Saturday, June 7, 2008

Free Speech Politik

Free Speech Politik
by Seema Mustafa

Hundreds of journalists are at the receiving end, and their stories begin and end in the mofussil towns and districts of India. Many speaking out against atrocities and human rights violations have been picked up by the police as Maoists or militants or insurgents. The labels vary, the lesson is the same. Shut up or else….

The BJP and the Shiv Sena do not have to do it. The Congress and its allies like the NCP are doing it for them. Just as Congressmen were shaking their heads and agreeing with journalists about the rank intolerance of the Modi government as reflected in the case filed against the Resident Editor of the Times of India in Gujarat, their principal ally attacked one of the most respected journalists in Maharashtra. Wielding crow bars and saffron flags a mob of the Shiv Sangram Sangathana, an offshoot of the NCP, attacked Loksatta editor Kumar Ketar and his wife, stoning their one room flat, and trying to break the door open in what were terrifying moments for the targets.

The provocation was an editorial by Ketkar in which he questioned the decision of the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra to create an island in the Arabian Sea for installing a Shivaji statue at a cost of Rs 200 crores. The money, he said, would have been better spent in alleviating poverty. And that Shivaji would have been the first to agree with him. Sangathana leader and NCP vice president in the state V.Mete was unrepentant, and justified the right of the mob to take action. Political parties, the country over, demonstrate tremendous intolerance for dissent that is increasingly taking the form of violence when they are in government. In Opposition of course they all become ardent defenders of freedom, justice and liberty.

In many cases, the attacks are provoked by sheer politics, a consolidation of vote banks. In this case too the mob was accompanied by a television crew, with Mete calculating on getting a positive response from sections of society. The NCP has tried to distance itself from the attack. The Congress, after a significant pause while it tried to assess the impact, has also criticized it. But in the final analysis, this is what politics has become, a pandering to base sentiments with no attempt to lift people to levels that unite and re-energise. It is all about caste, religion and divisiveness. The BJP plays on religion and caste, the Congress plays on religion and caste, and the regional parties pander to sectarian and caste interests. Intolerance is growing at all levels as politicians have decided that politics is of the street, and the consequences be damned.

Hundreds of journalists are at the receiving end, and their stories begin and end in the mofussil towns and districts of India. Many speaking out against atrocities and human rights violations have been picked up by the police as Maoists or militants or insurgents. The labels vary, the lesson is the same. Shut up or else…. Many others live under threat, and have been compelled to wind up their journalistic career or toe the line. There is no body to protect the journalists, just the state from which the scribes often need protection. The Press Council of India is a defunct, government enterprise that offers little by way of security or even guidance. Other organizations are too small, and as ineffective. The managements usually do not support the working journalist, and are the first to make their peace with governments.

Something will have to be done about this by the scribes and civil society, as intolerance is growing. And when the political class gets corrupt and in the process weak and ineffectual it becomes trigger happy. The desire to shoot the messenger assumes an overpowering dimension. One of the main features of Indira Gandhi's emergency was censorship. Corrupt Congress chief ministers like Jagannath Mishra and Gundu Rao at the time sought to bring in Bills to muzzle the press. Today the likes of Narendra Modi have replaced them, and the heat of intolerance is being felt by not just journalists but also those working for the oppressed and the victimized in the states. The arrests of Binayak Sen and other intellectuals and activists in Chhatisgarh are yet another indication of this.

It is becoming difficult to speak for the poor and for the truth. Those urging the government to address the distress of the poor in the Naxalite affected villages of India are labeled as Maoist sympathizers and arrested. Those speaking out for the missing persons in Jammu and Kashmir, and against human rights violations are labeled as militants and locked up. Those protesting against police atrocities in general are labeled as terrorists and tortured. Those insisting that taxpayers money should be spent for the poor, and not for statues and ministers overseas visits are attacked. Those agitating for farmers rights are lathi charged and detained. Those writing on all these issues and questioning government policies are targeted as anti-state.

Governments refuse to realize that issues that concern the people, and the majority of people at that, cannot be kept under a lid. The pressure will then just accumulate and burst with such force that it will be difficult for governments to handle. Particularly today, as the problems are far too many and far more complex than they were say in Indira Gandhi's time. The north east insurgency continues with no end in sight. The New Delhi-NSCN talks are just that talks, with the NSSCN chief Muivah now threatening to call off the charade. Jammu and Kashmir is relatively calm but then that should not give any government in Delhi a feeling of complacency. As any one dealing with this border state knows, violence is always hovering around the edges and takes barely any time to hit the centre. The Maoists are gaining ground in the heartland of India----having spread the area of influence to nearly 200 districts now. Economic policies have successfully created two India's" one for the poor and another for the rich. Agrarian unrest, urban unrest, rural unrest all add up to a turbulent potion that can explode with disastrous results, unless it is dealt with immediately and urgently.

The print media does have moments of truth. Television has given this up altogether for TRP ratings that according to its managers are directly dependent on the ability of news to entertain. Goverments are pampered into complacency to a point where the ruling elite actually begins to believe its own lies. And this where the real danger lies, when border lines become blurred, and fiction becomes the truth for those in power.

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