In Times Like These, Cowardice Is Not a Choice

The dark clouds have revealed themselves. The brewing storm has descended. The witch hunt has begun, yet again.

The lightning this time, armed with a diktat from the ruler, broke through the roof of a Hindi news channel and struck two journalists right in their chests. Their crime? Doing their jobs properly.

In June last year, the residence and offices of the promoters of NDTV, India’s oldest television news station, were raided. An act that led the New York Times to publish an editorial titled ‘India’s Battered Free Press’, which described the raids as “an alarming new level of intimidation of India’s news media.”

A lot more has happened in just one short year. Internet portals, trying to revive the lost art of investigative journalism, have been enmeshed in a host of defamation cases, for it is a known fact that they operate on a shoestring budget, and mounting expenditures of lawyers’ fees, court fees, travel costs to courts in other cities on an ad infinitum basis can bleed these portals dry.

On a related note, news anchor Ravish Kumar, who describes a dissenting citizenry as the real strength of a democracy, continues to receive life-threats.

Journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Basit Malik continue to face down online harassment on a regular basis.

These incidents are reminiscent of the struggles of the Indian press under the colonial yoke. In the year 1941, “… all expression of opinion,” wrote Gandhi, “is effectively suppressed unless an enterprising editor or publisher risks the loss of his press”.

Seven decades hence, if Gandhi’s words on suppression of the press still ring true, it can only mean that we are being pushed into the past.

The assault, however, is not limited to the press. Institutions across spectrums are being browbeaten into taking a line suitable to the narrative of a particular ideology.

An institution like the University of Delhi, on July 31, 2018 was forced to cancel the launch event of a student magazine due to protests by the right-leaning student body, ABVP. More recently still, historian Audrey Truschke’s lecture was cancelled in Hyderabad, after the organisers were apprised of the fact that “some people are opposed to Truschke’s views,” and that they have “made their displeasure known.” Similarly, Kunal Kamra, a stand-up comedian, was denied permission to perform at Vadodara University after the vice-chancellor received a letter from 11 students calling Kamra’s content “anti-national”.

Institutions built over decades of effort and sacrifice, are being humbled into kowtowing before mobs till they get into the habit of anticipatory obedience, which, on a careful consideration, is even more dangerous than overt suppression.

“In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union,” writes Timothy Snyder, a history professor from Yale University, in On Tyranny— Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, “the SS took the initiative to devise the methods of mass killings without orders to do so. They guessed what their superiors wanted and demonstrated what was possible. It was far more than what Hitler had thought.”

A large section of the media and premier institutions have been successfully injected with the disease of anticipatory obedience. They are not merely obeying what is being asked of them but are also feeding ideas into the minds of the rulers regarding the extent to which submission is possible in a democratic country.

When it comes to the media, a significant proportion has forgotten its own past, and has become a purveyor of one-sided information.

When Ashley Eden, a British official, demanded a handing over of the editorial content of the Amrita Bazar Patrika (ABP), a newspaper founded in 1868, its founding editor Sisir Kumar Ghosh, stoutly refused. The ABP, bellwether of courage in the struggle for India’s freedom, once described Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, as “…a little foppish, …but invested with unlimited powers.” It was made to pay Rs 5000 to the government after being hit by the Press Act of 1910, but, conformity was never a choice for that ABP.

Freedoms are won. They are not granted by being compliant. They certainly do not come from conformance. Nor from operating within the limits circumscribed by the oppressor. They come from courage and resistance; and eschewing these values, as history has taught us, is the first step towards creating a hotbed for tyranny.

“If lawyers had followed the norms of no execution without trial,” writes Synder, “if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent… if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.”

Today, a large section of our media continues to act as courtier to the rulers. This lot is just not alive to the reality that it is helping cement, perhaps unknowingly, a Gleichschaltung (the standardisation of political, economic and social institutions as carried out in authoritarian states) in our country.

India stands at a shameful 138 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom index. “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought,” says the report, “…from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream (Indian) media.”

Does it befit the editors of our country to impose self-censorship under fear? How appropriate is it for the administrators of universities to stand up in arms against their own students and in order to bow and scrape to the rulers?

Can this be defined as the behaviour of the free in a sovereign country?

One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non information,” said the Supreme Court in the case of Union of India v Assn. for Democratic Reforms, “all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce.”

And still, we have cheerleaders of the ‘vikas’ narrative on our television screens every day, shouting at the top of their voices about how, regardless of everything else, more roads are being constructed. They need to be reminded that no indicator of economic progress is worth surrendering the exercise of our inalienable human rights.

We may not be pushing dissenters into jail, but is throwing people out of their jobs, raiding their precincts and offices, branding them anti-national, vilifying them on all platforms, treating them as refugees in their own country and leaving them to the mercy of lynch mobs any better than incarceration?

We’re at a stage when being outspoken against the government can cost someone their life. Take JNU leader Umar Khalid for example, who escaped a gunman’s attempt to shoot him just two days before Independence Day, mere kilometres from the parliament.

Only a country which builds its sovereignty on that of its citizens can be called a truly free one.

For some time now, voices enmeshed in myths and prejudiced against the free have been trying to immure our freedoms. The need to speak out and claim what is legitimately ours has arisen. Courage has become a necessity, not a choice.

Chandan Karmhe is a chartered accountant and an alumnus of IIM-Ahmedabad.

Featured image credit: Reuters