Narendra Modi’s emergence in national politics holds out one important message for both public figures and India’s media equally. He has been the only political leader to be subject to a systematic, organised and incessant media and academic onslaught for his alleged role in the 2002 (Gujarat) riots.
The decade-long campaign of calumny against Modi outdoes even the mud of the Indian Ocean in its abusive content. Undoubtedly, press freedom and autonomy is a precondition for any liberal democracy. But nothing is absolute in an objective world. Context and reference cannot be dispensed with in any discussion on press freedom. The anti-Modi campaign is part of the ideological predisposition which a predominant section of the media is afflicted with. Like Indian politics, the media too has imbibed the prejudice of anti-RSSism. This is evident on all occasions whenever the RSS has been decisively involved in any political process. The Janata government’s crisis in 1978-79 on the question of relationship with the RSS saw a big section of media becoming a Trojan horse of anti-RSS forces. During the Ramjanmbhoomi movement in the 90s, the media underwent a division, with the English and vernacular press on diametrically opposing sides. Consequently, it morphed into a half-hearted debate on the role of ideology in reporting. It is the ascendency of Hindutva that has become unpalatable for this crowd. The media was once again used to propagate and orchestrate “Hindu terrorism” in the popular mind, though in vain. RSS’ connectivity with the masses demolished this media assault.
The media also endeavours to suppress ideology and project personality. It deigns approval when Modi talks developmental issues; however, the gloves are off when he defines himself as a Hindu nationalist or
reveres Lord Rama.
Modi walked out of an interview in less than five minutes on October 20, 2007 when a senior journalist tried to impose his perception and views on him about the Godhra riots. He drew ire for his ‘harsh’ behaviour. One would do well to recall Dr Ambedkar’s views in the Constituent Assembly that individual views and freedom of press are not different. The latter is synonymous with freedom of expression. In post-colonial India, clash between Western and Indian ideologies was inevitable.
Sardar Patel was also information and broadcasting minister, yet never used media to mould his image. His agenda was national reconstruction. Neither did he ever make any decision worrying about his media image. On many occasions he was labelled fascist and communal, but remained unperturbed; never counter-attacked the press.
Anti-RSSism in media complements the Nehruvian and Marxist grip on social science. Media discourse, therefore, has to be free of bias. No discourse should have an adverse impact on the freedom of press. The terms ‘textbook fascist’, ‘bully’ and ‘absolute authoritarian’ have been floated by academics and parroted by media. Prestigious institutions like Nehru Memorial Museum library provided patronage to anti-RSS and anti-Modi academics. The media is an important tool for transformation in society, and its freedom can be best ensured by its own credibility and self-restraint. It would do well to recall its once glorious role.
For instance, during the freedom movement, nine editors of the Swarajya published from Allahabad, in 10 years, suffered imprisonment on charges of sedition. An advertisement for its editor stated the service conditions as: “Two dry breads, one glass of water and 10 years imprisonment for every editorial.” In post-independent India, the media played a decisive role during the Emergency, and in national politics. It must shed its blinkers, i.e., its ideological predisposition which disconnects it from indigenous ideology and the masses.
Sinha is Hony. Director of India Policy Foundation