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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.

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