Every year on Vijaya Dashami, or Dussehra, the incumbent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief addresses swayam sevaks (volunteers) at the Reshimbagh Ground near the organisation’s headquarters at Nagpur. It was back in 1925 that Keshav Baliram Hedgewar along with a few others had first congregated on Vijaya Dashami, and the day is since celebrated as RSS’ Sthapana Diwas, or Foundation Day.
The annual speech by their chief is thus part of the organisation’s Foundation Day celebrations. It is customary for news organisations to send stringers to the event to cover it, given the Sangh’s increasing political eminence and reach. While local papers and TV channels cover it prominently, the RSS chief’s speech rarely makes news in national newspapers and TV channels unless the chief says something “controversial”.
This year, however, current RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijaya Dashami speech was aired live on Doordarshan (DD) and other private news channels like Times Now, CNN IBN, Zee News, News X and so on at about 9 in the morning. This was the first time that DD telecast live the Vijaya Dashami speech – notably, DD did not air the speech during the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the National Democratic Alliance coalition at the centre.
Like all things these days, the news about DD’s decision to air the speech broke on Twitter.
Questions were raised on whether the government is misusing the public broadcaster and if the chief of a “sectarian” group should be given such importance.
There were those who saw no problem with the whole issue, and felt it was time the RSS got its rightful place under the sun.
And yet others who felt that the move will go a long way in dispelling some misconceptions about RSS.
So, what made DD air Bhagwat’s speech live? We got in touch with Director General (News) Archana Datta to ask her if there was a directive from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) to telecast the speech, and whether the channel would in future telecast speeches by heads of other cultural and religious organisations. Datta replied that DD is a news channel and that each event is judged on the basis of its newsworthiness. “We will take a call on a case-to-case basis and availability of slots on the channel,” she said, refusing to specify whether the I&B ministry did in fact send directives to DD.
Sources at DD tell us that such directives are usually verbal and are conveyed to the bosses directly.
While it is true that Bhagwat’s speech may have news value, the issue here is not about reporting on the event or the speech, but about using the public broadcaster to disseminate Bhagwat’s message across the nation. “There is a difference between news reporting and relaying a speech live. In general, the RSS’ leader is not a government official. He does not have the right to take over a channel we pay for. If he does, so does, say, the Shahi Imam’s Eid speech,” says Mihir Sharma, Opinion Editor at Business Standard.
T R Vivek, Executive Editor of centre-right portal Swarajya, says that though the newsworthiness of Bhagwat’s ritual Dussehra address cannot be disputed, the public broadcaster’s decision to air the speech in its entirety for the first time is rather odd and worrisome. “I look forward to being educated on the worldview of Indian ‘cultural’ organisations of other hues, in similar detail, through our national broadcaster henceforth!”
Notably, the RSS also has two weekly publications – Organiser and Panchjanya – through which it is free to spread the organisation’s ideologies and indeed, Bhagwat’s annual speech. It can also telecast the speech on its website like it did last year through live webcast.
Questions also arise on the kind of precedent DD’s decision has set. Will DD also relay live speeches of the Shahi Imam, the head priest of golden temple or representatives of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and heads of other “cultural” or religious organisations?RSS pegs itself as a national volunteer organisation. Some even call it India’s biggest NGO, but it is clearly representative of Hindus. It would be naive to look at it as a purely cultural organisation that does not consider religion given that its FAQ section stresses that a “Hindu male” can become a member of the organisation.
Interestingly, though the debate all day has centred around DD relaying the speech live, prominent private news channels also aired the speech on their channels. Even as Times of India, DNA and Firstpost carried pieces on the controversy that erupted after DD’s decision to air the speech, channels like Times Now, Zee News and CNN IBN cut to the live speech in Nagpur. The public broadcaster may have its compulsion to please its new masters, what excuse did private mainstream media have?