Lalit K. Jha, the chief U.S. correspondent for the Press Trust of India, was harassed and struck in the head with a set of wooden boards while reporting on a protest outside the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on March 25, 2023.
Jha told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he learned that supporters of the Khalistan movement were organizing a demonstration, calling for the creation of a Sikh homeland by establishing a sovereign state in India’s Punjab region. Similar protests in the days prior had resulted in property damage to Indian consulates and diplomatic missions.
Jha said that he arrived at around noon and began documenting the protest and taking notes from across the street. After a few minutes, a man approached him and began demanding that he identify himself. Jha said he was a reporter for PTI and explained that he was there to report on the demonstration.
The man then repeatedly asked what he was going to write, eventually attempting to block his cell phone with his hand and the flags he was carrying.
“At one point, I saw that he was putting his elbow in front of me, just in front of my nose, and I sensed that there’s going to be some kind of physical violence from him,” Jha said. “So I told him, ‘Look, I feel I’m being obstructed from doing my work. I feel like I’ll be physically assaulted, so I’m going to call 911.’”
After calling the police, Jha approached a van of Secret Service officers parked near the embassy. He told them that he was concerned about escalating aggression toward him, and they responded that they would ensure he was able to safely do his job.
Jha told the Tracker he resumed documenting while standing near the Secret Service officers, but was again approached by multiple individuals, some of whom filmed him while demanding that he explain why he was there. One individual told a nearby Secret Service officer that Jha needed to “leave my land” and that if Jha were to be assaulted, not to blame the demonstrators.
In footage Jha captured in the moments that followed, another man approached the journalist and began insulting him. As the man turned away, the two large wooden flag staffs he was carrying smacked Jha in the side of the head.
In the footage, the man is heard saying, “Ope, I’m sorry,” immediately after striking Jha.
Jha told the Tracker it was not a mistake and he was stunned following the hit. “I was standing there, and he did it purposefully. He swung the rod with the flag in such a way that it hit my ear.”
Jha said the Secret Service officer approached him after he had recovered and asked if he wanted to file a complaint. He said no, that he was fine, and continued to cover the protest for about an hour.
After three days of persistent headaches and tears streaming from his left eye, Jha said he sought medical attention. Doctors told him there was no permanent damage.
Jha also said that because he has been covering the Khalistan movement, Sikhs for Justice, for 15 years and is known by the leaders, some of them called him to apologize for the incident.
Jha said he was thankful to a lot of people, particularly the Secret Service. “They made sure that I, as a journalist, was able to do my job,” he said.
The National Press Club condemned the attack in a press release on March 27, noting that bundles of sticks had also been brought to similar protests in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York in order to threaten and intimidate journalists and others.
“Journalism is a dangerous business and without some quick work by the Secret Service, Lalit might have been more seriously injured,” the statement said.
When asked about the incident during a press briefing on March 28, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said attacks against journalists are never acceptable.