Anything that moves

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.

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 terrorism.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Children's Day is not for children alone

It’s also a time for adults to revisit their childhood.

Most adults look at childhood wistfully, as a time when the biggest worry was a scraped knee, every adult was a source of chocolate and every fight lasted only till the next playtime. Since time immemorial, children seem to have nailed the art of being joyful, and adults can learn a thing or two about stress-free living from them. Now it’s that time of the year again when children are celebrated for...simply being children, and let it serve as a timely reminder for adults to board that imaginary time machine and revisit their childhood. If you’re unable to unbuckle yourself from your adult seat, here is some inspiration.

Start small, by doodling at the back page of your to-do diary as a throwback to that ancient school tradition. If you’re more confident, you could even start your own comic strip featuring people in your lives. You can caricaturise them or attribute them animal personalities for the sake of humour. Stuck in a boring meeting? Draw your boss with mouse ears or your coffee with radioactive powers. Just make sure you give your colleagues aliases.

Pull a prank, those not resulting in revenue losses of course. Prank calls, creeping up behind someone…pull them out from your memory and watch as everyone has a good laugh. Dress up a little quirky for work. It’s time you tried those colourful ties, or tastefully mismatched socks. Dress as your favourite cartoon characters someday – it’s as easy as choosing a ponytail-style, drawing a scar on your forehead or converting a bath towel into a cape. Even dinner can be full of childish fun. No, you don’t have to eat spinach if you don’t like it. Use the available cutlery and bust out your favourite tunes. Spoons and forks are good enough for any beat and for the rest, count on your voice to belt out any pitch. Better yet, stream the classic cartoons of your childhood instead of binge watching drama or news; they seem even funnier as an adult. If you prefer reading before bedtime, do a reread of your favourite childhood book(s). You’ll be surprised by their timeless wisdom.

A regular day has scope for childhood indulgences in every nook and cranny. While walking down a lane, challenge your friend to a non-stop game of hopscotch till the end of the tiled footpath. If you’re of a petite frame, insist on a ride in the trolley as you about picking items in the supermarket. Challenge your fellow gym goers and trainers to a hula hoop routine, and beat ‘em to it!

Children have an incredible ability to be completely immersed in the moment during play, and acting like one benefits adults too. Just count the moments of precious laughter you will have added to your day in the process. So, take time to indulge yourself and celebrate life with child-like abandon, as the video below shows.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.