“I thought it was a bit too much to receive a journalism award from a man so contemptuous of journalists,” said Akshaya Mukul, winner of the award for best non-fiction book, after boycotting the event.
At last year’s Ramnath Goenka awards, film star Aamir Khan disrupted the opulent conviviality that is the hallmark of media award functions – even those hosted by the flag bearer of “journalism of courage”, the Indian Express group – by speaking of rising intolerance in the country. This was to the obvious discomfiture of the establishment grandees ensconced in the front rows and to the equally obvious delight of the journalistic rank and file at the back of the hall.
By contrast, at this year’s Ramnath Goenka awards ceremony held on Wednesday at a five-star hotel on the edge of Lutyens Delhi, there were no such big moments. But it could be argued – and indeed, was argued by an awardee who chose to skip the award function – that the handing out of these highly prestigious awards for good journalism by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made no secret for well over a decade of his distaste for over-inquisitive journalists, especially of the “Lutyens” variety, was in itself a big moment for Indian journalism – in that it was rich with irony.
As Akshaya Mukul, a senior journalist at the Times of India who was awarded the prize for the best non-fiction book for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India that his publisher collected on his behalf, put it in a conversation with The Wire, “I thought it was a bit too much to receive a journalism award from a man so contemptuous of journalists.” (Another awardee who also appeared to have boycotted the event, Anna M.M. Vetticad, was not available for comment.)
But that was off-stage. On stage, Viveck Goenka, the Express group’s chairman and managing director, played the effusive host to the hilt and chief guest Modi eschewed scorn, offering instead genial homilies to the media on not sensationalising news, on being credible, on being part of projects of national oneness and promoting India on a world stage and so on. During the live streaming of the event, you could see and hear the enthusiastic applause, in particular from the VIP rows where several ministers and party functionaries were ensconced.
Many little ironies quietly played out as the event unfolded, a particularly sharp one being the prime minister handing out an award to photojournalist Burhaan Kinu for his haunting photographs in the aftermath of Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching over beef-eating allegations in Dadri – yes, that ugly episode in the nation’s life that saw the media being pilloried for its coverage by the ruling party.
In its final moments, the evening took on a somewhat schizophrenic hue as Express’s editor-in-chief Rajkamal Jha rose to deliver the vote of thanks and managed to weave in allusions to the harsher realities of contemporary Indian journalism – especially its hyper-nationalist turn. Or as he put it, “the selfie journalists… who keep the camera turned to them…(and) in this selfie journalism, if you don’t have the facts it does not matter, you just put a flag in frame and you hide behind it.” He also unveiled a rather sharper definition than the evening had hitherto produced of what it meant to be a good journalist. The group’s founder Ramnath Goenka had sacked a reporter, he told the gathering, when a chief minister told him, “Aap ka reporter bahut achha kaam kar raha hai (Your reporter is doing good work)”. Criticism from a government was a badge of honour, said Jha, who seemed to be signalling that the Express brand of adversarial journalism was alive and well, no matter who the chief guest was.
“I heard it was a good speech,” said Mukul. However, he told Caravan Magazine, “I cannot live with the idea of Modi and me in the same frame, smiling at the camera even as he hands over the award to me.” Later, speaking to The Wire, Mukul explained his decision further:
You’ve won other awards and have travelled to receive them, why did you stay away from this particular award ceremony?
I thought it was a bit too much to receive a journalism award from a man so contemptuous of journalists. The prime minister calls journalists “news traders”, one of his ministers has called them “presstitutes”, now another minister has said we should stop asking questions (minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, objecting to questions about the killing of eight undertrials by the Madhya Pradesh police).
Are you saying it is a worse government for the media than the Congress?
The Congress were the original sinners – and they did not go unchallenged. As a college student, I took part in the protests against Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous defamation Bill. But whatever the Congress did does not mitigate what is happening now. This is a very disquieting and frustrating time for many in the media. We are dealing with a government that resents all questioning, so much so that it even takes umbrage at a discussion of GDP figures. We are in a situation where some news is not being reported, some is being twisted, some is being played up, some are kow-towing to the government.
Was it a mistake, in your view, for the Indian Express group to have invited Narendra Modi to preside over this event?
Well, I have heard there has been resentment within the Express too. While I don’t have first hand information, I have heard that some senior staff didn’t attend the awards ceremony and were upset about the invitation to Modi. I should clarify that I have no problem with the award itself, which many distinguished writers of non-fiction have received in the past.
Your book, The Gita Press, is a critical account of an institution that was one of the wellsprings of Hindutva. Did you feel there was a contradiction in accepting an award for it from someone who is a Hindutva mascot?
The Gita Press acted as the foot soldiers of the Sangh parivar, there were there at all the flashpoints in Hindutva’s journey, they worked in close collusion with the Sangh, they still do. Some of my friends did point out that it was bizarre that I should be receiving an award from Modi for a book that attacks Hindutva, but I don’t want to take that argument further. The core issue here is what is happening to journalism and the way it is being undermined by Modi.
Some would argue that the office of the prime minister is above ideology or partisanship and therefore there is no difference between taking an award from Modi and one from Manmohan Singh, who has also presided over the Goenka awards in the past?
This prime minister is not above ideology, he gives voice to his ideology practically every time he speaks. It is true that normally, the prime minister is an overarching figure but Modi is a polarising figure. Manmohan Singh was not one. Even if you didn’t agree with him about something, there were other levels at which you could relate to him. And I don’t recall that he ever attacked the media in the manner that Modi has done.
Anjali Puri is a senior journalist