2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Scorpion Curled

The threat to a free media in India is never far away

 

One of the appointed margdarshaks of the Narendra Modi dispensation, L.K. Advani, was, at one time, minister for information and broadcasting. He ascended the job writing copiously on the derangements of the Indira-Sanjay Emergency regime (1975-1977) and issuing a rap on the media that still resounds as reminder of what must not be repeated: “When the Press was asked to bend, it crawled.”

A lead act of the same dispensation, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, himself a victim of Emergency-era excesses, seldom misses an opportunity to recall the menace and darkness of those 19 months, or to champion enshrined constitutional freedoms. In his Foreword to The Emergency, an essential memoir of the era by the journalist, Coomi Kapoor, Jaitley wrote: “Political developments during this period were all aimed in the direction of suppressing democracy and turning India into a totalitarian state. Fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 were suspended… The newspapers quickly began to toe the government line… The most alarming aspect of the Emergency, as this book so vividly narrates, was that Indira Gandhi managed to demonstrate how easy it was to misuse the Constitution and convert democracy into a constitutional dictatorship. In this journey, she seemed to have picked up some clues from Adolf Hitler…”

What this dispensation attempted earlier this week revealed, in a flash, unmistakable symptoms of intent to stymie freedoms and stifle dissent — an insidious jab, short-lived though it was, at rendering the media hostage to the whims of the government and its appointed menagerie of babus and sundry other collaborators. To want to usurp such imperious authority — judge, jury, arbitrator, executioner — over what is news and what is fake and hand out summary sanction for what it may deem unacceptable have laid bare what many have long suspected and apprehended — that this dispensation is intrinsically and instinctively informed of being an inviolate project and, consequently, above criticism and averse to it. The ‘No you cannot and should not criticize the Prime Minister’ admonishment and ‘The Prime Minister is an avatar of God’ exhort have, after all, been made repeatedly by not only ‘proud bhakt’ storm-trooper battalions that roam the social media but also by people in high positions of government who find it useful to their prospects to play flatterer toadies.

If the bid to discipline the media was audacious, it was also unsurprising. It is of a pattern with a process that has now made itself apparent. It is no longer unusual to hear of senior journalists being summoned, individually or in groups, to ministerial offices to be lectured on what the media should be doing. Translated, that would mean acting as propagandist force-multipliers for the Modi scheme. They have been ticked off on their ‘consistent track record’ of criticizing the government, and, more important, of its unimpeachable boss, Narendra Modi, and told that what they practise is not good journalism. The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, is known frequently to snub journalists asking questions he may find irksome or uncomfortable. His hand-picked media managers — manipulators is probably a more apt description — regularly call in journalists to the party stables to hector them and express ‘displeasure and disapproval’ of what they have put out in their line of duty. They are not being ‘constructive’; or they are being ‘obstructive’; or, worse, they are being ‘anti-national’ and they are being watched. Be warned. Prime Minister Modi’s disdain for the media is barely concealed. Now on the final lap of his term, he has not bothered with a press conference. He only grants interviews tailored to suit him; he likes to pick, even dictate, the questions. He never answers questions thrown at him without prior approval.

For months now, the Press Council of India has thwarted nominees of the Editors Guild, seeking out one technicality or another to reject them, unprepared to hear out reason, unbothered about established convention. It will not, for one reason or another, admit those whose journalism is unpalatable to the powers. The Central Press Accreditation Committee, the body that presides over which journalist is qualified and which is not, has been packed with those that have sycophancy written on the CVs. The CPAC was reconstituted with little transparency and with utter disregard for balance; one criterion defined the pick: loyalty to the government.

The manner in which media regulatory bodies are being jigged and gerrymandered should, in fact, call into question why, in a democracy, the government should be handing out accreditation to journalists in the first place. Journalists do require access to restricted precincts as part of work and security does become a genuine concern. But that should not bring into play the information and broadcasting ministry in ways that it can disable journalists. It also cannot be anybody’s case that journalism is a lily white trade; there’s a lot that’s rotten and poor about it as well. But there are enough laws to check and punish vandal journalism, or fake news, as the preferred expression of the day goes.

It is perhaps fair to mention here that while the government carps over ‘unfair and dissident’ media, there has seldom been a time a government has been regarded at such length with reverence verging on pusillanimity. And there has never been such a robust outcrop of crony channels and surrogate media outlets that are unembarrassed to strike out hour after hour as buttering-battering arms of the Modi magistracy.

It isn’t quite clear what made the government junk its out-of-line move to manacle the media. Swift alert sounded by journalists’ bodies across the country and their unequivocal cry to back-off. The fear of a larger public opinion backlash at a time when the Modi government finds itself at the wrong end of perception for its failures on many fronts — corruption, price rise, the absence of delivery on voraciously made claims and promises, and for its unabashed offence given to minorities and Dalits in particular.

Troubled governments often turn on the media as first resort. The Emergency isn’t the only example of it in our annals, although it must rank as the harshest, most determined effort at dictatorship. Jagannath Mishra of Bihar attempted it and had to quickly backtrack. Rajiv Gandhi framed and floated the anti-defamation bill at a time his regime had become mired in corruption allegations. He had to back off. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, who runs a most aberrant ship in Rajasthan, tried her hand at the throttle very recently but had to shake it off. All efforts at crushing free voice have been fought and eventually defeated. But the threat is never far away. If freedom and democracy are things to enjoy, they are equally, and more critically, things to defend. This dispensation never ceases to give reason for the necessity of vigilance.

A scorpion curled is still a scorpion.

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