Independence Day is often used to take stock of where India stands. In this exercise, India’s 70th Independence Day held some stark lessons about the state of the country’s freedoms.
On Tuesday, the chief minister of Tripura alleged that Doordarshan and All India Radio had refused to broadcast his Independence Day speech unless he reworked it. In a letter from All India Radio in Delhi, the organisation – in consultation with the CEO of Prasar Bharati, which manages the Doordarshan and AIR – asked the Tripura chief minister to “reshape the content [of the speech] making it suitable to the solemnity of the occasion and sentiments of the people of India at large”. In the speech, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, who heads a Communist Party of India (Marxist) government, had spoken of the “sense of security” of minorities and Dalits “being shattered”, in an apparent reference to vigilante attacks in the name of cow protection in the country, of which the two communities have frequently been a target.
Since Sarkar refused to rework the speech, its scheduled airing at 6.30 am on Tuesday (Independence Day) was dropped. Doordarshan, in turn, argued that the blackout allegation was baseless and it “gave wide coverage to the chief minister’s Independence Day programme”. The Tripura government, however, pointed out that Sarkar’s original speech – recorded on August 12 and distinct from the Independence Day programme – was not broadcast at all.
Gagging a state
Speaking to Scroll.in, Sanjiv Dosajh, the Assistant Director of Programmes (Policy) at AIR and author of the letter to Sarkar, admitted to asking the chief minister to change his speech. “This has happened before,” Dosajh claimed. “And normally when we ask them to change the speech, they change it.” Dosajh was, however, unable to provide any example to back up his claim.
Shashi Shekhar Vembati, the CEO of Prasar Bharati, refused to comment on reports of his organisation asking Sarkar to edit the speech, claiming that the blackout allegation was baseless.
However, Jawhar Sircar, former CEO of Prasar Bharati, and Mrinal Pande, former chairperson of Prasar Bharati, both told Scroll.in that such a move was unprecedented. “Asking an elected chief minister to edit his words is completely inappropriate and unbecoming,” said Sarkar.
This is not the first time Prasar Bharati, the body that controls the Doordarshan television network and All India Radio, has been accused of being under the thumb of the government. But this attempt at censoring an elected chief minister from a party that is in the Opposition at the Centre may be excessive even going by the public broadcaster’s own past record.
Prasar Bharati’s genesis lies in an Act of Parliament passed in 1990 under the VP Singh government. Till then, AIR and Doordarshan were directly under the Union government and had been used as instruments of propaganda quite nakedly. The Act created an autonomous body, Prasar Bharati, which would take over the functioning of All India Radio and Doordarshan from the Information and Broadcasting ministry.
In spite of this Act, the Union government was loathe to part with this mass media at its disposal and the proposal to create a separate body was to hang fire till 1995, when the Supreme Court in Union of India vs Cricket Association of Bengal held that airwaves were public and not state property. Two years later, in 1997, Prasar Bharati came into being.
While this was certainly a step up from direct control by the Information and Broadcast ministry, even then Prasar Bharati’s autonomy was at best half-formed. “The entire Prasar Bharati staff reports not to the Prasar Bharati board but to the Union government,” said Pande, a former chairperson.
Neither is Prasar Bharati financially independent. The Union government still owns all the assets of Doordarshan and AIR. In the end, Prasar Bharati is dependent almost wholly on the Union government for its finances. In 2013, Manish Tewari, the Information and Broadcasting Minister at the time, had frankly said that since the Union government was footing the bill, it could hardly be expected to keep an arm’s length from Prasar Bharati.
Bad to worse
Under the Modi government, this situation became worse. In spite of its campaign promise of minimum government (and maximum governance), the BJP, once in office, was clear that it wanted a public broadcaster aligned with the party. The Prasar Bharati board was packed with political appointees. The Chairperson, Surya Prakash, is associated with the pro-BJP think-tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation and the CEO, Shashi Shekhar, was the founder of Niti Central, a website that backed Narendra Modi in the lead up to the 2014 election.
In 2015, the Information and Broadcasting ministry appointed a Director General (news) in Doordarshan and asked her to report not to the Prasar Bharati but directly to the Union government. As the Modi government completed three years, Doordarshan ran a two-month long series of programmes highlighting the achievement of the Union government.
Most egregious, however, was Doordarshan’s decision to broadcast live the speech of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Chief Mohan Bhagwat on the Hindu festival of Vijay Dashami. That Prasar Bharati is serving not only the Union government directly but also organisations linked to the ruling party serve to illustrate just how subservient it has become.
While both Doordarshan and AIR might seem like has-beens in the age of satellite television, they still command enough clout for Union governments to hanker after them. Given its role as a public broadcaster, the law mandates that every cable or direct-to-home operator must carry Doordarshan on its feed. This means that each television set in India carries Doordarshan. In 2016, for example, during the prime time slot of 9 pm-10 pm, DD News had a viewership five times that of Times Now, then the most-watched English news channel.