Opinion

The BJP’s head of information technology just issued a warning to every journalist in the country

Tweeting about the conviction of a Karnataka journalist in a defamation suit, Amit Malviya said ominously, 'Hope other journos take note.'

Amit Malviya is a name that most readers, political junkies aside, are unlikely to be familiar with. But the banker-turned-political worker is one of the most influential figures in our public discourse. As the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national head of Information Technology, he directs the ruling party’s digital strategy, one that deploys hundreds of social media influencers and tens of thousands of (often anonymous) supporters to aggressively defend the government and attack its critics.

Malviya leads by example. On Twitter and in television debates, his rhetoric is pugnacious and often ad hominem. He responds to criticism of the government by impugning the motives of the critic. And Malviya’s words matter, which is why a tweet that he issued on Tuesday ought to alarm anyone who believes in the freedom of the press.

Gouri Lankesh is a veteran editor and columnist in both Kannada and English. Although convicted on Monday by a Karnataka magistrate of criminally defaming two BJP leaders and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, she has been granted bail and will appeal to a higher court.

Malviya’s tweet bears only one interpretation: it is a warning, and one that appears to have been issued thoughtfully and deliberately. The statement that journalists should “take note” – a euphemism here for “watch out” – is a message to journalists that if they fall afoul of the government or ruling party, serious consequences may follow.

In addition, there are implicit congratulations to the Member of Parliament who filed the defamation case against Lankesh for “get[ting] Gouri Lankesh convicted”, thus showing the proper way to deal with inconvenient journalists.

Contempt for press freedom

Malviya may hold no government post, but his threat is far from an empty one. It is further evidence of the BJP’s utter contempt for journalists and for press freedom, a contempt matched by only one previous Union government, that of Indira Gandhi. All governments, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru’s, which, in 1951, introduced the First Amendment to the Constitution allowing “reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech, have opposed full press freedom, but only two have shown no regard whatsoever for this basic right.

The BJP’s lack of regard for journalists and their rights is expressed in various ways. On social media, it takes the form of epithets such as presstitute or paid journo. Party president Amit Shah and Information and Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu have argued that press freedom cannot be used to challenge nationalism or “the nation’s interest”. Naidu’s ministry was also responsible for the one-day ban on NDTV India that was later kept in abeyance.

One of the most enduring and least-remarked upon threats to the freedom of expression in India comes from state governments across the political spectrum that use the threat and actual imposition of criminal cases to intimidate or punish critical journalists or, increasingly, private citizens.

Only two weeks ago, the Madhya Pradesh government arrested a 19-year-old student for social media posts that were critical of the chief minister.

For the most part, Union governments have had a better record in this regard, which is why a statement like this from a national political figure like Malviya is so worrying.

Freedom of speech

Lankesh’s conviction comes on the heels of a Supreme Court judgment in May that emboldens vindictive politicians at the expense of press freedom. In Subramanian Swamy vs Union of India, the court upheld Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises defamation, a judgment that ran counter to a global trend against treating defamation as a criminal matter. Criminal defamation has long been a favourite tool of revenge, used to target both journalists and political opponents. Malviya’s tweet shows how dangerous that judgment was – the law, instead of protecting the rights of journalists as it ought to in any liberal democracy, instead becomes a licence for the harassment and intimidation of the press.

To be sure, politicians and the police can be creative in their use or misuse of statute. The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, which struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act as unconstitutional, has not ended the persecution of online speech. But a judgment in favour of free speech in Swamy – ironically, the petitioner seeking to decriminalise defamation is a BJP leader– would have meaningfully constricted politicians in their attempts to deter critical or independent journalists.

Comparisons with the Emergency

The BJP’s contempt for press freedom has not expressed itself in anything like the censorship of the Emergency. Emergency was imposed on a country with no digital media, and state control of the airwaves – print was the sole arena of censorship. But the fact that the Emergency itself is unlikely to be repeated should not blind us to disturbing parallels, or enable complacency about the present situation. Then, as now, legitimate criticism of government policy was branded anti-national.

Then, as now, pro-government journalists either watch silently as their colleagues’ rights are trampled upon, or even cheer on the assault.

BJP leader LK Advani famously remarked that the Press, during the Emergency, was asked to bend and chose to crawl. Forty years later, the play is being re-enacted with roles reversed. Pro-government voices, from the television channels Times Now and Zee News to the magazine Swarajya and columnists such as Swapan Dasgupta, refuse to defend the principle of press freedom. Many journalists even use the term presstitute against their own colleagues.

No pro-government journalist has come forward to condemn or even mildly rebuke Malviya’s warning to the country’s entire press corps. For the freedom of the press to be protected, journalists must stand united in its defence. Not since the Emergency have we been so far from achieving this unity.

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

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.