Free speech and independent media had been the cornerstone of the Indian idea of secular nationalism. Preceding its independence from British colonial rule, the idea of free speech had been mobilized for the emancipatory anti-colonial struggle and has since been an intimate part of Indian political and cultural life. But, with the emergent influence of Hindu nationalism on Indian politics and culture, the idea has been under significant stress and experiencing an existential struggle to be independent and survive in Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling system.
Since BJP’s election in 2014, Indian media has played a central role in feeding the populism of Modi’s cult.
Whether it be praising failed demonetization strategy to fighting corruption; labeling students on protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has a religious nature in identification, as terrorists; doctors who collectively showed dissent over legalizing ayurvedic surgeon to perform 58 surgeries as anti-national; praising rushed lockdown which put lives of poor at risk. In the recent farmers protest against farm bills, Indian media has avoided hearing the opinion of farmers and labeled them as ‘Khalistani.’ Although mainstream news channel had long ago drifted away from reporting facts and exercising objectivity to blatantly favoring different sides in current political affairs shows with hyper nationalistic commentaries and heated debates as this model brought traffic to the news channel because the audience enjoyed watching high profile guests present at the show getting roasted while host aggressively dictates and spoon-feeds audience with highly-opinionated commentaries.
This model of political entertaining shows it pervaded with opinionated programs, and hyper-nationalism monologues gained news channels more television rating points (TRPs) which are followed by the high number of advertisements leading to the conversion of news channels from objective reporting of facts to money-making machines. This led to the subsequent decline of rational and objective discourse in news channels. But, even in these dark times, few journalists still criticize and question the conduct of government officials, including the prime minister. Censorship has been progressively creeping into the Indian electronic media landscape since 2014, as with BJP ruling in the center, and whosoever disagree with the government policy experienced a harsh atmosphere to bring objective reporting. And, as mainstream news channels were directly or indirectly related to BJP, they were unhesitant from going along with promoting Modi’s cult.
Taking the example of a few, Zee News is owned by Subhash Chandra, who is a BJP MP, Network 18 is owned by Mukesh Ambani, a business tycoon who benefitted the most under Modi’s government, India TV is owned by Rajat Sharma, a former general secretary of ABVP and Republic TV was co-founded by Rajeev Chandrasekhar who is BJP MP.
A tally report of the 200 debates conducted on four major Hindi news channels, which are Zee News, Aaj Tak, News18, and India TV till 19th October 2019, are:
Attacking Pakistan: 79 debates
Attacking the Opposition (including Nehru): 66
Praising Modi and the BJP/RSS: 36
Ram Mandir: 14
Bihar floods: 3
Chandrayaan Moon Mission: 2
Rape case against Swami Chinmayanand: 1
PMC Bank scam: 1
Public infrastructure: 0
Farmers’ distress: 0
Poverty and malnutrition: 0
Women’s safety: 0
Environmental protection: 0
Mob lynching: 0
Questioning any government decision or policy: 0
Credit: Official Peeing Human
Where numerous journalists had endorsed nationalism, many artists have also supported the government’s idea of ruling through hate and prejudice. These artists belonging from varying industries, most prominently Bollywood, have been supporting Modi and BJP throughout the internal political friction in citizenship acts, the issue of Kashmir, or recently in the farmers’ protests. They even encourage people to vote for BJP enthusiastically in the 2019 elections. The most pronounced support for BJP comes from artists like Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar.
As can be deducted from above, BJP has successfully controlled media coverage, and mainstream news channels are acting as a government propaganda machine to facilitate their cultural and political projects for India.
While Indian artists have been wedded out of necessity or expediency to BJP and its hate-filled political project, many artists didn’t shy away from criticizing the growing authoritarianism in India. These artists are concerned about the prevailing threatening atmosphere of fear and curtailing of basic civil liberties. But instead of cooperating with the prevalent politics of the time, they chose to express their dissent against government enacted legislation, including religious-based citizenship act, violence against minorities, and suppression of free speech.
In 2019, over 1000 artists, including writers, filmmakers, theatre and film actors, most prominently – Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Varun Grover, and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, came along and filed an online petition complaining and appealing to citizens to ‘vote out politics of hate’ and promote ‘diversity.’
Poojan Sahil, a mathematician, and musician, has performed numerous songs like a parody of ‘Pachtaoge’ in which he calls out the brutal violence applied on the students protesting against the CAA, and despite all the cruel attempts to stop the protest, they stood unshaken, determined, and united for long. ‘Wo Narendra hi’ is another parody song of the 1991 Bollywood movie song, which calls out PM Modi’s stupid decision of investing 3000 crores on building a statue instead of paying due attention to the serious matters faced by India like unemployment, health, education, poverty, and hunger. His latest release is a parody of the song ‘dekhte dekhte’, which slams the artists who in movies play characters as fearless heroes but in real life support the government’s oppressive actions.
The Indian farmers protesting for the past two months against the slate of farm bills, which harms only harms farmers and favors corporates, are also facing censorship from Indian mainstream media. They instead of giving a chance to farmers to voice their dissent are misrepresenting farmer’s struggle. Competing with that, the protestors launched their four-page bi-weekly newspaper called ‘Trolly Times,’ which provides a platform for the protesting farmers. And, as the newspaper operates without associating itself with any corporate or political organization, it is free to publish without suppressive editorial control, which mainstream media fails at.
NDTV, a news network, unlike other mainstream news channels, does not support Hindu nationalism. It refuses to justify the central government’s discrimination of minorities or the recent citizenship acts. It also criticized failed strategies to fight corruption, including demonetization. Unlike mainstream news channels, NDTV has refused to bow to the media guidelines by the BJP government but at a great cost.
NDTV faced greater advertisement pressure as they pull away with the channel being labeled as unpatriotic by the government. This significantly curtailed its monetary capacity leading to the exiting of hundreds of journalists as the channel was unable to pay them.
Rana Ayyub, a fiercely courageous journalist, who self-published a book about the Gujrat riots, has been consistently at the forefront of challenging Hindu nationalism. Notwithstanding her extensive readership, mainstream media hasn’t covered her due to censorship pressure. She even faced death threats, rape threats, threats to her family, and a 2018 deepfake pornographic video that left her devastated. Still, courageously she recognizes that is the price she pays as the advocate of truth.
The Caravan, an independent magazine, has recently faced suspension of the magazine’s Twitter account by Twitter India’s office to report facts on Indian farmers’ protest and be critical of the government. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who fiercely objected to the suppression of minorities, including caste discrimination, was shot dead in 2017. Her murder was celebrated by the supporters of BJP and RSS on social media. Munawar Farooqi, a stand-up comedian, spent a month in jail and got bail on 5th February 2021. He was arrested on 2nd January on a complaint filed by BJP MLA’s son. He was arrested for hurting religious sentiments, although he didn’t get a chance to perform his set. Though, in his earlier videos, he had made jokes about the BJP government.
“Observing these trends, it is clear that it is actually the free speech that hinders Modi’s ambition to transform secular India into a Hindu nationalist one. That is why even a joke that differs from BJP’s narrative is under attack and faces enormous censorship. The central government is aggressively attempting to silence every voice which dares to speak up against them so that Modi’s cult remains unthreatened. The ruling right-wing authoritarianism in India will continue to threaten the freedom of expression and may lead toward its ultimate demise, fulfilling the vision of Hindu nationalist for India.”