layers are sometimes left out to make it a more simplistic narrative. 

For example, I did a story on four Dalit girls raped in Haryana. I wanted to put in the caste angle, because it wasn’t like the women were just picked up and raped. They were part of the landless community, and the landless community had revolted against the land-owning community in the village. So to teach the entire landless community a lesson was why these women were raped. 

So I would say that there is more need to acknowledge these complexities on the ground. The conflict is not just between two religions. The conflict is also between two castes and class. 

TMP: How would you compare American and Indian media coverage of their leaders’ elections?

I’m not venerating U.S. media, but at least for Trump, the U.S. media was still questioning him on his sexism and misogyny. That wasn’t happening here with Mr. Modi. Yes, after demonetization people are writing about it in a funny manner. But at the same time we are still not questioning the misogyny. There were allegations on Modi on a personal thing with a particular girl, and the story was killed. The entire Gujarati police machinery was involved in spying on this girl. The entire story died down. These stories are not coming out. Shouldn’t the mainstream media be fair and question the establishment and anti-establishment? That is not being done.