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There’s no need to be alarmed

by Jawed Naqvi

THERE are not too many media houses left in India that will stand up to Prime Minister Modi’s insidious dismantling of freedoms. Universities are being destroyed by pseudo nationalist bigots, the judiciary is being subverted — how else would a high court judge feel emboldened to pontificate that peacocks are India’s national birds because they live a celibate life and have asexual reproduction? Parliament is being undermined and ordinary people are getting pitted against each other in the name of religion and caste, where Dalits are being torn away from each other to be co-opted as Hindutva’s useful fodder against their own.

It is not surprising, therefore, that raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have been launched against NDTV founder Prannoy Roy and cases have been filed for alleged defaulting on loans his company took from a private bank. NDTV is one of a handful of channels that has the potential to help stall a Hindutva victory in 2019, not unlike the mobile phone-wielding journalist who helped Turkey’s Erdogan avert a military coup.

There is no reason to disbelieve Roy’s claim that the raids are politically motivated. CBI — which was conceived as a neutral investigating body like the FBI — is being unleashed on Modi’s most potent political adversaries, not least being Lalu Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, several southern parties and, of course, Arvind Kejriwal.

A strong signal has gone from several Indian states against Modi’s tightening noose around their freedoms.

The CBI’s knock on Roy’s residence in Delhi and raids on his properties in Mussourie came after a widely applauded snub delivered last week to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party by NDTV’s ace anchor Nidhi Razdan. BJP’s TV face Sambit Patra had claimed in a programme that her channel nurtured an anti-BJP agenda. Razdan denied the charge, but when Patra persisted with his accusation she asked him to leave the discussion. That was sensational and unusual. No one had trifled with a spokesperson of the BJP on Modi’s watch. Just that one act of defiance by NDTV won it heart-warming applause from far and near.

Hearteningly, there is also a daily programme of eye-opening detail about Modi’s growing authoritarianism aired by NDTV’s popular Hindi channel. Ravish Kumar, its main anchor, has become a cult hero by standing his ground on issues that other channels are reluctant to touch.

Another good memory from some time ago: senior TV anchor Karan Thapar was posing straight questions to Modi about his culpability in the Gujarat massacres. Modi walked out of the interview, and now meets only trusted and vetted journalists.

The behaviour of the media in India is determined largely by the ownership of news outlets and not so much by journalists. BJP’s Lal Kishan Advani remembers how when Indira Gandhi “asked the media to bend, they preferred to crawl”. That phenomenon too reflected the policies of the traders who mostly owned the newspapers, as they run TV channels today. Now they have veered close to the Modi regime.

The traders’ proclivity to religious revivalism is explained in some detail in a major work of journalism. Akshaya Mukul’s work — Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India — is an intensively researched book that explores how trader-owned publishing presses helped shape the evolution of pre-Independence India’s religious right. That endeavour seems to have now intensified.

The Hindutva strategy includes muzzling not just the press alone but all other avenues of free thinking that Nehru’s India has inherited as a way of life. It would be a neglect to not see a connection between the assault on NDTV today and the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, for example, at the behest of the new rule-makers. It links up also with the physical assault on university campuses and schools, where an anti-intellectual atmosphere is being foisted to help the advance of Hindutva.

A strong signal has gone from several Indian states against Modi’s tightening noose around their freedoms, the right to food, for example. Arbitrary restrictions on cattle trade have adversely hit a majority of Indians who rely on meat as a source of cheap protein, and have sparked nationwide resistance. Kerala and Bengal are leading the protests. However, while they face a common challenge from the Modi government they are at loggerheads with each other politically. It is up to NDTV and other sections of the media, including those running amazingly erudite news and views portals, together with other public intellectuals, to bring everyone together for their own sake.

A helpful lesson can be gleaned from the way the brave people of Manchester and London have shown the way to fight the enemies of secularism and democracy. Terrorism has a common purpose and intent with other violent forms of religious bigotry regardless of the faith involved.

State-backed religious vigilantes in India want to rob people of their core liberties. Like the criminals of Manchester and London they too want to divide people in a religious face-off. Previous Indian governments had spotted this malignancy in their midst. They had, for instance, resolved with Pakistan never to allow terrorism to derail their peace efforts. That resolve has been sidelined today, giving terrorists and pseudo nationalists a dangerous leverage in the affairs between two nuclear-armed neighbours.

A couple of years back, Romila Thapar, among India’s most respected historians, exhorted the country’s public intellectuals to stir from their apparent slumber. They took the message momentarily, and the result was a handy victory for Kejriwal against Modi in Delhi. Bihar and Punjab followed in putting up a strong resistance to religious fascism.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan praised the people for their resolve to fight the assault on their freedoms. He also asked them not to be alarmed by the task at hand. People in London and Manchester responded with humour, music and a firm ‘no’ to hatemongers. Indians need to take to the streets, calmly, resolutely, to protect their liberties, NDTV and cattle trade included.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn

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