I vainly search for my favourite television anchors like Karan Thapar and, more recently, Barkha Dutt. I am told that they have been taken off. Who has done this is a matter of conjecture. Some say that it is the pressure of the Narendra Modi government while a few others lament that it was the doing of the owners of the channel. Whoever has done it has acted as the censor. What surprises me is the absence of protests. In my time, there would be noise or meeting to point out that the press has been muzzled or that critics have been silenced. Of course, it was a different story when the emergency was imposed, but before that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would not dare move against the press. She would look for supporters—and there were quite a few—but the number of critics was also large.
I recall that after imposing censorship in 1975-77, she triumphantly said that not a dog had barked! This hurt me as much as other journalists. We gathered at the Press Club—the number was 103—and passed a resolution to criticise the censorship. Information Minister V C Shukla, who knew me well, rang up to warn that “each one of you” would be put behind bars. This actually happened and I, too, was detained for three months. That period has surfaced once again before my eyes when Taslima Nasreen remarked the other day that “very few opposition voices are heard in the world’s largest democracy.” She had been confined to Aurangabad after leaving Kolkata. She is from Bangladesh and the fundamentalists there drove her out because she wrote the book, Lajja (Shame), narrating the plight of Hindu women at the hands of fundamentalists in her country.
It is a slur on the Indian democracy that she cannot live in a city of her choosing. I am told that a few days ago she left Aurangabad for Delhi, but she was not allowed to land and sent back to Aurangabad. I do not want to dwell any further on this incident but what I have in mind is the danger to our democracy. An emergency-like situation can prevail without actually imposing it. The RSS has been successful in removing the liberal heads of various educational institutions. I followed the case of Nehru Memorial Centre and found to my horror the disappearance of familiar liberal people. True, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the RSS are the last word but they didn’t go to the people asking for votes. It was never on the latter’s agenda either.
Still the case of Taslima Nasreen is there, unexplained. No Indian airport would admit her except the nearest one to Aurangabad, which is Pune. Apparently, the government must have given instructions not to let her in at other places. All these look like the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by Iran for having written the book, Satanic Verses, which defamed Islam. The Indian nation has to be vigilant all the time because it has gone through a period of 19 months of censorship. The press over did it because as BJP leader, L K Advani, said: You were asked to bend but began to crawl. To a large extent, Advani was right. The journalists were afraid of being arraigned by the Indira Gandhi government. Even the Press Council of India, the custodian of press freedom, vied with the Mrs Gandhi’s supporters to raise the flag in her favour.
Today, it is the other way round. The Press has been saffronised and except the odd voices in print and electronic media, it is at beck and call of the people in power. There is very little difference between then and now because the survival is the uppermost in the minds of newspapers or television channel owners and journalists. The NDTV is under pressure because its owner Pronnoy Roy had taken a loan. But the CBI registered a case, said to be at the behest of the government, against RRPR Holding Private Limited, Pranoy Roy, his wife Radhika and unidentified officials of ICICI Bank of criminal conspiracy, cheating and corruption.
The government may find some ways to harass Karan Thapar and Barkha Dutt because of their long association with the television channel. They have been the most vociferous anchors taking up the cause of aggrieved people. Obviously, it has not been to the liking of the establishment. The pressure must have been enormous on the channels to drop both.How do we bring back the environment of freedom? That is the question facing the nation today. With the domicile’s sword of contract hanging over their head, they are afraid to speak up lest they should annoy the owners. But then the nation is getting the news which has been sieved through because of various considerations and pressures.
In America, such a situation came up and there the journalists got together and started their own channel. It was a courage of sorts because ultimately the sacred cows became too many and the tendencies to leave out too frequent. The crunch of resources was felt very badly and the freedom was compromised. Both Karan Thapar and Barkha Dutt will have to keep in mind that their journey would be long and arduous. The establishment would tempt them all the time to lure them to its side but it is up them to withstand the difficulties they would be facing in the wilderness. It is not easy, but they can because of their character. My support is with them, whatever worth it is. They are the examples of courage. Now it all depends on their stamina and the support the press extends to them. Not only the media, but the entire country is looking up to them. What happened during the emergency may not happen now. Then the press failed miserably. But, together we can.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.