Dissent, Democracy and Indian Media

The role of the media as the forth pillar of India’s democracy has been challenged from time to time. A great deal of political interest is tied to the manufacture of consent among voters. So when on 5 June 2017 the house of the head of a private TV news channel, NDTV, was raided by the CBI (the Central Bureau of Investigation), serious questions were asked about the place of dissent and right to disagree in contemporary India. The immediate backdrop was a 480 million rupees loan NDTV had taken from a private bank – a loan NDTV claims has been repaid.

Currently, Indian media seems divided between pro- and anti-government factions. The government is by many viewed as determined to abolish the fundamental right to disagree through dialogues, discussions, and debates. Most Indian media is reporting in favour of government and describe events through the binaries of nationalist vs. antinationalist, Hindu vs. Muslim, and good vs. bad. They tend to place non-majoritarian views in the category of anti-national, anti-Hindu, and therefore, bad. For instance, the two mainstream channels Zee News and Times Now report in verdict style, and have characterized Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the India’s premier educational institutions, as anti-national because it resisted the ruling party. As a result, students of the university were treated as if guilty of treason by for instance taxi and auto drivers.

The case of NDTV, however, needs to be understood in the context of its reporting on wider issues. Where many news channels are promoting what could be called, ‘devotional practices’ (bhakti aachran) in Indian politics, NDTV involves itself in the discussion rather than pass judgment. Past discussions on NDTV on delicate issues like nationalism, JNU and freedom of speech made the news channel appear as engaging in acts of defiance against an authoritarian government.

Many news channels often defame opposition personalities almost in the manner of a trial. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recently lodged a defamation case against India’s infamous TV news anchor Arnab Goswami and his newly launched news channel Republic. The issue taken up was the death of Tharoor’s wife, Sunanda Pushkar. In the programme, Tharoor was blamed by Goswami of misleading the police. In these cases, the issue is not that opposition voices are targeted; the issue is the maintenance of democratic space for dissent. Media has a significant role – to question power – and as such is vital for a healthy democracy.

However, media houses in India are owned by corporate ventures and tow the government line. For instance, Network 18 is owned by Reliance group and Zee News by Essel group. In this context, the CBI raid on NDTV is an effort to bully it into standing in line with the others. The CBI denies that the raid was politically motivated. But in the larger context is an incident that took place in November last year. NDTV was ordered by the government to go off air for one day. The allegation was that NDTV’s coverage of the Pathankot terrorist attack had disclosed ‘strategically sensitive’ information. NDTV anchors also get serious threats on social media. The BJP’s national spokesperson claims the channel has an agenda.

The situation in India today is that an environment of fear is being created by the government or its supporters, and this is destroying democratic institutions, principles and ethics. Certain government institutions are either on the verge of decline, such as University Grants Commission, or their names have been changed to reflect a Hindu past. The formerly planning commission is for instance now NITI Aayog (National Institute for Transforming India), and the Ministry of Water Resources has become the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Similarly, streets, roads, public parks, and cities are subjected to renaming efforts based on Hindu symbolism – and in some cases the good vs. bad Muslim. Aurangzeb Road in Delhi has for instance been renamed after former president Abdul Kalam. Mughalsarai railway junction is being renamed, as is Agra airport and many others.

The politics of vendetta and revenge has reached a new height at the cost of democratic zeal. Mob justice has become an everyday affair not only on social sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Many poor farmers have lost their lives around cow politics. Hooligans openly threaten with murder to save a cow. Overall, India is currently witnessing an authoritarian ruling system in which dissent counts as anti-nationalism, hooliganism in the name of culture is patriotism, and loyalty to the government equals loyalty to the nation.

 

Mukesh Kumar

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