India's Attack on Freedoms Is a Warning to Trump's America

It’s been a week of high-decibel drama in India, and unsurprisingly, much of it stems from executive actions of the center, driven by drama, under the Modi-led extreme right-wing government under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the de-monetizing of high-currency notes is the last in this chain, its motive and impact still panning out, let’s go back a few days before that November 8 dramatic announcement, to a far more dangerous one that burst forth when one of India’s commercial television channels was served with a notice for a “24-hour ban” for a day.


The channel in question runs in two languages, English and Hindi. The latter is spoken in large parts of northern India, and is what many would like to call the “national” lingua franca, although this is stoutly disputed in the south and east. NDTV’s English channel has not had a spotless reputation when it comes to fearless journalism, but the one-hour news show on the Hindi channel by the iconic journalist Ravish Kumar has become something of a symbol of resistance in these dark and difficult times. No wonder, then, that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry under Modi crudely targeted NDTV-India (the Hindi channel of NDTV) for the ban. The 24-hour ban was imposed through a ministerial order on November 2, to be put into effect November 9.

The very same day the Modi government announced this ban, the management of the Indian Express, a newspaper with an anti-establishment reputation, invited the Indian prime minister himself to give away the newspaper's prestigious awards for “fearless journalism.” This was controversial on many counts, not least of which his barely veiled contempt for healthy criticism from the media. The irony was not lost on anyone. And even as the NDTV-India drama dominated protests on social media networks, the equally courageous stance of Akshaya Mukul, a senior journalist with the Times of India who refused to stand in close proximity to the prime minister, despite symbolizing an equally firm clarion call of resistance, did not receive as much attention.

Mukul said publicly that it was an “honor” to have won the award. His problem lay in receiving it from the prime minister. He explained, “I cannot live with the idea of Modi and me in the same frame, smiling at the camera even as he hands over the award to me.” Mukul was conferred an award in the category of nonfiction books for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (published in August 2015), which sheds light on the ideological moorings of Hindutva—ironically, the bedrock of the prime minister’s politics

The action against NDTV-India, which was seen as an action against the redoubtable Ravish Kumar, saw vociferous protests break out all around on social media and even on the ground. While two bodies, the Editor’s Guild and the Newsbroadcasters Association (NBA), condemned the government action initially, the protests and solidarity within the Indian media was subdued. A proud exception was the Kolkatta-based Telegraph, which ran a front-page story with the headline, "Emergency Era Blackout."

The Telegraph commented: “The Center's decision to ban a Hindi news channel for a day for allegedly revealing ‘strategically sensitive information’ during its coverage of the Pathankot anti-terror operations has been equated to harsh censorship ‘reminiscent of the Emergency.’”

The Editors’ Guild of India called it a “direct violation of the freedom of the media." The NBA also expressed "deep concern" over the one-day ban. The NBA, which represents private television news and current affairs broadcasters in India, said the Hindi news channel had been "singled out when the rest of the media also did cover the (Pathankot) terror attack, and all such reports were available in the public domain."

What crimes did NDTV India allegedly commit? The predictable defenses by the executive and their supporters have been “national security over the altar of freedom of speech.” The vaguely worded rule 6(1)(p) of the Cable TV Program Code was dusted off. Nearly 10 months earlier, on January 29, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting served a show cause notice to NDTV’s Hindi channel for its coverage of the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in Punjab. The notice accused NDTV India of broadcasting “strategically sensitive information” which was “likely to be used by the perpetrators to put impediment in the counter-operations carried by the security forces.”

The notice was served to NDTV India under the program code, a list of broadcast rules made by the Union government as per the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, which was amended in 2015 to prohibit “live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces… till such operation concludes.” The accusation was that NDTV India had, in a broadcast on the afternoon of January 4, revealed information about the location of militants while they were still attacking the Pathankot Air Force base in Punjab, an incident that eventually saw seven military personnel and one civilian killed. The notice accused NDTV India of announcing on air how close the militants were to sensitive installations such as an ammunition depot, airstrip and an army base.

In its defense, NDTV responded to these accusations on February 5, claiming its coverage was “entirely balanced and responsible.” The reply also pointed out that the so-called sensitive information that the channel was being accused of broadcasting was already out in the public domain and telecast by other news papers and channels, most significantly a video of the press briefing by the Indian army itself.

The issue is not the channel’s coverage of the Pathankot terror attack, although a searching debate on the vagueness inherent in the laws that endanger freedom of expression must take place, but the defiant programming of television, every day, under Kumar. His nightly visitations are a breath of fresh air within Indian television, soaked and cloaked as it currently is by corporate vigilantism and selective coverage.

In the week before the controversial ban by the Modi government, Kumar’s searching coverage of two major issues was no doubt a huge embarrassment not just to the government, but to Modi himself, with his penchant for self-promotion and hype. Like right-wing governments all over the world, the Modi regime seeks to be the sole arbiter of patriotism, and by extension, the true guardian of “national security.” Faced with elections to several states next year—and spiraling food inflation, jobless growth, agrarian crisis and worker protests challenging the “feel-good hype”—it has been attempting to use India’s borders, a fractious relationship with Pakistan and the plight of Indian soldiers to rudely garner votes.

One issue hogging headlines has been the One Rank One Pension (OROP) demand from India’s armed forces. In the week before the ban, NDTV India’s coverage of the suicide of an Indian soldier in the country’s capital, despairing of his voice ever being heard, is a major embarrassment for the regime. Worse was the channel’s exposé of the brutal extrajudicial killings of eight people under trials by the Madhya Pradesh police, ostensibly after they “escaped” from the Bhopal Central Jail (another state under the RSS-driven BJP regime). There have been several questions raised about this staged killing, not the least of which that the under trials (detenues who have not yet been tried in court, largely due to interminable delays in the Indian criminal justice system) were defenseless, they were found to be not guilty of the crimes they had allegedly committed, and the killings were just another “act by a state” needing desperately to re-garner popular support.

Kumar is thus a proverbial thorn in the flesh for this government. Praised and trolled in equal measure, he has even decided to sign off from Twitter when the nastiness has gotten too close. In February of this year, his post on “Hitler resides not only within Hitler or Germany” was widely read and lauded. On February 21, he ran the show in complete darkness after students and their leaders were openly and physically targeted at India’s iconic Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), also in the name of “saving the nation’s honor.” Explaining the radical telecast of a television screen, in darkness, Ravish Kumar wrote: “Will we in the name of nationalism let our independence be hijacked by thugs like these? What if one day these people lynch those kids in the name of saving our culture? Or what if those kids kill themselves out of that embarrassment?”

A day after the recent ban order became public, Kumar was quiet during his nightly show, and all of us wondered why. We had the answer on the night of November 4. For a large part of his one-hour show, Kumar staged a drama with two brilliant mime artists (who did not just mime), posed as the leader and the troll. He was the tentative questioner and staged seemingly simplistic interventions, posing: “When did authority and police rise above questioning? Authority means accountability. Without it, power becomes something else altogether. When we cannot ask questions, when we cannot speak freely, what can we do?” Kumar showcased a brilliant episode of television resistance.

The Modi regime announced November 7 that the ban on NDTV would be put on hold after the channel had gone to court, and there had been a vociferous outcry. Even as India celebrated resistance and “democracy,” Indians remained mealy mouthed and silent on the 65-day-old ban on Kashmir Reader, a newspaper published from the conflict-ridden Valley.

“If the government’s attack on NDTV was ‘fascism,’ what explains the ban in Kashmir Reader,” demanded critics of mainstream India’s hypocritical attitude toward the suppression of freedoms there. The Editor’s Guild condemned this media gag, too. Several interventions and protests to raise the issue to rights violations in the Valley have been far from successful. Senior journalist Pervez Khurram still remains under detention despite international voices being raised to demand his freedom.

Meanwhile, Modi’s dramatic win in May 2014 to occupy the prime minister’s chair saw with it serious impingements on media and freedom of expression and thought. For nearly 13 years as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where Modi oversaw a pogrom against the minorities of tragic proportions, some articles simply did not make it into the final editions of the newspapers even as individual journalists toiled bravely on. A sinister effort at manufacturing consent and support has been systematically afoot. In 2002, the Editor’s Guild chronicled media manipulation, even as mass crimes were being committed in 2002.

Since May 2014, some examples of a clear-cut, powerful and moneyed effort to manufacture consent and stifle critical comments in the media need recalling.

On or around December 4, 2013, an article critical of Modi’s serial blunders authored by Dheeraj Tiwari was published online on Economic Times website, and later, strangely deleted. Here are excerpts of what the author said when he compared Narendra Modi to Sarah Palin:

When Palin started her campaign, commentators gave the ‘hockey mom’ a real chance. After all, she was folksy, which America loves, good looking and a would-be grandmother to boot. The concoction was deadly and Republicans lapped it up. A war veteran, John McCain as the head and a mommy as his aide fell in line with the American dream.

Modi’s team has also created a similar aura around him. Decisive, incorruptible and earthy – are the characters which largely define Modi’s campaign. If BJP is to be believed, Modi is the underdog of Indian politics, a ‘chaiwala’ who through his sheer hard work has managed to rise in the political hierarchy. In his own words, he is not a ‘shehzada’ but a ‘sevak.’

Till this point, the script runs perfect. But the American dream crumpled when the mommy started getting her facts wrong. Palin was ridiculed when she claimed to have an insight into American foreign policy because Russia is the next door neighbour to her state of Alaska.

Back home, Namo replicated that feat in his Independence Day speech at Bhuj. He almost took the same neighbourhood line as Palin and while lambasting Pakistan claimed that his voice reached Pakistan first and Delhi later. This came from the same man who some months ago had offered Sindh province in Pakistan, the ‘Gujarat model’ to overcome its power crisis.

While Palin called Afghanistan a neighbouring country, Modi brought Taxila from Pakistan to Bihar. There is an uncanny resemblance between these two politicians in getting their facts wrong, again and again. Their supporters may term this as unpretentious behaviour.

After historical blunders such as calling Gandhi Mohanlal instead of Mohandas, and claiming that Nehru did not attend Patel’s funeral, Modi is now treading on more difficult terrain. In a Jodhpur rally, Modi claimed that he may not be as educated as the country’s finance minister but he knew that buying gold is not leading to inflation. His first lecture in economics may have got a thunderous applause in the rally but he might have lost the faith of voters who till then would have bought into his image as the deliverer of Gujarat’s vibrant economy.

It is time that Modi should learn from the mistakes which Palin committed. After all he would not like to be remembered as Palin, who finally had to be told that there was no tradition of concession speeches by running mates, and that she would not be speaking. Not anymore.

Weeks later, a prominent news magazine, Open, saw significant changes. Manu Joseph, its editor, resigned when, on Jan. 6, 2014, after months of speculation, PR Ramesh, a journalist considered close to general secretary of the BJP Arun Jaitley (now India’s finance minister in the Modi government), joined the magazine as managing editor. Hartosh Bal, a journalist of repute who was sacked by the same magazine in November 2013, wrote, Manu Joseph, my former boss at Open Magazine, announced yesterday that he had quit the magazine. While he did not state his reasons, they are evident to all those who have been associated with the magazine. I was sacked from the magazine in November, and while Manu had opposed the decision he had let matters rest at that. But in the three years we had worked together we had managed to put together a reasonable body of stories, including most importantly, the Radia Tapes. This became possible, in great measure, because Manu allowed a considerable degree of independence to those working for the magazine.”

Days before that, on Jan. 7, 2014, an innocuous comment by advocate Patrawala on the Times of India website was removed as “offensive.” The comment, made by a lawyer from Modi’s home state, simply said: “Modi has brought the Indian democracy to the level of Hall Mark of corruption, be it the Constitution or rule of law. System be it legislature, executive or judiciary have utterly failed to curb the historical menace of Modi culminating into the dire frustration and helplessness of the common man.” The Times of India found this so “dangerous” as to delete it from the section on the website.

On Jan. 8, 2014—a day later, and four months before he captured power—SUN TV sacked a senior journalist and political analyst from his job. Veerapandian had been successfully conducting a popular talk show with political analysis for the last 17 years. Activists have alleged that Sun TV had taken the decision to stop the program following a letter from the BJP’s state office secretary Sarvothaman to its MD on Dec. 23, 2013, Modi critic loses job in Sun TV: Activists. The talk show can be viewed here.

Each instance, including the most recent, rings warning bells for the health and future of Indian democracy. Coming in the week that the United States of America elected Donald Trump as president, the future of the media in the world’s two largest democracies is in grave danger. There is no better time than now for both consistent solidarity and resistance.

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