By Nazarul Islam, Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi: Last summer, #Narendra Modi had received a sensitive letter— signed by nearly 50 writers, filmmakers, scholars, and artists belonging to a select group of ‘intelligentsia’ in India. Obviously, they had included the present-day, luminaries who could be referred to as ‘India’s pride’. All of them had collectively beseeched the prime minister, to take steps to put an immediate halt to the public lynchings of #Muslims and of #Dalits—who had formerly been recognized as the ‘untouchable people’. And, including those who may be deemed ‘so impure’ by the scriptures that they had been placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system. This was soon followed by waves of public anger, and the ‘proud Indians’ had again, urged him to end the castigation of critics of his government—because this was purely an ‘anti-national’ act.
‘These are not the Middle Ages,’ they wrote, reminding P.M. Modi— that there ‘exists no democracy, without dissent’. In response, the prime minister had remained silent and the letter appeared to go unnoticed by the public—until a judge in eastern India accepted the petition of a Modi-worshipping busybody, who alleged that signatories to it had ‘tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister’
Not surprisingly, one of the signatories to the letter was India’s well-known historian and Gandhi biographer, Ramachandra Guha—a public scholar of high standing, and an intellectual, in his own rights. In December 2019, months after the letter was published, Guha stood alone outside Bangalore’s Town Hall. He was there to protest Modi’s decision to amend India’s citizenship law. Readers must be reminded here, that the act of ‘amendment’ is understood to grant expedited citizenship to religious minorities from neighboring countries already present in India, but will exclude Muslim refugees, escaping these countries under persecution.
Again, Modi’s activation of Section 144 in Bangalore —– a colonial penal code that prohibits the assembly of more than four persons—did not deter Guha. He was one the hundreds of thousands of protesters who had taken their liberties to pour into the streets, over the past four weeks, all across the country—to raise their concerns by their objection, to India’s gradual and inevitable transformation
into a Hindu state. State police have truncheoned, detained and even shot dead some of the protesters. When Guha began speaking to a television interviewer, three uniformed men descended on the scene and then, dragged him away, for reasons known to them only.
And compared to other critics of the Modi government, Guha had been just lucky. Yet, his arrest had seemed to reflect that particular moment, when India had formally migrated to a post-democratic reality. In the year that has marked the government celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, Modi had invoked the same old draconian penal codes, which the British colonial authorities had employed to detain Bapuji —only, this time to imprison his loyal biographer.
Pluralism has for so long, remained the linchpin of India’s robust democracy. And, Modi has recast that gifted republic into a Hindu nation. He has bullied critics, silenced dissidents, and suffocated the press into endorsing his sectarian vision for modern India.
In his visit to London nearly two years ago, Narendra Modi had declared that he ‘welcomed criticism’. And, maintained that ‘In a democracy, if there is opposition but no criticism, then how can it be called a ‘democracy’! Again, he had remarked: ‘Criticism is the beauty of democracy.’ Ironically so, in a country with thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television channels dedicated exclusively to news, and dissent — with some notable exceptions — has now shrunk to the point of near-extinction!
Primetime television shows on the most hotly-watched networks, continue to remain packed with panelists who trip over one another to praise India’s prime minister Modi. ‘Influential media owners, anchors, editors across the nation,’ popular journalist Krishna Prasad has observed in The Hindu, to ‘serve as an “advance party to quell dissent, manufacture consent, set the agenda, drum up support, and spread fear, venom, hatred, and bigotry — sometimes through sheer silence.’
The price he had to pay was high. Prasad was eased out of his job editing Outlook, one of India’s best-known English language magazines after he scrutinized Hindu nationalists too vigorously. ‘India’s media’, Prasad went on to write in The Hindu, is ‘gasping under pressure not felt even during Emergency’s darkest nights’. referring to the twenty-one months that had followed Indira Gandhi’s suspension of the constitution in the year 1975.
Well… to be discreet, Indira Gandhi had shackled the press. And, Narendra Modi has co-opted the same. If you do not wish to hear this, it is your problem!
The year of 2017 had witnessed that Modi had consolidated his firmest hold over the media. In June that year, officers from India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an institution that is regarded today to be ‘notorious for doing the bidding of politicians, for having raided the home and offices of journalists Radhika and Prannoy Roy. Radhika Roy had co-founded NDTV, one of India’s last remaining bulwarks of independent broadcast journalism, in 1987. Also, according to the CBI:’her husband had defaulted on 3.5bn rupees loaned from a private bank almost a decade before’.
The fact that the bureau was determined to recoup a sum on behalf of a private lender—at a time, when India’s own state banks are owed far greater sums, by known Indian oligarchs, has been mystifying (NK Singh, a former head of the CBI, had questioned the real motive behind the raid). Modi is obsessed with NDTV and the journalists and opinion makers who contribute to English daily newspapers who was the chief minister of Gujarat. A year before the CBI raided Roy’s residence, the government had accused NDTV’s Hindi station of imperiling India’s national security, forcing it off air for a day after the station —– like many others—reportedly, on a terrorist attack in Pathankot in Punjab.
These raids didn’t end with Prannoy Roy. In 2018, tax authorities had also descended on the properties of Raghav Bahl, a media proprietor whose publications have taken a balanced editorial line towards the Modi government. In June, the enforcement directorate, the government body responsible for economic crimes, charged Bahl with money laundering.
Two months later, Prannoy and Radhika Roy were detained by authorities at Mumbai airport. The objective, it seemed, was more to humiliate and frighten the Roys – who had bought return tickets – than to prevent them fleeing the country. Shortly afterward, the CBI again had lodged a fresh case against the couple.
On a recent afternoon, I met Prannoy Roy in his Delhi office. Though he put on a plucky face, he seemed shattered within. Advertisers were pulling their spots from NDTV; business relationships built over decades were collapsing. Revenues from government advertising – a major source of income for all media houses – had practically dried up. The CBI had recently questioned both Prannoy and Radhika about a $150m investment the American corporation NBC made in NDTV’s non-news ventures shortly before the financial crash of 2008. According to the CBI, the investment was the evidence of a money-laundering scheme.
Later on, expressed his frustration that NBC —whose cable news network MSNBC has repeatedly skewered Donald Trump for attacking the press—has not stood in solidarity with NDTV. Though Roy was confident that NDTV would prevail, the threat of arrest had continues to haunt him and Radhika.
Somewhere else, Modi’s government has harassed outlying and silenced critics. Karan Thapar, one of India’s sharpest television interviewers, was one of the few journalists who unnerved Modi with his direct questioning in an interview after the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Payback came in April 2017, when India Today TV, Thapar’s former employer, refused to renew his contract.
A few months later Bobby Ghosh, editor of the Hindustan Times who introduced an online ‘hate tracker’ that logged sectarian violence under Modi—had lost his job following a meeting between Modi and the owner of the broadsheet.
An atmosphere of self-censorship has pervaded a lot of India’s newsrooms. The government’s information and broadcasting ministry have a large department monitoring news channels across the country. And what remains of India’s fourth estate, is being repurposed into a PR service for the government. While the careers of Modi’s critics have tapered away, the prime minister’s champions have prospered.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an investor from southern India whom the BJP later nominated to the upper house of parliament, recently helped launch an unabashedly pro-Modi television news channel called Republic. Its chief anchor, Arnab Goswami, behaves like a bully with an outsized pulpit.
In 2019, many well-heeled media personalities in Delhi and Mumbai were appalled when India was ranked 140 in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. That the world’s largest democracy was ranked so low was, to them, proof of an international conspiracy to discredit Modi.
Most of them have reportedly denounced the aggressive coverage of the prime minister as a left-wing conspiracy against India, from foreign publications that once had swooned over Modi. However, such fulminations don’t account for all that is happening around them in India: the silencing of critics, the hacking apart of intrepid reporters and the quashing of dissent.
The democratic content of the republic is being hollowed out, but the people believing themselves to be the guardians of democracy, are genuinely concerned most of all—by its image. India, as you see, has bounced off the tracks—and dangerously so!
Are we really sure of the consequences and the price that the people of India shall have to bear in the years ahead?