A Journalist Went to Cover an Islamophobic Rally. He Went Viral for Refusing to Join In.

“As the crowd got angrier with each passing second, it did cross my mind that they could physically harm, or even kill, me.”
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
India, press freedom, islamophobia, right wing hindu nationalism
The video of Anmol Pritam standing his ground as over a hundred men tried to force him to say "Jai Shri Ram" in New Delhi is being applauded for his exceptional courage. Photo: Anmol Pritam

Anmol Pritam’s phone has not stopped ringing since yesterday. On Sunday night, a video surfaced on Twitter in which the 24-year-old is surrounded by a frenzied mob of angry men in India’s capital New Delhi. They’re pulling his arm, hitting him, and yanking his shirt. They’re forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” – an expression in Hindi translating to “glory to [Hindu] god Ram” but appropriated by Hindu right-wing nationalists who use it in political campaigns, or, worse, mob lynchings

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“There were around 100 to 150 of them,” Pritam, a TV journalist who works for the independent digital news outlet National Dastak, told VICE World News. “The crowd was angry and spiralling out of control. For a brief second, I wondered if I should relent.” Pritam did not, and he went viral for it. 

On Sunday, hundreds gathered at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – an 18th century monument commonly used as a protest site – purportedly to protest against colonial-era laws but ended up being an Islamophobic rally. Several videos surfaced that made calls to openly harm Muslims, despite heavy police presence during the protest. Some distributed pamphlets calling for “annihilation of Islam” and asking Hindus to “end” Islam.

The Delhi Police is currently cracking down on those accused of raising anti-Muslim slogans, which include a Supreme Court advocate and member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Pritam was right there at the peak of the frenzy. India has a history of Hindu men lynching Muslims right after forcing them to chant “Jai Shri Ram.” 

In the video, as the mob stood close to his face, he is seen raising his voice and saying, “If I feel like it, I will say it. But if so many of you surround me and force me into it, I will definitely not say it.” In the hours that followed, #ISupportAnmol was trending on Twitter. 

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For someone who has been covering protests in the world’s largest democracy, Pritam said Sunday’s rally was different. “I’ve covered protests by the Hindu right wing. I’ve managed to piss off people with my questions in the past, too. I’ve been refused interviews, or been yelled at,” he said. “But this is new. The sense of heightened hate that I witnessed was something else.” 

Hate crimes against India’s 200 million Muslims have been seeing an uptick, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s took power. Modi’s public stance is to maintain “peace and brotherhood,” but Islamophobic abuse thrives amid stringent beef bans put in place to cater to conservative Hindu beliefs, civil rights being suppressed in India’s only Muslim-majority state, and a new citizenship law that critics call “anti-Muslim.”

In February 2020, anti-Muslim riots erupted in parts of New Delhi soon after a BJP politician made a speech in which he called for violence against Muslims amid chants of “Jai Shri Ram.” At least 50 people – mainly Muslims – have died in the pogrom, and property worth billions have been destroyed. 

“What happened on Sunday was very similar to last year,” said Pritam. “I was there last year, too. Anti-Muslim speeches were made then, despite heavy police presence. This time, too, all conversations were leading to hate against only one community.” 

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Pritam said some in the mob also accused him of being “anti-national” because he works at a publication that amplifies marginalised voices. The larger mob, however, was triggered after he started asking questions about what Modi has done to provide for the poor and unemployed. 

“As the crowd got angrier with each passing second, it did cross my mind that they could physically harm, or even kill, me,” he said. “If they beat me up, it would have taken a few months to a year to recover. But kowtowing to their bullying would have wounded my soul, my principles for life. This was my chance to protect my freedom of expression.” 

Once he managed to get away from the crowd, he told his cameraman to go home separately, and took a longer route to make sure he wasn’t being followed. “It was scary, but my fears subsided after a few hours. After that, the video went viral, and people have been incredibly supportive,” he said. 

India is also one of the worst countries for press freedom. A study last year showed that 67 journalists were arrested and nearly 200 attacked in 2020 alone. On Sunday, a suspended cop stabbed a TV journalist to death with a screwdriver allegedly because the latter exposed the cop in a corruption case. During the 2020 anti-Muslim riots, the right-wing mob attacked journalists covering the violence. 

Pritam said he still believes that the kind of men he encountered on Sunday were just a small percentage of India’s population. “A majority of Indians still want to talk, peacefully,” he said. Asked if he will take any precautions in the future, he laughed and said, “I’m a reporter and the day I have to go out and report wearing bulletproof vests and helmet, that’s the day democracy – and provisions of free speech – in our country will be dead.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.