Rana Ayyub's Fight for Truth and Journalism in Modi's India

Rana Ayyub has felt fearful for the past few months. Could this be the day when Rana Ayyub is finally taken into custody by the Indian government?
Ayyub, who was suffering from a heart attack in October, was taken to the hospital at night. Ayyub recalled screaming at doctors from her hospital bed, "I am dying." It turned out that she had a heart attack and was given blood pressure medication. In a telephone interview with TIME, Ayyub, 37 says that it happened because she was afraid for her life. I was tired of this existence.

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Ayyub, one of India's most prominent journalists, is a problem for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. After she published Gujarat Files (2016), a book detailing the violence that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 and left at least 790 Muslims dead and 254 Hindus injured, Ayyub rose to fame. Ayyub's book, which accused Modi (then chief minister of Gujarat) and his associates of complicity in anti-Muslim violence, included audio recordings of Indian politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi has not been charged in any formal proceedings and says that his government did the right thing. Ayyub is currently struggling to find editors for mainstream Indian newspapers who will publish her work. She joined Substack, an American newsletter platform, this summer. She has also written a column for the Washington Post and occasionally for TIME. In April, she wrote a TIME cover story highlighting Modi's mismanagement of the devastating second wave COVID-19. Over the past few months, she has been subject to an increasing campaign of intimidation by Indian authorities and party supporters.

On February 18, several journalists' organizations protested the media gaggedness outside of New Delhi's Press Club of India. Pradeep GaurSOPA Images/Shutterstock

Rana is one the most pressing cases we are working on, out of all the journalists cases that we deal with around the globe, says Rebecca Vincent (Director of International Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders). Although the hate she is currently facing has been increasing for many years, it is so intense right now. There have been many instances in India where journalists were killed without any punishment. It is possible that this could happen again. Rana calls me urgently. My immediate reaction is to be concerned for Rana's safety. Vincent agrees. She says that if something happens to her it will be obvious from where and why.

India is often called the largest democracy in the world. However, Freedom House, an American nonprofit, downgraded India in March from free to partially free. This was due to a decrease in civil liberties after Modi took power in 2014. It also cited intimidation of journalists. Women journalists are particularly vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and rape threats. Gauri Lankesh was a prominent journalist who was known for her criticisms of the Hindu nationalist government. She was shot to death in Bangalore. RSF points out that India is among the most dangerous places for journalists who want to do their jobs properly. The annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries at 142, rates India as the 142nd most dangerous country. In 2020, Modis government established a committee to improve India's ranking. The committee stated in March that RSF methodology was opaque and had identified Western biases in the index. (India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting didn't respond to a request for comment.

Ayyub has a habit of living on the fringe. To discredit Ayyub, BJP supporters posted a pornographic video that included Ayyub's face on social media in 2018. She has been the victim of anonymous threats to her life and rape for more than four decades. In the past few months, however, she has been the target of an Indian government campaign of intimidation that took even her by surprise. Ayyub was among the Muslims being investigated by the Uttar Pradesh police in June after they posted a video of a brutal attack on a Muslim man. Officials from the government and police said that the man's claim was false and they opened an investigation into Ayyub. They were responding to a tweet by Ayyub accusing him of trying to incite animosity among Muslims and Hindus.

Ayyub was summoned by the central governments Income Tax Department in June to investigate her income and connection with her fundraising for COVID-19. She traveled throughout the country to distribute humanitarian aid she had raised via her online network during the peak of the Indian pandemic. The Enforcement Directorate started investigating Ayyub's foreign income sources shortly after. Ayyub calls the allegations baseless. Ayyub claims she was followed on the streets by mysterious cars and has had to reveal to authorities confidential information, emails and even her editors. She appealed against the Income Tax Department on Sept. 27. Her case is still pending. TIME did not receive a comment from the department.

Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporter Without Borders (R), attends a conference call with Edward Snowden and Rana Ayyub (R) during the launch in Paris of the 2020 Press Freedom Index (April 2020). Christophe Petit TessonEPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Ayyub, who was tailed by an unidentified car for over 90 minutes in Mumbai after her experience, wrote a letter to one of her relatives for publication in the event she died. She says it simply states that she doesn't want her death to be in vain in the event of anything happening to her. My life was short but it is a fight worth fighting, I want future journalists, writers, and activists to understand. As long as I'm alive, I'll continue speaking.

The world is facing a growing threat to press freedom. The Nobel Committee presented the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov, a Russian editor-in-chief for independent publications. Both were subject to state-sanctioned intimidation after they stood up against authoritarian regimes. Ayyub spoke to Ressa, and she feels strengthened knowing that other people are facing similar trials. She is happy to see the recognition of Ressa, Muratov and other Indians. (The Philippines ranks at 138 on World Press Freedom Index, Russia at 150. She speaks of how the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded to journalists in trouble, has given her the strength to fight. It was like it was for us all.

Ayyub, however, is not an editor-in-chief. Ayyub is an independent journalist who works mainly for international publications, with little support from institutions. This makes her vulnerable but also makes her more determined. She says that her words are making an impact on me, which is a good thing.

Her 75-year old father suggested that the family leave the country after Ayyub's October heart attack. His daughter declined. She told TIME that she loves this country more than anything. If I didn't like it, I would have fled a long time ago. Our freedom fighters for freedom were our forefathers. They fought to make India independent and gave us the grand idea of democracy. I am fighting for this idea.

Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.