By Humra Laeeq
Journalists, who are supposed to be ‘free’ to speak their views by default, are coming under increasing threat in a country that claims to be the largest democracy in the world. Recording the rise in criminal charges against media personalities, defamation and sedition charges, and the cause for alarm needs to be redirected to a relatively new area of concern. Currently, the need of the hour is to relocate attention to areas that threaten the very idea of a democracy. What is this need? Whether India is suffering under political claustrophobia, is the question we need to address.
Cases against media persons
Cases of mass threat and became visible, especially in 2017, when a series of murders of journalists were made public. The most controversial news piece that circulated social and political media was that of Gauri Lankesh, a Bengaluru-based senior journalist in September ’17. She was gunned down outside her residence on charges that ‘offended’ certain political sentiments dear to the ruling state. Two weeks later, Santanu Bhowmik, a reporter at the Din Raat television channel, was murdered in Tripura, abducted and stabbed to death. Senior journalist, KJ Singh and his mother were found dead at their residence. Singh worked for The Times of India and was a former news editor with The Indian Express newspaper.
Infiltration of social, supposedly ‘apolitical’ spaces
The anathema against healthy dissent and free speech are not just limited to political and professional spaces. In a space where the core of Indian youth and young minds are, such undemocratic practices lay their claim. In early 2017, a literary event at Ramjas College in Delhi invited left-wing student leader and PhD candidate Umar Khalid to deliver a seminar amongst students and staff. Khalid had received accusations of being an ‘anti-nationalist’ by right-wing media personalities for commemorating the 2013 execution of Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru. Following the same sentiment, the ABVP barged inside college doors, called out on the vent, vandalised the college and injured several students. All because the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP wanted to curb Khalid to potentially speak against the state, in a direct condemnation of free speech and expression.
Is dissent the new crime?
Similarly, records have shown that the major perpetrators in these instances were mostly police, politicians and political workers, aligned with right-wing activists, with a certain political motivation governing them. The one common strain connecting them is the fact of voicing out political dissent. The journalists were victimised as a result of them being opposed to Hindu extremism that is a favourite of the current political climate. Regarding the Lankesh case, D N Jeevaraj, a local legislator, claimed that she might have been alive had she not have voiced against the RSS and its politics. As with the Ramjas massacre and the rage, it gathered from social media and the youth, the question of dwindling democracy becomes central.
The role of the state in current state of affairs
Given the fact that such a political climate exists, what is the state doing to ensure the protection of rights such as free speech? It seems that laxity and rather encouragement has become the norm on issues of violence and threatening of rights. When finance minister Arun Jaitley was asked at the London School of Economics to comment upon the term ‘antinationalist’ with reference to the Ramjas College massacre, his response was “freedom of expression should be subordinate to upholding the sovereignty of the country.” Free speech, as of now, however much guaranteed in the Constitution is a failure. Today, people have very little agency to voice dissent, looked at as ‘unhealthy’ and ‘threatening to sovereignty’ to the state. To have agency is to delineate the structures of power that govern choices, actions, behaviour under a vigilante system. The moment people focus on anything that goes against flattery of the state is when they are targeted for being ‘anti-nationalist’, ‘dissentious’ and simply ‘criminal’. In an earlier period when such dissenters were given warnings or perhaps reprimanded, the current situation is much worse because warning has translated to ‘threats’, reprimanding to killing, and the opposition is weaponized.
The root of the cause is apparently the state’s failure to condemn the normalization of such violence and name calling. BJP members have occasionally been accused to stifle the free press. Union Minister for External Affairs VK Singh repeatedly uses the common online slur “presstitutes” to refer to journalists, a ‘prostitution’ of the profession. The fact that crimes against media houses increased with the rise of BJP is also evidenced by the need for an institution that separately recorded them, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2014. Such crimes have also been documented by the reports from Hoot’s Free Speech Hub, a media watch website that mentioned the rise in attacks on the media as the most marked trends in 2014.
What should the state be doing?
Apart from the obvious protection of laws such as freedom of expression and right to free speech, the construction of a democracy depends on not just the institutionalization of ‘good policies’, ‘economic growth’, and efficient leadership, all of which the state claims are its hallmarks. Democracy is an ideal that continuously reconstructs itself. To engage in debate, hold tolerance for criticism and then acting upon the fallacies of where the state is going wrong is the foundation of good democracy. As much as one needs to take pride in one’s administration, one needs to recognize where he or she goes wrong. Dissent happens for a reason and the reason is dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. To correct such dissatisfactions should be the aim of a democracy, and not to turn a blind eye to them and to curb them.
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