Delhi: “Disgusting,” “humiliating,” Rana Ayyub said, looking at the obscene caricatures of herself, shared on social media after the 37-year-old journalist was stopped from flying to London on 29 March 2022 to speak about online violence against women.
When her face was morphed in a porn video in 2018, Ayyub recalled that right-wing handles deleted their Twitter posts when she called them out because there was still some fear of the law, but now there appears to be no stopping them.
“Earlier they were sexualising me but people were still a bit scared of posting publicly, but now it seems to have become an okay thing. It’s normalised,” Ayyub told us in an interview on 31 March. “Every individual has a threshold. I’ve been tough on myself by calling myself resilient. I should not have called myself resilient. My mental health has only become worse.”
The next day, Ayyub spent close to 12 hours at the office of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) office in Delhi, in response to the summons she says were emailed to her an hour before her flight was to leave from Mumbai airport.
While she was questioned about the allegations of money laundering and tax fraud related to her crowdfunding campaign to help those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, her lawyer Vrinda Grover moved the Delhi High Court to challenge the bar on flying.
Ayyub has denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “baseless.” The ED has attached assets worth Rs 1.77 crores belonging to her. The special rapporteurs of the United Nations have condemned the bogus allegations that can be traced back to a far-right group—(the complainant is a co-founder of the Hindu IT Cell)—and called for ending the “judicial harassment.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government responded by saying that allegations of “judicial harassment” were “unwarranted and baseless,” and the special rapporteurs were expected to be “objective and accurately informed.” Other human rights and press freedom groups have called on the Modi government to let Ayyub practice journalism freely and safely. Her grounding at the Mumbai airport on Tuesday triggered a massive outpouring of condemnation and support at home and abroad.
In June 2021, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh initiated criminal proceedings against three Muslim journalists including Ayyub for tweeting about an alleged assault on an elderly Muslim man which had also been reported by the national media. In March 2022, the BJP government in Karnataka initiated criminal proceedings based on a complaint by a member of the Hindu IT Cell for calling anti-Hijab protesters “Hindu terrorists.”
As the persecution of Muslims in India has gone from bad to worse, Ayyub has used her column in The Washington Post her heft on Twitter, and her substack newsletter, to bring the grave human rights crisis to the world’s attention, and she has not shied away from laying the plight of her community at the door of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP.
Her critiques of the Modi government have garnered wide international attention and accolades, and have made her among the most trolled woman journalist in the country, with a steady stream of abuse, misogyny, violence, profanity, and lies from the vast network of the Hindu rightwing. Her growing clout and appearances on some of the most influential global news programs have also given way to comments and criticism of her being the go-to journalist of the international media.
Ayyub is no stranger to criticism. Six years after bringing out Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, an eight-month-long undercover investigation into the 2002 Gujarat Riots—the reliability of which has been questioned by her critics—the self-published author remains dogged in the defence and promotion of her work. Her book is being made into a documentary, and she has handed the rights to the tapes of her secretly recorded conversations with bureaucrats and police officers to the Oscar-nominated director making it, she said.
In a conversation with Article 14, Ayyub spoke about being barred from leaving the country, her fears for the future, the strain of the toxic trolling, and why she started wearing her “Muslimness” on her sleeve.
What was the offloading at the Mumbai airport like?
Humiliating. You have to go back the same way that you enter. You feel that people are looking at you and wondering, ‘who is this girl?’ At immigration, the people who have stamped your passport now cancel it. Everywhere there were these words, ‘Madam ko offload kiya hai’ (Madam has been offloaded) and then the question, ‘offload kyon kiya hai, Mam’ (Mam, why have you been offloaded). I said, ‘kutch nahin (nothing) sir, I’m a journalist and I write critical things about the government.’ Earlier when I went to the loo, the immigration official went with me and she was standing outside. I was thinking, ‘Am I a criminal?’ I was thinking, ‘My boarding pass is with you, my passport is with you, where will I run? What are you guys even thinking?’
How long did it take to leave and what was going through your mind?
I went to the Air India counter and said that I have been offloaded and if I could get my bag. They said they can only give it after the flight leaves and customs clears it. My hands started shaking and I couldn’t walk. I was looking at the people in the coffee shop and wondering if they recognise me, whether they have seen the news and know I’d been offloaded. I feel like the people who are looking at me and have watched the news believe that I’ve done fraud. In my head, I feel humiliated all the time. How long will this drama continue? I feel like I’m done. I wanted to go for Hajj but now that can’t happen. I wanted to go see my sister in Dubai and that can’t happen. I can’t do anything.
It matters to you what people think?
It does. My life has been about integrity. I was trying to help out people during Covid and now they are calling me a fraud. It does stick with me at a psychological level. It was also a religious thing. A lot of money that was raised was zakat and fitra money and that is sacrosanct. This is the money meant for charity.
What did you decide when you came back from the airport?
I said, ‘Vrinda, I’ll move court.’ This is not about travelling, it’s my fundamental right. We were racing against time — me, my niece, my father, sitting at the notary, scanning the documents for an affidavit and sending it to my lawyer. I have been publicising this event for the past three weeks. It’s all over my social media. I’m giving a keynote at one of the most prestigious festivals and suddenly 20 minutes before I have to board I get a summon from an agency that has not reached out to me since they leaked to the media. It was the adjudicating authority that reached out to me to present my case as to why my bank account should not be frozen. It was not just about going. It was a commitment. Many people had bought tickets to hear me. This is my work. This is my sustenance. Where does my work-life go if I’m not allowed to speak internationally? You can’t stop me. It is my fundamental right. What have I not done? I’ve responded to all your summons. I’ve answered all your questions. I’m responding to your show cause notice which is why I have a return ticket for the 11th (April). You have not told me that I can’t travel.
You tweeted about it. Why?
I decided to tweet about it because I’m not someone who was fleeing this country. I’m a journalist who was going on an assignment to one of the most prestigious events (giving the keynote speech at the international journalism festival in Italy from 6 to 10 April). I decided to tweet about it because I don’t know what is happening here. That is when I had an anxiety attack. My hands were shaking while I was tweeting. I don't know what triggered the attack but I told my nephew to get anything sweet from the kitchen. He got a box of chikkis (jaggery and peanuts). I had one, two, twelve chikkis.
How far ahead can you plan?
I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. What if they arrest me because I’ve decided to brazen this out. When someone decides to brazen this out, you can think of a million possibilities. I don’t know what the officers will say to me tomorrow (1 April) because in the attachment order they have accused me of fraud. I don’t know if they will be hostile to me because I have filed a complaint in court and I will appear before them while the case is being heard. I don't know how bad it is going to be. My family is being dragged into it. My personal life. My Swiggy orders are being discussed. My life has been made free for all. Everyone knows how much money I have in my bank. My sister’s name is on Google for the first time. My father’s name is on Google everywhere. I really shudder to Google my name. It is really triggering.
You’ve seen the obscene caricatures of you on Twitter.
They have written ‘1.77 crores’ and ‘money laundering case’ on my boobs. People are circulating it on WhatsApp. In my head, I’m thinking this would have gone into my society's WhatsApp groups. When I leave the building, I think the watchman must have seen.
It is disgusting how I’ve been made free for all. Anyone can come and say anything.
You also have tremendous support.
Someone wrote the other day that I’m even afraid to follow you on Instagram, what if they arrest people who follow you. People don’t want to be associated with me. You don’t want to be associated with a person who is in the line of fire. When Shahrukh Khan’s son was behind bars, none of the celebrities stood up for him. They only tweeted in solidarity after he got bail. I'm nobody.
Nobody? So many people are tweeting in support of you right now.
I have started doubting myself. I think people have stopped reaching out because they are either tired of me or they believe the government. You have a million thoughts in your head, but self-doubt is the most overwhelming one. I can’t distinguish between reality and nightmare. Every time I take a sleeping pill, my dreams are very profound because it is the deepest state of sleep. Today in my dream, a friend of mine is saying that she can’t be my friend because I’m a fraud and I go to my mother and cry. The last time something like this happened was during the porn video thing. I didn’t leave the room for four days because I thought everyone outside was thinking that it was me in the video. Now, the same thing is happening because I feel people are seeing these disgusting things (the obscene caricatures) on WhatsApp or watching me on the news and thinking she is a fraud. I can’t tell you how my brain is racing.
You’ve been the target of a lot of obscene material including the porn video. It hits you every time?
When the porn video happened and I tweeted about it, people started deleting their tweets because there was a fear that they could go behind bars. Now, they are publicly posting with their names and even if I’m calling it out, I’m being shamed. I’m scared of calling out because people will retweet that also and they will only amplify it. Earlier they were sexualising me but people were still a bit scared of posting publicly, but now it seems to have become an okay thing. It’s normalised. Every individual has a threshold. I’ve been tough on myself by calling myself resilient. I should not have called myself resilient. My mental health has only become worse.
You worry about what people say, what your guard might be thinking. Do you care that much?
When the porn video was made and I kept saying that I feel humiliated, a friend of mine said how can you say that as a feminist. I said you are not the one in my place, who the world is thinking of as a ‘loose aurat’ (woman).
At the end of the day, I live in a very middle-class building, and my family members are all middle-class people and I can’t distance myself from it.
Hundreds of people are probably seeing those caricatures on social media right now. How does that make you feel?
Shame. I don’t know why but I feel ashamed. It is a very skewed way of thinking but at a subconscious level, I’m feeling ashamed. I’m ashamed that my body parts are being used and everybody is amplifying it. I’m feeling naked. This is the honest feeling that I’m telling you.
You must have heard this before — why not lay low for a while.
Young Muslim girls are being told to remove their hijabs — how do I keep silent. My blood boils, not just as a journalist but also as a Muslim, and I would say more as a Muslim. My sister also wears a hijab. I can’t tell you the frustration with which I tweet. Yesterday I was going to tweet that you are breeding a response that may not be good for the country because you are beating a community time and again, time and again. It is what happened during the American civil rights movement. When something happened to a black person, the entire community would feel like it is happening to them. Right now, I feel like it is happening to me although I don’t wear a hijab. People look up to me to speak for them and speak without doing a monkey balancing — ‘this happened because that happened… but the Congress also…’ People expect a certain honesty from me. If there is anything that I’m proud of is my honesty in whether I’m feeling vulnerable, or weak, I've always been honest. But if I have the bandwidth to tweet, I cannot stop tweeting, reacting, or going on TV. I cannot stop. That is who I am. When people say you get this because you put yourself out there, nobody should have to go through this.
This should never be the consequence of speaking up.
Only because of the circumstances we are living in.
Irrespective. If we are censoring ourselves to cater to the times we live in then we are normalising our behaviour and internalising something that is not right.
But you said that you are exhausted and it takes a huge toll.
While it makes me frustrated, it also makes me angry. Frustration and anger go hand in hand with me. My anger makes me tweet and when I’m really angry I write a lot. In my head, I feel like those people are watching me and they are watching what is the impact their actions have on me and if they think the impact on me is that I have stopped writing then I will not let them win.
My backlash is against the backlash.
People feel you make things about yourself.
When people say why are you talking about yourself, well, in my case, I don’t have an apparatus or an organisational support system. I’m the only person who has to hire a lawyer, hire a tax lawyer, fight it. There is not a single support system that I have. Unless I speak, no one else will speak for me. Had I not spoken about — not the details about the case — but the hounding of me and my family, no one would have spoken for me. I do not have the luxury of not speaking. I’m the one who is being accused and I’m the one who has to defend myself. If people tweet in solidarity, I have to retweet so that I can show the government I have support that I’m not alone and people believe in me. This time there has been overwhelming support, but that support was not there when ED filed a case.
Why not just fight in court?
Besides a legal battle, we are also fighting a battle of perception and perception that happens through media and social media, now even more on social media. How do I tell the public? The state-sponsored government channels will not. It is a huge media network. What should I do? If no one is speaking for me, I have to speak for myself. If I say disinformation will keep spreading, why should I clarify, then people will think I have she is not speaking because she has something to hide or she has been silenced. It is damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
If I speak, people say you are asking for trouble. If I don’t, people say she has something to hide.
What hits you more: not being able to fly or the obscene caricatures.
Not being able to fly. This (caricatures) I’m getting used to. The humiliation is what I need to start addressing because I need to tell myself that it is not humiliation. I come from a very conservative family, where I might be liberal or my brother might be liberal, but I have a very conservative family which is still entrenched in very very conservative thought processes. So, I may put up a facade of being a brave modern girl, but deep down I’m a girl who sees this as humiliation whether you like it or not. And whether you like it or not, I did date a very liberal guy who went abroad to study and questioned me about a Facebook post assassinating my character. We are living in those times. These are people who knew me but they turned around and questioned my character. What about the other people in the building who don’t even know me? They think like middle-class people. People think, ‘choree kiya hoga. Bina aag ke dhuan toh nahin nikalta (She must have stolen. There is no smoke without fire).
Has your family got used to it?
I’m taking them for granted. I’ve put them through so much. It is unfair. My father has had two brain haemorrhages, my mother is suffering, my younger brother lost his job because of me, my sister can’t come to India because of me. Today morning I asked my mum, ‘Who will marry me?’ If someone googles me they will see — not allowed to fly abroad, had bank accounts frozen — who will want trouble. I think about it as a middle-class person because that is who I am. If someone googles, they will find this (the obscene caricatures).
Has your mother seen images like this?
My mother is used to it. I know her reaction: ‘Yaallah, mat dekho' (don’t see).
If your mother says that then does it relieve some of the humiliation?
The shame and humiliation are part of my psychology. As a victim of child abuse, shame is part of my life. It matters a lot to me what people think about me. I know I shouldn’t say that, and it is not the politically right thing to say, but it does matter. It really matters to me what people think about me.
Your book still sparks controversy and you have to defend it. Why not publish the tapes.
If I put it on YouTube, they will register cases against me. Even if I released it on YouTube, what would have been achieved. No TV channel will carry it. It needs to have some context to why I did it, and how I did it. Unless I have some platform where I can release it. How do I release it on Twitter? There are 40 hours of footage. That is why I’ve signed a deal with a widely acclaimed American documentary maker, who has also received Oscar nominations, and I’ve given the rights to my tapes where they can film them and cull out the important parts.
Did you feel yourself transition into a very famous journalist, a celebrity some may say, and how did it change things?
The more the fame, the more the scrutiny. Every act is monitored. It’s great to be acknowledged, to receive awards and adulation, to be profiled by the New Yorker, but what I also get is disproportionate scrutiny. The international media has only discovered me in the last four or five years. I only became famous after the New Yorker cover in 2019, the McGill Medal in 2020, and then the Covid relief.
The government’s own cases against me have made me famous.
Where do you see the persecution of Indian Muslims heading?
Indians are not understanding the frustrations of Muslims in India. Muslims who can articulate themselves feel that even after articulating they are not being heard. Two years ago, I put out a tweet when a lynching happened, and I said this country should laud the perseverance and patience of Indian Muslims to not react in the face of everyday humiliation. Some of the most well-meaning liberals said that I was provoking Indian Muslims into reaction. I can’t even laud them after what they are going through every day. Hijabs are being removed, Muslims are being stopped from offering namaz in Gurgaon, cow dung is being thrown where namaz is offered, they are being lynched for allegedly eating beef, there is an NRC, CAA, to delegitimise their existence. We are being called Bangladeshi immigrants. There is some economic jihad going on. Our children are being labelled as terrorists and languishing in jail. Whether Umar Khalid is an atheist, he is Muslim. I think we have been very patient. 220 million is a big number. How many of us are being radicalised? I think it is a huge compliment that Indian Muslims deserve that in the face of your identity being attacked every day, you have been resilient. Sometimes, I feel angry with the silence. Why are Muslims not on the streets? But then we saw what happened when they came on the streets — Shaheen Bagh, Umar Khalid, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam. After this, they have sent a message to Muslims — apni aukaat mein raho (stay in your status).
There are two sets of laws. I don’t think any Muslim will step out now. It leaves us with a few Muslims including me.
Has that changed you as a journalist?
I have never in my life worn my religion on my sleeve, but I’m doing it now. I’m wearing this ‘phenomenally Muslim’ T-shirt very proudly these days. I never did that earlier. It's like how Hannah Arendt said, “If you are attacked as a Jew, you defend as a Jew.” If you are attacking me for being Muslim, I’ll defend myself as a Muslim. I never used to talk about my Ramzan rozas, but I talk about it on Twitter now just to let them know that I’m proud of my religious identity. I can be religious and secular at the same time. The good thing is that I see a lot of Muslim voices suddenly on Twitter, especially during Bulli Bai. They were telling liberals to sit this one out — you don’t speak for us, we speak for ourselves. When I used to do this two years ago, I felt ashamed but now it is becoming normal whether it is Alishan Jafri, Hussain Haidry, Sidrah, Safoora.
They are speaking as Muslims and they are not shying away from their identity. They are asserting their Muslimness.
Isn’t it a drop in the ocean?
It is. There are 30 odd people in a country of 220 million Muslims. You called me a celebrity, but how many people outside the Twitter-verse, The Washington Post world, and the anglicised world even know me. The only reason the government comes after me is because I have access to a platform to the big shows of the world — Christianne Amanpour, the Fareed Zakaria show, BBC Hard Talk, which shape the narrative globally. I could see the change in attitude after the Time Magazine cover (on the Modi government’s response to Covid-19). It was very everywhere. Then, I nominated Bilkis Bano (anti-CAA protester) in the Time 100 as a face of resistance.
What do you fear will happen next?
Uniform civil code, azaan to be stopped in mosques, Friday prayers on a larger level (to be stopped), social sanctions against Muslim business at a level at which it is going to be normalised. What is happening in Karnataka has happened in Gujarat. Who knows which state is going to be nuts. I have said consistently for ten years that we are a communal country. What is happening now in the public and on the road has been happening for 20 years, 30 years or more in our living rooms. I can see the difference from year to year. In 2018, people who were making the porn video still had some fear, now they share a screenshot and say, ‘so what’.
Critics say you have become the go-to journalist of the western media.
Why am I the 'go-to’ journalist? When Kashmir (abrogation of article 370) happened and Delhi (riots) happened, journalists were doing apple cart balancing. When I went on the Fareed Zakaria show, I said it (Delhi riots) was an anti-Muslim carnage because on one side was the oppressor and the other side was oppressed and the oppressor was backed by the cops. I assert my Muslimness and I don’t do monkey balancing. I am making it personal because I’m a child of the Bombay riots, I was a relief worker during the Gujarat riots, and I’m witnessing what is happening in the country today.
Critics say that you are a privileged journalist who gets an extraordinary amount of attention from the international media.
Privilege has not come to me on a platter. In 2013, when I resigned from Tehelka, I was jobless. I wrote to all the Indian publications, and I got the email ids of opinion editors, and commissioning editors. They did not even reply to emails. I had to struggle to be where I’m today. It wasn’t given to me on a platter. I had to fight, beg, network. When people say that you are in a position of privilege, it didn’t come to me on a platter. After Gujarat Files, I was like a sitting duck. At the launch, I got a standing ovation but no one wrote about it the next day.
Had it not been for the international thing, I would have been behind bars.
You are proud of your international clout.
I have worked very hard to reach where I am. I’ve written about Siddique Kappan, the attack on journalists. Just this month, I have recommended two journalists for awards, and written two nomination letters for fellowships. I’m extremely proud that I’m in a position where I can get things done for people. When I needed it, it wasn’t there. When I asked people for the email ids of editors, they wouldn’t share them. Now, I do and I share them.
Do you make yourself the story?
How many times? Two times, three times. I’m writing news articles and opinion pieces that I shape from my worldview of being Muslim. I have to talk. I will talk about living in a ghetto because I know what it feels like to live in one. At the age of nine, I was picked up from a cosmopolitan colony in Sahar and dumped into Deonar between a dumping ground and a slaughterhouse in a one-room apartment. I will talk about ghettoisation. My brother was not given a credit card for four years because we lived in a Muslim ghetto. I know what it is like. Right now, people are seeing where I’ve reached, they don’t see where I’ve come from. They don’t want to see my journey. You can’t deny my lived experience.
(Betwa Sharma is the managing editor of Article 14.)