In the first half of 1988, I was doing research in Uttarakhand, when news came of the murder of a brave young journalist from the region. His name was Umesh Dobhal, and he had published a series of articles exposing the link between the liqour mafia, the police and excise departments, and local politicians. He was almost certainly killed by an assassin hired by liqour contractors.
In the second half of 1988, I was living and working in Delhi, when a raging controversy broke out over a new law passed by the Lok Sabha that sought to curb press freedom. The law, drafted by the Congress Government headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was in reaction to a series of stories about corruption in high places, including (but not merely) the Bofors scandal. It rested on an extremely rigid definition of ‘defamation’, so as to enable those charged with corruption or other crimes to stop stories about them being printed. If a charge was brought against a reporter, this new law would make it mandatory for not just the reporter, but also the editor, publisher, and printer to appear in court.
The men responsible for murdering Umesh Dobhal were never brought to book, in part because the police and the politicians had no interest in pursuing the matter. However, the Press Act passed in the Lok Sabha by Rajiv Gandhi’s Government was met with massive opposition, with protest meetings held across India. In the event, the Act was withdrawn even before it was introduced in the Rajya Sabha.
I remember those events well, in part because I was then just beginning to write for the press myself. And I was reminded of them recently, when, in quick succession, a journalist was murdered in the Siwan district of Bihar, and another journalist arrested by the Delhi Police, presumably acting (as it generally does) under the instructions of the Home Union Ministry. The first case was strikingly similar to that of Umesh Dobhal. The journalist, whose name was Rajdeo Ranjan, was killed by hired assasins, who shot him when he was going back home from work. And given the close links between gangsters, the police and the politicians in this part of Bihar, the murderers will most likely not be found or arrested.
The second case bore some similarities to Rajiv Gandhi’s Press Act, in that it too was a case of state vengefulness. The journalist in question had published a story critical of the AYUSH Ministry. The newspaper in question invited the Ministry to send a rebuttal, which it promised to publish in full. However, rather than sending a credible response, or even taking the journalist/newspaper to court for defamation, the arrest of the reporter was resorted to. This was clearly intended to intimidate not merely this particular journalist, but also other journalists who might think of filing stories critical of the Union Government, its Ministries, or its Ministers.
The press has never been entirely free in India. However, over the last couple of decades, it has become progressively more unfree. Last month, India was ranked as low as 133 out of a total of 180 countries on a global ‘freedom of the press index’. I suppose flag-waving nationalists would be pleased that we had advanced a full three places (India was ranked 136th last year), and that the countries our jingoists hate most, Pakistan and China, were ranked even lower. But the rest of us can find little consolation in such an abysmally low ranking.
The report that provided this ranking said of India that ‘journalists have faced a wave of threats and physical attacks in recent months, particularly from right-wing groups, adding to doubts about press freedom under the current Hindu nationalist government.’ It also noted that ‘Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems indifferent to these threats and problems, and there is no mechanism for protecting journalists’.
Those who have lived in or visited Gujarat while Narendra Modi was that state’s Chief Minister shall not find this surprising. That his Home Minister at the time, Amit Shah, is now the President of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party adds to the sense of déjà vu. For Mr Shah is, if anything, even more indifferent to threats to journalists and even less committed to the freedom of the press than is the Prime Minister.
Truth be told, the other parties are little better. Rajiv Gandhi’s record in this regard I have mentioned; and his mother’s contempt for the press was well known (as well as widely advertised). When India was still ruled by the British, and the Congress was in the vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle, the party fought consistenly for press freedom. Their greatest leaders, Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru, and others, were themseslves editors and journalists. However, after the Congress came to power in 1947, and especially after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, the party has wished to nurture, not a free and vibrant press, but a tame and conformist one.
And the record of our regional parties may be even worse. The deaths of Umesh Dobhal and Rajdeo Ranjan, and of many others like them, have been caused by the negligience and complicity of State Governments. Law-and-order is a state subject; those who attack journalists are often protected by state-level politicians.
The provision and withdrawal of advertisements is another lever in controlling the press, ubiquitously used by State Governments. Regional newspapers depend massively on government advertisements to survive—ads for jobs, tenders for development works, and the like. If these papers are critical, even justly critical, of some acts or actions of the State Government, they risk delayed payments for ads already carried, or being denied these ads altogether.
The freedom of the press in India is threatened by both state and non-state actors. The State uses (and abuses) archaic colonial-era laws to suppress dissent and free expression. Gangsters, mining lords, and liqour and building contractors use threats, intimidation, and violence to suppress stories that expose their criminal and illegal acts, in the knowledge that they usually have the police and the political class on their side.
In this ongoing suppression of press freedom, the English-language press is often complacent, and sometimes complicit. Cocooned in their air-conditioned studios, editors and anchors in Delhi and Mumbai are largely insulated from the harshness and brutality of everyday life in India. They do not feel, and care not to understand, the often intense hardship under which their Indian-language colleagues labour in the field. The persecution of journalists in conflict-zones such as Bastar, the vengeful arrest of the journalist who criticized the AYUSH Ministry, the low ranking of India on the World Press Freedom Index—these and similar issues rarely, if ever, figure on what passes for ‘Prime Time News’ on television.
Those who care for the future of Indian democracy, however, should be deeply worried. For freedom of the press is vital to the security, prosperity and happiness of a country and its citizens. Back in 1824, the first great Indian liberal, Rammohan Roy, sent a petition to the Government of Bengal protesting restrictions on press freedom. ‘Every good Ruler’, wrote Roy, ‘who is convinced of the imperfection of human nature, and reverences the Eternal Governor of the world, must be conscious of the great liability to error in managing the affairs of a vast empire; and therefore he will be anxious to afford every individual the readiest means of bringing to his notice whatever may require his interference. To secure this important object, the unrestrained Liberty of Publication, is the only effectual means that can be employed.’
India is now an independent Republic. It is governed by men and women who are elected, not nominated. That said, Rammohan Roy’s warnings remain compellingly relevant. Mamata Banerjee should have his words framed and placed on her desk; so should every other Chief Minister, and so should the Prime Minister himself.
THE PRESS IN INDIA: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN FREE AND UNFREE