Television anchor Ravish Kumar knows you are scared. He is well acquainted with your fear of speaking out. He knows you worry about him too. Every time he speaks out against the political establishment, he says, your fears lie in wait for him.
Like the time after he did a Prime Time programme on the mystery surrounding the death of Justice Brijgopal Harkishan Loya who had been investigating whether the 2005 murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, allegedly in an extrajudicial killing, was a political conspiracy. “My phone buzzed incessantly...Unpleasant doubts crept into every conversation...It felt as if each person was delivering a final warning before going away...Were people actually, genuinely, so afraid of that man at whose doorstep Judge Loya’s story finally washed up?”
Or the time after his friend and fellow journalist Gauri Lankesh, a fierce critic of the Sangh Parivar, was murdered in Bangalore last year. Many of the people who heard him give a speech at the Press Club looked worriedly at him. “They put their hands on my shoulder as they left, as if to tell me, “You’re next”,” he writes. Above all Ravish, as he is known to his fans, grapples with his own fears, both real and imaginary. He says he makes the journey from fear to courage every day.
Fear in New India
Ravish’s ruminations about the nature of our fear in The Free Voice, released in April 2018, makes it required reading for every Indian who looks the other way or stays silent when faced with bigotry and hatred. It’s a how-to-rediscover-your-courage-guide for media organisations that self-censor any criticism of the government, mostly for commercial reasons. It is also an important record of how India and Indians changed before our eyes.
Ravish riffs about everything from privacy to love to the way holy men manipulate us (in New India they spread their pearls of wisdom via television) and how Narendra Modi’s India has eerie similarities to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. But the book’s first three chapters – “Speaking Out”, “The Robo-Public and the Building of a New Democracy” and “The National Project for Instilling Fear” – are a searing take on modern-day politics and the state of our nation. The first chapter, which I’ve discussed here, made the deepest impact on me. Ravish knows speaking out is not easy; in New India it is construed as an act of bravery. He compares the act of voicing an unpopular truth to straining one’s entire body in a race to the finish, leaning in to breast the tape like athlete Usain Bolt, with one key difference: While a ribbon awaits Bolt, those who speak out slam into a concrete wall. “When you reach the finishing line, you run straight into that wall. Everything, your job, your credibility, your life itself, is at stake.”
Each time he writes or says something, people introduce him to new and different varieties of fear. “Aren’t you afraid? Take care of yourself,” they tell him. “These exhortations to keep safe have made people cowards. Because they are not warnings to speak carefully, but warnings to not speak at all,” he adds. His father’s words, spoken before a board examination many years ago, help to counter some of his fears: “You shouldn’t be so afraid. Why do you have such fear within you? You’ve prepared well, haven’t you?” Ravish also raises his voice against the IT cell of India’s ruling party and the army of “experts” that have emerged from the “WhatsApp University” of fake news forwards. “Every day I’m stalked by a new lie. Every day I fight a new lie. It would be exhausting, but for the occasional sign that the fight is not in vain,” he writes.
India ranked 138 in the World Press Freedom Index released last week. “In India, hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay,” Reporters Sans Frontières said in its 2018 report, adding that “self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”
Ravish exhorts his readers to fight against this atmosphere of silence. When the mob wants to terrify you, he writes, you need to decide whether you want to be terrified. He’s weary of that by-now commonplace statement in Delhi’s power circle: “We should not talk about this on the phone”. People often ask if he’s afraid of speaking out, and then they look at him expectantly. “Everyone...feels that Ravish will give a fitting reply: he will say that he drinks a glass of Bournvita before leaving home. Or that he offers a laddoo to Hanuman. I have no magical mantra as far as the act of speaking out is concerned.”
In New India, he writes, the minority is not just those who feel that they are judged by the way they look or the way they dress. “The status of second-class citizenry has fallen not just to the minority community, but also to people from the majority community,” Ravish argues. “...the act of questioning the government too can transform you into a minority.” It’s not too late to speak up, the journalist urges, recommending you start with your friends. “If you have friends whose devotion is to something you think to be wrong, tell them that...You will have to start practising speaking up somewhere. Things aren’t so bad yet that no one can speak up.” Amen.
The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation, Ravish Kumar, translated by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh, Speaking Tiger.