Ultimately, and thankfully, NDTV India does not have to go off air at 12.01 am on November 9 following the government’s decision on Monday to put on hold the day-long ban imposed on the channel as a penalty for allegedly revealing strategically-sensitive information during its coverage of the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in Punjab in January. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is reported to be reviewing its decision. Nevertheless, the unsavoury drama has added a few meters to the invisible wall that has been under construction in India over the last 29 months.
It is a wall we cannot see or touch, but it is no less menacing than the Berlin Wall once was.
Call it a Freudian slip. Someone ought to have told the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, about the significance of November 9 – the day on which the government wanted NDTV India to go off air is also the day the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989. On that day, Germans fell upon the wall with axes and hammers, razing it to the ground.
You may wonder what India’s invisible wall is all about. It is possible you have failed to grasp the symbolic significance of the Berlin Wall, quite pertinent to the conditions prevailing in this country.
Wall to wall
The wall in Berlin penned a people. It was erected to ensure that people did not migrate from the communist East to capitalist West Berlin. The wall helped construct a mammoth lie – because a person could not cross over until he or she had a permit or was willing to risk being shot dead, most did not have any option other than to acquiesce to the communist regime.
So the East Germans adjusted to the new normal. They had to live, after all – they ate, and drank, and smiled. And they raised babies. They subscribed to newspapers operating under draconian censorship rules. They watched TV: news anchors toed the government line, and reports of correspondents were filtered to remove details deemed to not be a booster shot to the nation’s morale and mood.
This was because East Germans were preordained to be happy, the definition of which the government provided. Anybody who subscribed to another definition was branded a traitor. Those who said East Germans were unhappy were incarcerated until they began to sing the government’s tune. Those who struggled clandestinely to be happy in their individual ways were shot dead.
The wall in Berlin was a physical manifestation of an insecure, paranoid regime, as is India’s invisible wall.
From May 2014, the invisible wall in India has steadfastly sought to “wall out” a medley of people – religious minorities, liberals, leftists, centrists, Ambedkarites, beef-eaters, love jihadists, just about everyone who does not subscribe to the stories that Hindutva proponents spin regularly.
Journalists were among the first to be walled out in India, at least those who thought it was vital to question the story the Narendra Modi government was narrating. In response, the Prime Minister dubbed them “news traders”, a minister called them “presstitutes”, and Bharatiya Janata Party foot soldiers even bashed them up, as happened earlier this year when Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was to appear in a lower court. We have recently heard Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu wax eloquent on the media’s misuse of freedom of the press. These are typically the tactics of those who guard the invisible wall, whose principal purpose is to divide the nation between “Us” and “Them”, just as the wall in Berlin split a nation.
The government wants to keep citizens insulated from opinions and narratives that are contrary to its own. This was typically the motivation of the regime that constructed the Berlin Wall.
But every now and then, the invisible wall has been breached. For instance, following the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, last year on suspicion of consuming beef, a host of writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards. It was their way of making themselves heard to the government – but also, more importantly, to the citizens living behind the invisible wall.
This too is what Akshaya Mukul, a senior journalist at The Times of India, and freelance journalist Anna MM Vetticad – winners of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards – did when they chose not to attend the November 2 ceremony in New Delhi, which saw the prime minister give away the awards. Mukul said that he thought it would be unbecoming for him to receive the award from Modi, who had been contemptuous of journalists and their profession.
It was a searing indictment of the prime minister from those outside the invisible wall, a technique reminiscent of the Cold War days. Of the same order was the meeting journalists organised in Delhi on Monday to fashion a concerted response to the ban on NDTV India. A few hours later, the government retreated.
A high cost
But let us not forget what the ban’s purpose was – it was to enhance the cost of defiance much in the manner the Berlin Wall was fortified over the years in the hope of making it impregnable. The Modi government may not have known the historical significance of November 9, but it knew it was an important date on the media calendar this year.
On November 8, the United States will vote to choose its next president. As we have seen in the past, the election results start pouring in as soon as voting ends. Given the time difference between India and the US, the ban on NDTV India would have denied the channel the chance to beam the results or discuss what the new president – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – could mean for India and the world.
The US presidential race has generated tremendous excitement in India, as it has around the world. TV channels are assured of extremely high viewership. Advertisers are bound to rush to book slots on TV channels. It is also possible that the advertising rates have gone North. From this perspective, NDTV was bound to lose revenue if the penalty was not put on hold or revoked.
Worse, the ban was aimed at stigmatising the NDTV India brand, as the channel was accused of beaming sensitive information, which, the government says, Pakistani handlers of militants holed up in the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot during the firefight against security forces in January could have found useful. This was akin to dubbing the channel anti-national. It still stands accused of being anti-national until the government’s review exonerates it.
Anyone who sought to slip past the Berlin Wall ran the risk of being shot. Likewise, the ban-on-hold has a seminal message: displeasing the Modi government will have a high cost – media companies could lose revenue and journalists their jobs. Or they will find charges of sedition leveled against them, or be accused of fomenting animosities between communities.
The psychology behind the invisible wall that is being raised in India is similar to that which led to the construction of the Berlin Wall – it is to have no one challenge the Modi government’s claim that the people are extraordinarily happy under its regime. It is to have no one interrogate the Sangh Parivar’s idea of a happy nation, which seems to mean a nation of people eager to bash up its religious minorities, Dalits, and even higher caste agitators such as Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana, and forever rooting to go to war with Pakistan.
The high drama around NDTV India tells us journalists, as also citizens, that it is time for us to ensure the invisible wall in India does not become higher than it already has, regardless of the ideological positions of different media houses, and the misgivings we may have about how some of them conduct their operations.
No doubt, we should feel relieved at the government’s decision to review the ban on NDTV India. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that ours is a long fight to have a future without walls.
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