The red carpet was laid out, the cameras planted, the ceremonial lamp lit. Stage lights came on and danced as the expansive convention hall of Ashoka Hotel in Delhi hosted a celebration of 75 years of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mouthpieces Panchjanya and Organiser. The highlight of the show: a conclave called Media Mahamanthan to survey the state of the media and recognise journalistic “excellence, depth, quality, and impact”.
The celebration would last 11 hours and see seven chief ministers shuffle in and out, hear the hatemongering BJP leader Kapil Mishra, and cheer a parade of journalists, state and corporate, collecting awards. And select ‘art and culture’ mavens. (Yes, that was news to us too.)
The day panned out as predicted. To spare the audience any surprise, debates and interviews largely revolved around the uniform civil code, cow slaughter, vilification of madrasas, , , and .
The first session on “Media and Free Speech” featured aspiring social media influencer Shefali Vaidya, Kapil Mishra, perpetual TV talking head Anand Ranganathan, folk singer Malini Awasthi, and . The session was moderated – should we say directed? – by Prafulla Ketkar and Hitesh Shankar, editors, respectively, of Organiser and Panchjanya.
Ketkar began by talking about the Supreme Court’s judgement in the and how it forced Jawaharlal Nehru to restrict freedom of speech through the first constitutional amendment. Turning his attention to the assembled panel, he called Ranganathan “a free speech terrorist”.
Cue for Ranganathan to declare that he was “a man of black and white” – if you had not yet deduced from . “I don’t like the grey,” he said, “because the grey allows you to hide your hypocrisy.”
He backed the right to free speech of Delhi University professor Ratan Lal, who was last week for writing an “objectionable” Facebook post about a “Shivling” supposedly found at Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Masjid. “I think everyone will stand with Salman Rushdie and the Charlie Hebdo journalists who were beheaded and shot dead,” he continued. (The journalists were shot dead. A teacher who had shown Charlie Hebdo cartoons to students was beheaded in a subsequent terrorist attack.) “If you stand with them, it means you want to protect their right to freedom of expression. You may not agree with them but you want them to say what they have to say. So why double standards here? I do not like what Ratan Lal said but he has the right to say it.”
This was, perhaps, the only sober note. From here, the session regressed into whataboutery and lashing the dead horse called the Congress party. Mishra, in particular, was in form, and invited guffaws. Breaking super exclusive “good news”, as if he were a primetime anchor, the BJP leader declared, “A son resembles his father. They did not believe it until the son wore his father’s clothes.” He was talking about Rahul Gandhi. If you are grasping for meaning, join the club.
Prafulla Ketkar, left, and Hitesh Shankar with their publisher Bharat Bhushan Arora and RSS publicity head Sunil Ambekar.
The next nine hours dragged on as BJP chief ministers N Biren Singh of Manipur, Pramod Sawant of Goa, Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana, Pushkar Singh Dhami of Uttarakhand, Hemant Biswa Sharma of Assam, and Jairam Thakur of Himachal Pradesh swished in and swooshed out. Uttar Pradesh’s Adityanath attended virtually, taking time out from a day packed with a cabinet meeting and the assembly session.
Speaking to Ketkar or Shankar, the chief ministers gushed about the Narendra Modi government’s policies and shared their own views on such pressing matters as cow slaughter, reclamation of temples, and madrasas.
Adityanath lauded his government for cracking down on loudspeakers and not allowing Eid namaz on the roads. Sawant said he had allocated a budget to restore damaged temples and called for a uniform civil code. Sharma demanded the word ‘madrasa’ disappear from our vocabulary.
Two of the chief ministers had words to offer about the media as well. Lamenting the “tyranny of distance” that constrains the Delhi media’s coverage of the Northeast, Ketkar wondered, “Why do even local journalists focus on negative stories?”
“Yeah, negative,” Biren Singh, a one-time journalist, replied. “Earlier there was this perception that negative news will be read more by the government and the circulation of the newspaper will grow. But this has changed now. Now, people want to know positive news and live positive news.”
This is the same Biren Singh whose government under the National Security Act for criticising it.
Thakur was more candid, “I have a good relationship with the media.”
Time, then, for awards. (Rewards?)
Awards were available in nine categories and 22 people were called to collect them, including five from the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati. There were a couple of special awards besides. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Excellence in Hindi Journalism Award was, to the loudest clapping, given posthumously to Rohit Sardana, who died of Covid last year, and the KR Malkani Excellence in English Journalism Award to Palki Sharma, managing editor of WION, who had for underplaying the Covid situation in the West while sending drones to Indian crematoriums.
Balendu Sharma Dadhich, former editor of the Hindi news website Prabhasakshi who now works for Microsoft, received the award for excellence in science and technology journalism in English. The Hindi equivalent went to Nishi Bhat, who runs the news website Sehant365. She recently for legislation that would keep “people like Ratan Lal” locked up.
Ashwani Mishra of DD was awarded for reporting on Ram Temple’s foundation ceremony, and Nemish Hemant of Dainik Jagran for his coverage of the RSS, minorities and elections. Hemant had to share it with Nishant Raghav, a reporter with Punjab Kesari Group’s Navodaya Times paper.
The coup de grâce was Vaidya, billed as a ‘public intellectual’, taking home the arts and culture award, which recognises journalists whose “coverage explores new avenues and finds a new direction in the field” of arts, culture and entertainment.
Ranganathan, consulting editor at Swarajya, landed the social media award, sharing it with Ashok Shrivastava, consulting editor with DD News, whose the government are too many to count. Interestingly, the Organiser’s website does not list the social media award.
Another unlisted award, for factchecking, went to Ambuj Bharadwaj, a reporter with Panchjanya, who recently spread the falsehood that the Congress party had erected a tent with the white and green colours of the Pakistan flag at its Chintan Shivir in Udaipur. He had to be . Irony isn’t yet dead, huh?
Introducing Bharadwaj, host Tripti Shrivastava, formerly of BBC and Zee News, said, “I want to point out a few of his reports. In the Hathras case, there was an attempt to give the Dalit angle instead of love angle. He exposed this.”
Bharadwaj, 22, is also a founder of , a website devoted to highlighting alleged cases of misuse of the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act.
Swati Goel Sharma, , was awarded for digital journalism which stood out “for excellence, independence, depth, quality and impact”.
Gowtham Anandanarayan of Janam TV was presented with an award for “exclusive stories on the Marichjappi massacre, the involvement of Siddique Kappan in the Hathras case and his links to PFI, communist violence”. (If you want to know the reality of Kappan’s “links”, check on the Uttar Pradesh police’s chargesheet against the journalist.)
The other awardees included Karma Paljor of the digital news platform EastMojo, the late Ravish Tiwari of the Indian Express, Bashir Manzar of Kashmir Images, and Divya Bhardwaj of DD.
They were chosen by a jury which included Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati, Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University vice chancellor KG Suresh, I&B ministry advisor Kanchan Gupta, and Dainik Jagran executive editor Vishnu Tripati.
The awards show was at least partly paid for by the taxpayer, with the governments of Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana among the sponsors.
Pictures by Shivnarayan Rajpurohit.
Update on May 30: A previous version of this story described Anshul Saxena as an 'anti-Muslim tweeter'. This has been removed.