A film cancelled, a TV interview canned: Competitive nationalism is
eroding free expression in India

The BJP's authoritarian mindset has the potential to seriously damage
the country's precarious freedoms.

4 hours ago
Updated 32 minutes ago

Girish Shahane

As soon as I read that a previously obscure NGO was protesting the
screening of a Pakistani film titled Jago Hua Savera at the MAMI
Mumbai Film Festival, I knew the organisers would drop it from the
schedule without a whimper. The festival is sponsored by Reliance Jio,
never a firm associated with support of free expression, and one
increasingly tied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda. A more
worrying form of censorship occurred a little over a week earlier,
when NDTV cancelled at the last minute a well-publicised interview
with P Chidambaram, who was for years India’s finance minister and
also served as home minister for a shorter period. The two incidents
are not unrelated.

Around the time of the 2008 economic crisis, NDTV landed in a
financial mess and sought a bailout. As this detailed analysis in
Caravan makes clear, the final result was a loss of control to a white
knight, whose identity was obscured by a fog of complex transactions,
but who, the article alleges, was almost certainly Mukesh Ambani,
chief of Reliance Jio.

It is still unclear why NDTV canned the interview, but external
pressure seems the only explanation for the unprecedented act of
killing a conversation with Chidambaram, who is not just a former
minister but one of India’s foremost lawyers, extraordinarily cautious
in his choice of words, ever careful not to overstep any legal bounds.
The dropping of that interview felt like the beginning of India’s
transition to a Putin-style democracy, where the broadcast media align
in support of the ruling regime through a mix of genuine ideological
sympathy, the quest for a higher viewership, and direct and indirect
political machinations.

Stifling debate
The competition for ratings points among Indian news channels has
turned into competitive nationalism, with the military being placed,
perhaps for the first time in India’s independent history, at the core
of the idea of the nation. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan is now merely Jai
Jawan, but not in the sense of civilians feeling genuine concern for
the safety of soldiers, else the deaths of 29 people including Army,
Air Force and naval personnel after their transport plane disappeared
in the Bay of Bengal in July would have caused a little more grief
than it did. No, today’s nationalism is defined by the deployment of a
cult of the military as part of a wider attack on our freedoms, and
nowhere is this more apparent than on news channels where the very act
of discussion has morphed into a stifling of debate.

Part of me feels sad for the current state of NDTV. Who among those
old enough to remember isn’t an admirer of Prannoy Roy’s role in
transforming election coverage in India, starting with the 1984
ballot? On the other hand, NDTV engendered the television-propagated
cult of the military with its coverage of Kargil operations and
US-style programmes featuring celebrity visits to military camps. In
that light, it wasn’t entirely surprising to read Radhika Roy’s
intemperate response to questions about the spiked interview:

“Like all decisions we take at NDTV,” Roy wrote, “we are driven by
editorial and journalistic integrity and the belief that the political
mud slinging regarding the surgical strikes without a shred of
evidence was actually damaging to our national security. We do not
believe that we are obliged to carry every shred of drivel that has
now come to pass as public discourse.”

When national security is invoked to bar healthy scepticism by the
supposedly liberal media, is it any surprise that openly chauvinist
organisations like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena can get away with
threats of violence against exhibitors who screen Karan Johar’s Ae Dil
Hai Mushkil because the film features Pakistani actors? This, even as
its leader Raj Thackeray sends a birthday present to Amitabh Bachchan,
delivered to the actor’s home by Thackeray’s son Amit and Amey
Khopkar, the very man issuing the threats. Is it any surprise that
Karan Johar has promised not to employ Pakistani talent in the future
and began his defence of his new release with the line, “For me, my
country comes first and nothing else matters to me but my country.” He
even managed a salute or two in the taped statement.

Warning signs
The clampdown on discourse and on freedom of expression, worrying in
itself, has been accompanied by the suppression of NGOs; a witch-hunt
against activists considered unfriendly or threatening; the
installation of unqualified foot-soldiers at the head of Indian
institutions of learning and prestigious multilateral bodies like the
International Law Commission; aggressive interference by student
organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar within universities; a
spurt in misguided vigilantism targeting Muslims and Dalits; and the
shouting down of celebrities who express the merest doubts about the
direction of our polity.

Previous Indian governments have hardly been friends of free
expression or dissent, and the current one is far from being
dictatorial, but what’s worrying is that, unlike the Congress-led
United Progressive Alliance administration or the first National
Democratic Alliance ruling coalition, the Bharatiya Janata Party under
Modi has a distinct authoritarian mindset. Deployed in collusion with
powerful industrialists, friendly media groups and an increasingly
politicised military, assisted by a mixture of consent and apathy
within India’ populace, it could seriously damage the already
precarious and contingent freedoms Indian enjoy. These should include
being able to enjoy a lovingly restored decades-old film from Pakistan
on the big screen, regardless of whether Narendra Modi is feeling
favourably inclined towards that nation, (as he was till very
recently, even after militants from across the border killed Indian
soldiers in Pathankot) or denouncing it as the mother-ship of

Peace Is Doable

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