Patriotism vs humanity, and blinkered Indian media

Media’s integrity is being rightly questioned as it has largely given up its core obligation to ask questions, preoccupied as it is with pushing the narrative of those in power.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Is the Indian media facing its biggest-ever credibility crisis? Declining patronage, the consequential fall in revenue and growing accusations of being a mouthpiece of people in power have all coalesced to create a toxic mix, raising serious questions about its relevance in the overall societal construct.

Let’s face it, the media in the country has never really been independent due to its undesirable and excessive dependence on governments of the day for survival. For as long as it worked, it was a cosy arrangement. Both sides operated in a mutually understood but unstated sphere, with the media claiming to be independent and the governments not disputing it, knowing full well it could throttle it within a blink.

What has exposed us now is that this carefully crafted image of neutrality has been shattered. The media’s integrity is being rightly questioned as it has largely given up its fundamental obligation to ask questions, preoccupied as it is with pushing the narrative that those in power would want the people to believe. We have reduced ourselves to being stenographers and not journalists; gotten used to predetermined questions and answers while branding them as exclusive interviews; have no qualms in posing to the camera with those in power and then amplifying it on social media to establish loyalty; the long-held belief that news columns are sacrosanct is gone with not many being able to distinguish between paid articles and advertisements; television anchors vie with each other every evening to do a better job of being apologists for the government; we have taken upon ourselves the onerous task of ensuring electoral victory for parties of our choice; and we no longer question mixing religion with politics and instead become part of that process with the tag line, “non-stop coverage on your favourite channel” (no one knows whose favourite—viewers or rulers). So, why crib about declining patronage and respect, exceptions notwithstanding?
It’s not as if we have stopped asking questions of only the Union government and those representing it. We don’t ask questions even of those ruling in the states. It took actor Swara Bhasker to seek a direct response from Mamata Banerjee on her stance on the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act (UAPA) and the answer was anything but direct. In what sense is she an alternative to Narendra Modi, as she is seeking to establish, is difficult to comprehend.

To view this in isolation would, however, be a mistake. Large sections of our people have consciously chosen what we have today: disdain for intellectuals; normalising instant justice (remember how the Hyderabad Police were felicitated for killing the alleged rapists of a young woman); controlled mass media; sweeping powers to the military in troubled states; and a draconian process to identify enemies/scapegoats (Sudha Bharadwaj, Disha Ravi). What all this points to is anybody’s guess but it works in an unsettling way.

As acclaimed long-standing UK journalist, John Kampfner, asks in his book Freedom for Sale, how many would actually complain if repression is selective and applied only to those who challenge the status quo? The number is negligible. The vocal ones would be a few journalists who criticise the government or show it in poor light; select lawyers who defend the basic rights of people; and activists who cross the line. The rest of the population has all the freedom to travel wherever they want and do whatever they wish, and would obviously remain unaffected by the curbs on public freedom as long as their private freedom is granted. Call it benevolent dictatorship, as one senior IPS officer put it to me. Who cares if Muslims or Christians are targeted during Friday or Sunday prayers or if a band of Hindutva protagonists openly call for a genocide.

Like in the case of the media, it’s a collusion between a comfortable middle class and the government that enables it to abrogate even basic freedoms so long as the former are in their comfort zones without intrusion into their private spaces. If Aadhaar is now being seen as a weapon to gather every bit of information about citizens, its roots go back to the UPA regime. If UAPA is now being misused, the seeds for it were sown during the previous rule. The same holds true of even the judiciary. A few stood out in the past and some continue to show the same spirit now. But look at how even well-meaning journalists and intellectuals are carried away by the grandstanding of judges at seminars and meetings without having delivered a single order that is seriously uncomfortable to the government. A committee set up to look into whether snooping ever happened is the best way to bury the issue. The judiciary’s approach towards other matters, too, is largely similar.

That’s what thriving consumerism achieves. Citizens start demanding less of governments as long as they are comfortable. Consciously or otherwise, even the liberals are lulled into it with their criticism often being at a very superficial level without questioning the model itself. Ever since globalisation began, we always had only as much freedom as the government of the day chose to accord. In its relentless pursuit to establish this country as the land of Hindus, it’s only natural that the present regime or those claiming to be its supporters seek more compliance from its patrons (media, corporates, etc.) and from citizens without a murmur of protest—from where to pray, when to pray, what to eat, how to dress, whom to marry and so on.

What this government, however, doesn’t seem to realise, at least until now, is that by its very nature, capitalism uses democracy to sustain itself. Not surprisingly, corporates of India are beginning to worry about their future prospects since the social fabric is coming under strain. Not just that. Over the past few years and particularly since Covid, the middle class has been shaken out of its comfort zone. Jobs are diminishing, enormous and often unbearable amounts are being lost in medical expenses, education is getting costlier and income levels are going down for a vast majority even as we have more millionaires and billionaires than ever before. As a result, a good number among the middle class are being pushed into the lower category. Neither the rulers nor their patrons speak of Achche Din or a five trillion dollar economy anymore. The greed because of which we let our freedoms be put up for sale is hurting, and the obvious question is whether the wealth we thought was ours was just an illusion.

To put it in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “Human freedom stands above everything. Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. ... I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity.” Let the troll army ponder over it. Here’s wishing you all a very happy Christmas and New Year.

G S Vasu
Editor, The New Indian Express

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