How celebrity victimhood has become a handy tool to manufacture outrage

Recent episodes involving Arnab Goswami and Ramachandra Guha are testament to this.

ByAnand Vardhan
How celebrity victimhood has become a handy tool to manufacture outrage
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The Renaissance attitudes in Europe had an aspect that was much less talked about, perhaps even unseemly. Though it ushered in an age of scientific inquiry and human creativity, it had a hidden disdain for ordinariness. It was democratic to the extent of seeking the extraordinary, irrespective of birth and status, but it lacked the deeper humanism of engaging with all and sundry.

This was true for both real and imagined individuals. Leonardo da Vinci chose to paint a woman of exceptional beauty, and Machiavelli premised his political treatise on the expedient ways of strengthening a powerful prince. In the process, the Renaissance promoted the cult of spectacular individuals — what the modern world knows as celebrities.

In some ways, this insight, offered in a 1979 essay by scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, is relevant to understanding an aspect of the controversies that have been recently invoked in the name of media freedom in India. Consider two of the latest incidents.

It might not be obvious, but the cult of celebrity played its part in transmitting a sense of victimhood which dictated how Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami engaged with his admirers last week. In a different context, it also defined how historian Ramachandra Guha talked to his followers. In the process, in addition to being a journalist covering the news and a historian studying the unfolding of the present for future narratives, both became stories themselves.

However, here is where similarities end.

Both journalists and historians have ardent “followers”, which explains the origins of why certain forms of victimhood stories gain traction in the way they do in times of neat binaries. But these two recent episodes hint at different sets of fault-lines.

First, one might agree or disagree with the slew of charges against Arnab Goswami in multiple FIRs, ranging from outraging religious feelings and criminal intimidation, to defamation and promoting enmity between groups. However, opinions on charges can’t decide the fact that the law-enforcing agency — the police — should respond to the filing of the FIRs. In other words, the contentious nature of the allegations against Goswami cannot negate the objective fact that multiple FIRs were filed against him. It’s the latter that the police should be concerned with while questioning him. The former is a matter of judicial scrutiny.

Earlier this week, in his primetime show on Republic TV, Goswami fumed over his 12-hour interrogation by the police, as if some exceptions need to be invented to circumvent the due process of the law. That’s a bogus sense of outrage and an equally smug sense of entitlement that celebrity journalists sometimes delude themselves with.

The duration of the questioning depends on a number of factors, ranging from the line of questioning to the nature of the charges, to the direction of the responses. Citing the length of his interrogation as a measure of harassment reveals a type of elitism, while also misguiding Goswami’s online gladiators of outrage production.

More significantly, far from what his right-wing cheerleaders realise, such an attack on the due process of law enforcement undermines the key value inherent in the larger ideological fold of conservatism: the value of order. It’s the ethos of blending change with continuity — adopting what’s good and useful in the present and preserving what’s good in history — that should be integral to their approach. Conserving the rule of law and due process are certainly a part of the order that they can’t dispense with. That can’t be surrendered for the rhetorical trap of the poster-boys they adore.

The whole episode of FIRs being filed and the subsequent police questioning provide the setting that someone, particularly someone as keen on spectacle as Goswami, can easily turn it into profitable victimhood. That’s what he has done in the last few days.

Considerably different in nature and scope is the other recent episode: where historian Ramachandra Guha alleged censorship of his column by Hindustan Times. He subsequently decided to stop writing for the paper. The piece, which was critical of the union government’s Central Vista project, was later published by The Wire.

Being a celebrity academic armed with a large following on social media, Guha’s tweet about the “censoring’’ was interpreted by many as a case of pressure on media houses to avoid harsh criticism of the government. Since it was something that happened between a private media company and someone contracted to write for it, one can’t go beyond the realm of speculation in assuming so.

However, there is something interesting to recall here, and that involves Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of the news portal that eventually published Guha’s “censored” piece.

One of the last instances of a seasoned columnist deciding to stop writing for a major newspaper was of media critic Sevanti Ninan’s column in The Hindu in 2012. According to Ninan, she decided to stop writing her media column for the paper after 20 years because the “arbitrary censorship” of her column had become “more frequent”.

While alleging that her column on the Radia tapes was dropped by The Hindu, Ninan also said she was told the newspaper was not carrying her column because the editor-in-chief, N Ram, found it “gossipy”.

But that’s not what Siddharth Varadarajan, then the editor of the paper, recalled as the reason in an interview. He alluded to a communication gap as Ram hadn’t read and vetted the column. However, Ninan didn’t agree; she recalled that Varadarajan’s only response to her email, in which she stated her decision to stop writing for The Hindu, was “pity!”.

The point is in absence of any clarification by the newspaper about reasons for “censoring” or “dropping a column”, one doesn’t know the exact position of the publication on the issue. It also isn’t not clear whether the alleged “censoring” of a part of Guha’s column was an editorial call or that of the newspaper’s management or proprietors.

Second, while it’s possible that even without state intervention, some media platforms might resort to self-censorship, there is a parallel development that has made any durable censoring an anachronism. The rapid expansion of news media has implied that one media platform’s censored or dropped report or column is a prize catch for another. Far harsher criticism of the government than what Guha offered in his column can be seen daily in different media platforms in the country. There was no way that what an eminent columnist wanted to say wasn’t going to find a place in any of the numerous news media platforms available. That’s a privilege that an elite band of columnists has anywhere in the world. They don’t represent a major part of columnists as a professional group- — most of whom are too constrained by the need to make a living to be adventurous.

Third, while this episode didn’t have any clear sign of state intervention, there is something that comes to mind. As a historian of contemporary India, one wished that Guha would have given a more detailed account of an episode which, in post-Independence history, had the most seminal implications for freedom of speech and expression in India. The story of the first amendment to the Constitution of India in 1951 needed more meticulous and comprehensive treatment in his work. In fact, Cambridge historian Tripurdaman Singh, in Sixteen Stormy Days (Penguin, 2020), his recent work on the subject, laments this significant gap in one of his footnotes.

“It is a sad testament to the state of knowledge on Indian constitutional history that not a single book — neither popular nor academic, and not even a handful of academic papers — have ever been written about this most defining moment in Indian political and constitutional history,” Singh wrote. He goes on to cite the rare academic papers he could find on such an important moment in India’s approach to civil liberties.

The first amendment significantly curtailed the scope of freedom of speech and expression, and opened the doors for state intervention under certain conditions. It was also used to overcome constitutional hindrances in the way of the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s socialist objectives like land reforms, limiting property rights, etc. However, it’s the curbing of the right to free speech and expression which was of specific relevance to how press freedom (an inferred right) evolved vis-à-vis the state under the new clauses of Article 19.

Interestingly, the need to curb free speech and expression through the constitutional amendment was triggered by the fact that the government had lost judicial cases against two publications of very different ideological affiliations: for banning the Left-leaning Cross Roads and for censoring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece The Organiser.

For the sheer scale of its seminal repercussions, Guha could have given the amendment a wider canvas than the limited treatment he has given it in his narration of the period. “The relationship between state and society and the balance of power between the great organs of state — the entire social, political and constitutional fabric of the nation, the basic social contract — was decisively altered,” Singh wrote on the significance of the amendment.

It’s important that the fight for free speech has a sense of which battles to pick. The most vocal and celebrated ones of them may need a closer look, the ordinary ones may not be that small. However, whether small or big, there is also a need to uphold the order which protects the right once it’s threatened again.


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