Rana Ayyub: The story of a fearless investigative journalist in present-day India

In a country that’s been under fire for the most part since Narendra Modi got elected as the Prime Minister for the second time, Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist in India, has kept her stance and been maybe amongst the most outspoken journalists the country has come across.

Rana Ayyub, known for speaking out excessively against the Modi government and the pro-Hindu like atmosphere the country is slowly developing, is a warrior if one must describe her in a word. Having worked and interned for a number of noted news outlets including Aaj Tak, Times Now and finally Tehelka, which she credits as the magazine that got her some of her best work, Rana is clearly among the top journalists in the country.

Image Credit: The Washington Post

A Muslim girl born in Mumbai, Rana witnessed the 1992 Bombay riots — the first sort of communal violence she’d seen first-hand. “It was extremely debilitating; we were right there. Later, when I went to Gujarat and saw the injustice that took place, I knew I had to give a voice to it. I think those experiences somehow shaped me, who I was and my instincts.” says Rana.

Ayyub credits her father as the sole reason for her to join a field where she could make an impact. “My father was a part of the Progressive Writers Movement, and we’d have their meetings take place in our house most of the time. I was fond of reading their work, and I just knew I wanted to do something of the sort that my father was doing.” The Progressive Writers Movement was a literary movement who were left-winged and anti-imperialistic and advocated for equality — something Rana aspired to stand up for one day.

Born as a weak child who later developed polio in her right arm and leg (which she recovered from), she knew she’d have no chance fighting for what’s right if she joined the police force — keeping her physical weakness in mind.

“I would see the injustice that took place around me, I was raised in the midst of injustice. I knew I wanted to make some sort of difference and to my luck, I realised how good I was at narrating experiences, talking to people and holding conversations with those who had a story to tell. I think that point in my life was when I knew I needed to become a journalist.”

“I’ve always been curious,” says Rana.

“I remember during my first job at Aaj Tak, around 1000 Muslims were arrested after the 7/11 train blast and for some reason, nobody wanted to investigate and find out what really happened. The immediate emergency of the situation made me realise that it was investigative journalism that I wanted to focus on.”

“You become an investigative journalist to tell the truth” Rana adds. “To find the truth, you must go and search for it. A truth that resonates with the audience. I was never content with front-page headlines and the traditional headlines, I wanted to go beneath and check,” she says.

Possibly her biggest investigation was the one she pulled off in 2010 when she posed as Maithili Tyagi, a student and filmmaker from the American Film Institute Conservatory, who’d come to Gujarat to shoot a short film. The eight-month-long undercover sting operation, according to Ayyub, “took a lot of training.”

“I had to change my accent, change my name and live with the identity. I had eight cameras on me, one in my tunic, one in my earring, my bag, my watch, and so on.”

Rana Ayyub was investigating the truth that had led to the Gujarat riots in 2002. Posing as a Hindu whose father had been a part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, a right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation. Because of this link, Rana, disguised as Maithili, was able to speak to police officials, bureaucrats as well as Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, all while wearing a camera and microphone.

The investigation and evidence collected was solid proof that held Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly guilty for more than what the public knew. The findings of the investigation also sent Amit Shah behind bars in 2010 — an achievement that keeps Rana’s head up high.

As proud as the investigative journalist is of an operation that took the country by storm, she wouldn’t entirely advice it as much herself. “Looking back at it now, to pull off an investigation like that at 26 years of age honestly feels great. However, I wouldn’t exactly advice sting operations to anybody because of the kind of mental health issues that I faced after that — I mean if you’re undercover for eight months under the harshest circumstances, you get prone to anxiety and depression later in life.”

Ayyub being an investigative journalist, believes that sting operations should not be made a norm while practising journalism. When her book, ‘Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up’ was published, in which she put all transcripts from her sting operation since Tehelka had refused to release her work, her ethics as a journalist were questioned and heavily criticised. “If I were able to unearth the truth using conventional methods, I’d never opt for a sting operation. I’d be the last person who would want to do something of this sort because when you go undercover, you’re betraying the trust of the people you’re interviewing.”

“Sting operations should be used in the rarest of rare cases. In my case, I tried every possible way to get the truth out, and when it was absolutely impossible, I had to resort to carrying out a sting operation” says Rana.

“So for me, the ethical considerations were very clear in this case, I was only going undercover to get information from the people that should’ve spoken the truth, but refrained from doing so.”

Such work doesn’t come without threats, not for Ayyub at least. She believes that it isn’t a profession for those with a faint heart, you have to develop a thick skin. “I’ve taken on the most powerful men in this country, of course there will be threats.”

“I’ve gotten phone calls in the middle of the night telling me that there are people standing outside my house, I’ve received death threats. It’s gotten so out of hand that U.N experts have said that they are concerned about my life and the government has offered me a revolver license.”

Rana Ayyub, currently working with The Washington Post as their Global Opinions Writer, has long been known to criticise the BJP government in India due to their religious intolerance as well as their efforts to make the country a Hindu nation. She believes that since this government has come to power, with every passing day it’s getting harder for journalists to do their job.

“I wrote a piece in 2014 I think, criticising Amit Shah when he became president of BJP and that piece was taken down within two hours of being published. There’s always been a certain amount of censorship in the media, even before Narendra Modi came to power, but I’d never seen censorship of this sort ever before.”

“Journalists are refraining from speaking the bare truth. Some of our topmost journalists are now consulting editors or contributing editors or freelance journalists, it speaks volumes of the ways the media in this country is under Narendra Modi.”

“A journalist like me who left Tehelka in November 2013, was jobless till last year when The Washington Post offered me a job. So, if journalists speak the truth, they will be jobless in this country”, she adds.

But clearly, there are more issues for journalists than just being able to speak the truth. Rana shares what she had to face in her early days when she started off in this profession. “The challenges start right from the beginning when you go on the field as a woman journalist. My editor told me that I couldn’t do politics because then I’d have to engage with politicians and hold conversations late at night since the material we can use only comes out then.”

“Even though I never thought of myself as a woman journalist, I was constantly made to feel like one.”

Despite the gender discrimination, she did believe that the field by itself is pretty tricky, regardless of gender. The journalist and author also went on to talk about how India was practising investigative journalism all wrong. “What we pass off as investigative journalism in India is basically getting information by your source and publishing it in a newspaper. This is not investigative journalism; leaks are not investigative journalism. Investigative journalism requires rigour, research and persistence.”

Ayyub then finally comments on the ongoing debate regarding the death or possible death of investigative journalism. “I don’t think it’s dying if anything it’s becoming more robust around the world. This is the best time to be an investigative journalist in my opinion since there is so much injustice in the world today.”

“There are journalists questioning their leaders every single day and just because it’s not happening as such in India, doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all.”

“Never before has investigative journalism been more important than it is today”, concluded Rana.