The impossible Rana Ayyub
Journalist Rana Ayyub's no-filter critique of New India make her impossible to ignore. In a year of international awards and honours, Lounge catches up with her as she prepares to receive an award from the US-based Muslim Public Affairs Council next week
Rana Ayyub feels happiest when she’s on the move. It’s more than that. She needs to be on the move. It’s when she pauses that she must grapple with anxiety, isolation, and the burden of being a relentless no-filter critic in New India. Make that Muslim woman critic though she has often been told, even by the liberal establishment, to not make it about religion. But at a time when even conservative commentators like Tavleen Singh agree that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, “whether intentionally or not, seems to have the singular purpose of showing Indian Muslims that they are inferior citizens", Ayyub is unapologetic about her identity.
The award-winning investigative journalist will be honoured on 10 October for her “tenacious reporting on the rise of authoritarian Hindu nationalism" by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a US-based non-profit that works to promote pluralism.
In February, she won the 2020 McGill Medal for journalistic courage. In April, she was shadowed for an HBO documentary—produced by American journalist Ronan Farrow—which investigates threats to four journalists across the globe.
Until the pandemic shut down airports, Ayyub, 36, was zipping through countries with the ease of a tech company CEO, packing and unpacking her largely black-ivory-grey speaking wardrobe. Last year, for example, she was the keynote speaker at international journalism conferences in Norway, South Africa and New Mexico. She closed a conference in Greece; gave a talk at a journalism conference in Italy; addressed UN special rapporteurs in Geneva; gave lectures and talks in the US; and was interviewed by at least two Pulitzer-winning journalists.
The year ended with her on the cover of The New Yorker as journalist Dexter Filkins told the story of Modi’s rise through Ayyub’s eyes. The magazine’s award-winning editor, David Remnick, emailed her to thank her “for all the time and heart and soul you put into your extraordinary work".
In a world where journalists are under siege, Ayyub’s relentless critique, large public following and reporting chops make hers a voice that’s impossible to ignore. Every time a big story breaks, she messages me, “I’m going. Are you coming?"
Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—when her international travel came to a standstill—she raised ₹1.75 crore on a crowdfunding platform and drove across the country, spearheading her own relief drive. Along the way, she contracted the virus and found herself in yet another controversy on Twitter.
She may be among the most popular Indian invitees to global journalism conferences but when I asked an organizer of a local conference if they had ever invited Ayyub to their annual jamboree, he wasn’t sure. Later he messaged to say she hadn’t ever been at their event. Some of her detractors point out that other media critics of the government do their work quietly and don’t turn themselves into the story like Ayyub does. Others say the West has a saviour complex about her.
“Her significance is that she has been consistently brave and outspoken about all of the pivotal issues in India’s recent past," says Mukul Kesavan, historian and author. “She has been not just on the right side but ahead of the curve in calling the state out."
Kesavan believes Ayyub’s outspokenness deprives non-Muslims of “behalfism", namely the need “to speak like Galahads on behalf of Muslims".
One thing is clear: If the global media didn’t have her back, she would be even more vulnerable in an India that’s increasingly cracking down on any form of dissent. The fact that she’s a Muslim woman only makes her courage shine brighter.
Truth and dare
The tidal wave of international invitations began in 2016 after the release of her self-published book The Gujarat Files: Anatomy Of A Cover-Up. “The book opened the floodgates more than anything else…suddenly the world discovered me," Ayyub says.
The book—an account of an eight-month-long undercover sting that investigated the Gujarat riots and its aftermath—has sold 750,000 copies and been translated into 15 languages. Ayyub just signed on with leading Beverly Hills-based talent agency William Morris Endeavour (WME) for the documentary and feature film adaptation.
WME will also market her next book, a personal history, due to be published in end-2021. In this book, about growing up Muslim, she looks back at key events in her life, from the impact of getting polio at the age of 4 to the murder of her dear friend, human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, in 2010 and her subsequent depression.
“Write about the mental health pandemic," Ayyub, who regularly battles anxiety and insomnia, urges me every few weeks.
These days, she jokes, when she wants to feel calm she squeezes sideways into her four-year-old nephew Zulfiquar’s battery-operated BMW toy car and answers calls. “When I sit in it, I feel like things are working, things are going to be fine," she tells me.
She wants me to inform readers that she’s single and looking for love, ideally something lasting. “It’s the only space in my life where there’s a void," she says. Ayyub’s writing may be grim but her friends know she is full of joie de vivre.
At the International Journalism Festival in Italy in April, where we shared a stage, I got a ringside view of her ability to hook an audience as she shared the story of her book, and the harassment that followed. She introduced me to the who’s who in the world of global press freedom organizations.
Ayyub as lone warrior is an enduring image for many.
“She has been pretty much alone in her trying to get to the truth about Modi, past and present, despite all threats and obstacles," Filkins tells me. “…not letting go until she gets answers to her questions."
Political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta says he finds Ayyub’s “Ekla chalo re courage" inspirational. “She has singlehandedly braved the entire might of the right. But the impact of her work has been more outside India. This is partly due to censorship and fear; partly because 2002 ceased being a live political and legal issue, especially after the Supreme Court’s interventions; partly because in India it was easy to construct her as a polarizing figure rather than a crusader for truth.
“It is a tribute to her that even in India the right completely loses its mind over her. It would have to invent someone like her if she did not exist to satisfy its victimhood," he adds.
In recent years there have been death threats, rape threats, threats to her family, hateful fake tweets attributed to her, and even a deepfake pornographic video in 2018. She handles this onslaught with the support of family and friends but the video (briefly) broke her spirit. Ayyub was in Delhi when the video broke and thatnight, she called an editor friend and said she might need to go to a hospital. She was having a panic attack. Her brother Arif flew in from Mumbai the next day. For a few days, the trolls had won.
South African editor Ferial Haffajee, who met Ayyub at a conference a few years ago, flicks away Ayyub’s critics. “As a third-world global citizen that can happen to any brown or black woman who dares to stake a place on the global stage. She clearly understands where she’s from—she’s Indian, she’s Muslim and she’s also a citizen of the world." Haffajee says she was drawn to Ayyub for her “no bullshit view of the world".
“She tells it straight, without embroidery."
Home and away
In addition to frequent appearances on international media and the conference circuit, as a Global Opinions writer at The Washington Post since September 2019, Ayyub has had access to another important platform to show the world how India is changing.
Her audience may be varied but her topics are consistent: Islamophobia, the rapid erosion of press freedom and India’s rising majoritarianism. Abroad, many see her as the Indian equivalent of Rappler founder Maria Ressa, who makes Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte see red. “In the most contemporary form of violence against women journalists, along with Maria Ressa, Rana is our totemic figure about how to fight this latest scourge to media freedom," says Haffajee.
Ayyub’s appeal is not restricted to an overseas audience—she’s a favourite with students at home too. She’s equally comfortable talking about the parallels between Kashmir and Palestine and the plummeting standards of television news at a posh south Mumbai school as she is discussing her Marathi-medium education, her childhood polio, which made her an introvert, and her early inferiority complex when addressing a women’s college in Kozhikode with mostly Muslim students. “I become their best friend. I talk in a language they understand," she tells me in one of many conversations for this piece.
Young women often ask her how they can convince their parents to allow them to lead similarly independent lives. Ayyub has never really had to try too hard to convince her family about her life choices; they are her biggest cheerleaders and her strongest support. “If it wasn’t for my family…" her voice trails off. She lives in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, with her homemaker mother Safia, her father Waquif, a prolific Urdu author and former school principal, and her brother Arif’s family.
Maybe it’s not so much the desire to be on the move as it is the need to direct all of her energy into something purposeful—keeda (inability to sit still), in her words. Weeks into a sudden national lockdown that began in March, she found new purpose.
Ayyub and Arif were headed to pick up Alphonso mangoes from a farmer who was selling directly to housing societies. Near the Kopar Khairane slum (in New Mumbai), they saw a child playing alone in the middle of the road. Ayyub got out of the car to investigate. “His mother said he’s happy, let him be. We have nothing to eat. If he sits at home he will only bother me." The woman’s husband was a municipal sewage cleaner who had lost his job and her last meal was a banana she had eaten the previous day.
One thing led to another and, in seven days, Ayyub raised ₹1.25 crore on Ketto. She put out a call for relief workers on Twitter; one gent showed up with his white Mercedes and volunteered to chauffeur the team; a computer shop in Dharavi doubled up as a place to store food supplies. When the money ran out, they raised another ₹50 lakh.
They used the money to send migrant workers back home, to fund emergency medical procedures, buy oxygen cylinders and tarpaulin for flood-prone regions. They distributed 13kg packets of ration to 60,000 families across five states, she says.
“The relief work kept me sane," she says. “I was out every day."
A 280-character portrait
Her Twitter account is where you can come closest to understanding what it’s like to be Rana Ayyub. This year she has been accused of—among other things—faking news that she had covid-19 (she then uploaded her report) and feeding Muslims while ignoring Hindus during the relief drive she organized. A man from Mumbai filed a police complaint against her in February after she tweeted a video of men attempting to hoist a saffron flag on a minaret. He said she had shared an “old" video “with an intention to spread hatred". Fact-checking website Alt News verified that the video was accurate.
A columnist who didn’t want to be named in this piece voiced another common criticism of Ayyub—“I don’t think activism is journalism."
“I am not an activist, I am an active journalist," says Ayyub. “I am not a journalist who won’t cry when she sees the suffering of riot victims. In the new world order, journalism has new meaning."
Ayyub believes wrong must be called out, just as feminists are calling out the witch-hunt against Rhea Chakraborty after the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Or just as her editor at the Post, Karen Attiah—and countless other black journalists—have in recent times repeatedly called out the discrimination against African-Americans. “I cannot remove my lived experience as a Muslim from my journalism. That’s not me making myself the story."
Ayyub angered Kashmiris when she said in December that “Kashmir is being repeated all over the country". They argued that to compare the citizenship struggle of Indian Muslims to Kashmiris’ decades-long fight for self-determination was false equivalence. Liberals got upset when she called the Delhi riots a pogrom and when she said “What is left for a virus to kill in a morally corrupt nation"—in response to news that Ranjan Gogoi, the former Supreme Court chief justice who had been accused of sexual harassment by a woman staffer, had been nominated to the Rajya Sabha—all hell broke loose.
Then there is the constant stream of abuse from bigots and misogynists who say things that are not worth repeating here—though Ayyub often takes screenshots of the vilest comments and shares them with her friends and followers so they can get a taste of her life.
And then she tweets again
For Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, Ayyub recently wrote about 82-year-old Shaheen Bagh Dadi Bilkis, one of the faces at the heart of protests led by Muslim women against the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act which, for the first time, put citizenship through a religious sieve. Modi also featured on Time’s list. “The crucible of the pandemic became a pretense for stifling dissent. And the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow," writer Karl Vick said about the PM.
Ayyub will continue to tell the uncensored story of unrepresented Indians to anyone who wants to listen, and irrespective of your opinion.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based columnist. She is on the editorial board of Article-14.