This column cannot begin without mentioning the importance to Indian journalism of Ravish Kumar, who resigned from NDTV yesterday after almost 27 years there. His after resigning is not just moving but also an exemplary lesson for us on what journalism is meant to be – but increasingly isn’t in India.
Much will be written in the days to come about Ravish and his outstanding daily show, Prime Time, on NDTV’s Hindi channel. The standards he set challenged the divisive, frivolous, loud and irrelevant ranting that constitutes “news” on other mainstream television channels. He demonstrated that it was possible to go beyond “breaking news”, to bring out the voices of the people so often ignored by the mainstream, and to speak the uncomfortable truth straight to the camera without blinking and without a trace of fear. That much-used phrase, “speaking truth to power”, was indeed the foundation on which Ravish’s programme was based.
In his book, The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation (Speaking Tiger, 2018), Ravish admitted that at times, he was afraid – for instance, when he did a programme on the alleged murder of Judge Loya after a Caravan story on the matter.
He wrote: “I had found release from the fear that had held me in its suffocating grip for two days. Through the duration of the show, I’d felt that every single word was holding me back, as if to warn me: ‘Enough, don’t go any further. You cannot put yours and yourself in danger just to overcome your fear. Fear does not end after you’ve spoken out. Even after you’ve spoken, fear lies in wait for you with its nets and snares.’ But I had spoken, and I was free.”
There is little doubt that Ravish’s “free voice” will be heard again in another avatar, on his YouTube channel and perhaps elsewhere. But his exit from mainstream media extinguishes the one spark of intelligent, resourceful and courageous journalism that somehow survived the last eight years, when the pressures on independent journalism escalated.
Ravish was an exception. There is no doubt about that. The norm today is fear of the consequences if you don’t toe the line. And, every day, we see examples of this.
On December 1, Indian Express, Times of India and Hindustan Times ran identical op-eds. The author was Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and the subject was India chairing the G-20. The Hindu also ran the piece, but on its news pages, because it was not an exclusive. Articles on the edit and op-ed pages must be exclusive. This is a well-established norm that newspapers generally follow. Clearly, a statement from the prime minister, for that is what it was and could have been dealt with in a news item, was considered an exception. Why? Has the fear of consequences distorted even established editorial norms?
Then take the way some recent statements made on the campaign trail in Gujarat by the prime minister and home minister Amit Shah were handled by the print media.
As a rule, most newspapers report verbatim what important politicians like the prime minister say at public events. Such statements are often displayed on the front page, irrespective of their relevance. However, during an election campaign, the meetings addressed by the prime minister are not official events. They are organised by his party and he is campaigning as the leader of his party. Yet, these meetings and his statements continue to be given the same treatment as his official engagements.
But what if, during these election campaigns, he or someone else in high office says something that’s not entirely true, or is exaggerated, or is provocative? Should the press, even as it reports this, also call them out?
Take, for instance, the prime minister’s to activist Medha Patkar during his campaigning in Gujarat. He terms people like her “urban naxals”, he claimed she and her campaign against the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river are responsible for the lack of water in Kutch, and he has often charged her with being anti-Gujarat and “anti-development”.
His ire grew when Patkar joined Rahul Gandhi for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. This added fuel to his already charged rhetoric as he alleged a conspiracy between the Congress and Patkar to undo the Gujarat model of development.
While all this was reported without question, there was hardly any space given to Patkar or other members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Barring a few newspapers, like in Indian Express, the prime minister’s accusations against Patkar went unchallenged. Given that Gujarat now has a generation that has only known BJP governments, knows practically nothing about what happened during the 2002 communal carnage, and will certainly have no knowledge of the history of the struggle for the rehabilitation of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar dam, it is inexcusable that even this kind of routine effort was not made to give the other side of the story.
That perspective is essential for many reasons. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the questions raised by the NBA about the dams on the Narmada river, including the Sardar Sarovar, played an important part in establishing the importance of incorporating environmental and social norms in any large developmental project. Indeed, the concept that development itself could be destructive evolved around that time.
Since then, India has adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals that are based on these concepts. Yet, the concept of “sustainable development” has clearly not been fully understood or accepted given the prime minister’s hostility towards people like Patkar who continue to be labelled as “anti-development”.
It is a matter of record that the Narmada dam oustees, including those in Gujarat, had to fight every step of the way for compensation, resettlement, and rehabilitation. None of it happened automatically. And some of the issues remain unresolved.
Indeed, as insightful report by Manisha Pande of Newslaundry shows us, the people ousted from their land to build the gigantic Sardar Patel Statue at Kevadia on the banks of the Narmada are still angry and unhappy. You hear little, if any, of this on mainstream media.
Elections give journalists an opportunity to go behind the obvious and report. And during the run-up to the Gujarat elections, there have been many insightful reports in the print media, and on digital platforms. Apart from several excellent reports in Newslaundry, I would like to mention in Scroll, where Shoaib Daniyal illustrates the gaping holes in the much lauded “Gujarat model” of development. The state has high rates of stunting of children, has high levels of infant mortality, and is a low 17th in the all-India ranking on education. The series of reports by Arunabh Saikia in Scroll are also worth reading for the perspectives they provide, such as on the Mundra port operated by the Adani group.
Coincidentally, even as our newspapers were reporting verbatim everything Modi said during the election campaign, in the US, former president Donald Trump did not get off so lightly. in the New York Times is an example of what can be done. The paper fact-checked a speech made by Trump when he announced that he would run again for president in 2024. Would any Indian newspaper, or TV channel, ever do this in India? I realise that this is a rhetorical question for which there is only one answer.
Another example of how the media fails to question statements made by politicians is the many thinly veiled threatening statements made by Amit Shah during his Gujarat campaign. At a rally in Mahudha in Kheda district, as reported by , Shah said: “In 2002, communal riots took place because the Congress people let it become a habit. But such a lesson was taught in 2002 that it was not repeated from 2002 to 2022.”
The statement was widely reported, even on the front pages of some newspapers, but there was no comment following it. On the other hand, the in the UK published a strong editorial comment in which it pinned Shah’s statement. It said, “On the campaign trail last Friday, India’s home minister claimed troublemakers had been ‘taught a lesson’ in 2002. This sounded like a signal to Hindu mobs that they could do as they pleased.”
Shouldn’t such an obvious statement from none other than India’s home minister, responsible for law and order, have drawn a comment from the Indian media? Tragically, the answer to this question is also obvious.
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