Backstory: The Targeted Silencing of the Trinity of Thinker, Student, Reporter

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Academia and journalism are intertwined. Both create and question knowledge, both demand a critical engagement with society, and both have a distinct interface with the public.

What is more, journalism and academia routinely draw from – and contribute – to the other. In a conversation carried by The Wire (‘Watch | The State of India’s Academic Freedom’, March 25), reference was made to the elements that constitute academic freedom. Beyond freedom of inquiry and research and freedom of teaching within the classroom, there is such a thing as freedom of extramural pursuits. Engaging with issues of public concern through journalism would constitute an important aspect of “extramural pursuits” and it is a form of giving back to the community some of the insights gained through scholarship. In much the same way, journalists gain rare insights, critical and interpretative skills by dwelling upon scholastic work.

Both academicians and journalists are in the business of asking the right questions in order to arrive at substantive assessments of social, political and economic realities. In her edited book, The Public Intellectual in India, Romila Thapar briefly revisited the intellectual legacy of the legendary journalist, Nikhil Chakravartty, who instituted the journal, Mainstream: “Nikhil and others like him were concerned about what was happening around them…they respected intellectual and academic opinion about public matters…”

It is through the prism of the public intellectual who straddles the thought world of academia and journalism that one could interpret the treatment accorded to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an academic and newspaper columnist and understand the decline of Ashoka University. Let us make no mistake, Ashoka’s shabby handling of these developments does represent a serious decline in academic standards despite attempts by those associated with it to whitewash the institution.

As a courageous piece carried in these columns by an intellectual who teaches at Ashoka argues, “this is why this crisis feels like a betrayal—unlike their counterparts in public universities who were deliberately appointed to push the ruling regime’s agenda, Ashoka’s founders and leaders folded of their own accord. They failed to appreciate that the institution they started had acquired a life larger than their fears” (‘Ashoka and After: The Universities We Believe In’, March 25).

But fears need to be unpacked and understood. It is through the remorseless and endless cultivation of trepidations, anxieties and panic that the Narendra Modi government has been successful in hollowing out institutions within the academia and media universe. Its record speaks for itself.

Unsurprisingly, among the first significant moves to control the nodes of knowledge production was its onslaught on institutions of higher learning within the realm of the public university. Campus after campus saw a determined Centre unleash University Grants Commission (UGC) directives, pliant vice-chancellors and armed police on recalcitrant students, whether it was at the Film and Television Institute of India, at JNU, at the Hyderabad Central University after the suicide of Rohith Vemula or during the suppression of student dissent at the Tata Institute of Social Studies.

The approach adopted to control private universities was generally more nuanced, less frontal. Backroom manoeuvres, intimidation through boardrooms and the arm-twisting of donors, as well as the general code of omerta, is the chosen pathway, as the recent developments at Ashoka University demonstrated. But either way, governmental will invariably prevailed, even as the autonomy of the institutions got steadily compromised.

Meanwhile, there was the parallel pacification of the media. The toolkit adopted for the media may have differed somewhat from that used for academia – corporate capture, the unleashing of the CBI on media entities, the systematic leaning on managements to get independent-minded editors and correspondents fired, the creation of government-friendly news agencies were all part of the mix. Here, too, it was the government’s diktat that triumphed, even as television channels, newspapers and some online portals came to faithfully reflect the government narrative.

Courageous individuals who stood up and spoke out felt the full force of a vengeful state machinery. If we are to consider the Bhima Koregaon arrests, four of the 16 people put behind bars were formally attached to universities. Anand Teltumbe, a former IIT professor, was a management professor at the Goa Institute of Management; Shoma Sen, the head of the English Literature department, Nagpur University; Sudha Bharadwaj, was visiting professor at the National Law School, Delhi; Hany Babu, was professor of language and linguistics at Delhi University. The fifth was a journalist: Gautam Navalakha.

Mediapersons have been dragged to jail merely for doing their job. In Kashmir, such incarceration acquired a certain normalcy. Aasif Sultan, a journalist with Kashmir Narrator, has remained jailed since the Kashmir clampdown of August 2018 (‘Clooney Foundation Bats for Jailed Kashmiri Journalist, Will Monitor Trial’, February 28). Elsewhere in the country, too, there have been hugely unjust detentions. Someone like Siddique Kappan has been under arrest for over 150 days – for the Hathras gang rape that he never got around to reporting on. Then there are those bright young people, Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita – many in the midst of their graduate, post-graduate and doctoral studies – who are today borne down by foisted charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Illustration: The Wire

This targeted silencing of the trinity of Thinker, Student, Reporter is rapidly resulting in a kingdom presided over by fathomless ignorance, raging prejudice and cultivated hatred. The writer of the piece, ‘Why Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s Voice Will Endure, but Ashoka University’s Halo May Not’, March 25), poses an ironic question: what is the need for a Pratap Bhanu Mehta when the chief minister of a BJP-ruled state can claim that India had been colonised by America for 200 years? Yes, indeed, or for that matter, an Anand Teltumbde, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj or Hany Babu?

One wonders, for instance, what really constituted the education of Ajay Shankar Tiwari, the ABVP activist who happened to share a train journey with two nuns and two postulants. Tiwari, perceiving the robes of the nuns, concluded immediately that they were on a mission of religious conversion. He then contacted a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who complained, in turn, to the railway police at Jhansi. The police, instead of registering it as a case of harassment of innocents and booking the complainant, promptly de-boarded the women at Jhansi.

The VHP functionary later claimed he had “scolded” Tiwari for his wrong surmise. He should not have done this. After all, young Tiwari was a shining example of the endemic annihilation of rational thought that an education driven by the RSS and its affiliates imparts on the minds of our emerging generation.


Polls through photographs

Using images to tell the story may seem anachronistic in this day and age suffused with visual excess. One recalls the manner the magazines and Sunday newspapers of an earlier era used grainy, black and white photographs to tell stories on simple, even innocent, themes like the arrival of the first blooms of summer or pavement life in a metro. Today, when we have videos, can a bunch of static images possibly tell a news story? The Wire feature, ‘In Photos: The Story of Assam’s 2021 Assembly Election’, seems to indicate that it can. What I found striking about it is that, when coupled with a short text, photographs do indeed bring out dimensions often lost in detailed reportage or sophisticated video content. The main conclusion – that the election in Assam this time has been low-key in contrast to that of 2016 – emerges quite effectively. The photographer takes care to document the political posters she comes across in her travels across Assam to decode the strategies of the major parties in the fray. This is slow journalism, giving us pause as we get transported briefly to electioneering taking place very far from home.

News freeze next door

This column has noted how the Kashmir template of media control is now being used across India (‘Backstory: The Kashmir Model to Discipline Indian Media’, February 13). The recent developments in Myanmar seem to indicate that the military there have also benefitted from the Kashmir example going by the patterns of media repression now playing out there. These include internet shutdowns, intimidation, detention and arrests under draconian laws of journalists, raiding media offices to confiscate communications infrastructure, censoring content, the banning of news media outlets, and cancellation of licences to operate.

As in Kashmir, a concession here or there is made – Aung Thura of the BBC was released from jail and now AP correspondent, Thein Zaw, has been freed – but what is always evident is the continued and unremitting use of the iron fist to ensure that only the state narrative prevails, one that is faithfully communicated through the state-run Myanmar Radio and the Myawaddy TV, controlled by the military. Many media establishments have been cowed down. Some like the Myanmar Times, which had agreed to followed orders including desisting from using the word “coup”, invited sharp dissent from their staff and chose to suspend operations. Others like Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma, have displayed exemplary courage to carry on in whatever form, and from wherever they can operate.

Riot police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 19, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The Indian government could have used its moral authority to emerge as a beacon for journalistic rights in South Asia but has instead preferred to keep silent, or play along with repressive regimes. The abstaining vote it cast vis-à-vis Sri Lanka (‘India Abstains From Voting on UNHRC Resolution Critical of Sri Lanka’, March 23) speaks volumes for India’s cynical positions regarding the neighbourhood.

There is rich irony in the fact that in the 2020 media freedom index of the Reporters Sans Frontieres,, Myanmar was rated higher at the 139th position than India at the 142nd. But the arrogance of the Indian ruling class is infinite. It is now hard at work creating its own index to counter the so-called western bias (‘Official Panel Sees ‘Western Bias’ in India’s Low Press Freedom Rank But Wants Defamation Decriminalised’, March 14). The specially constituted Index Monitoring Cell (IMC), set up by the government, had the good sense to invite P. Sainath to be part of it. His trenchant critique of the IMC’s final report needs to be read carefully by anyone interested in media freedom in India. It is his opinion, incidentally, that “a fair and honest ranking would see India plumbing the depths below 142″.

Shorn of credibility, India can only watch silently as the military junta crushes media freedom in Myanmar.


Mail from readers

The choices before us, the voters

A student, Sachu Satheesan of the Government Law College Ernakulam, weighs in on the election scene in Kerala:

“How will you answer a question when you don’t know the answer for it? Most ‘leaders’ answer through insults and verbal abuse, and both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan have done this. Congress leaders, in contrast, lack in answering skills, although there are also exceptions like K. Sudhakaran and Mullappally R.

“Kerala goes to the polls on April 6, and the question arises how do we, in Kerala, make the right choice? Corruption can’t be the basis for comparison, since no one emerges unscathed from such scrutiny. The NDA is the best in executing corruption without the public coming to know of it, followed by the LDF. If you look at the offences each party commits, most Congress politicians could get some credit. The LDF, while claiming to be working for the poor, keeps on helping the capitalists. The NDA shines in this category because it is good at all offences. Coming to the art of optimising opportunities, the Congress fares the worst. They had enough and more opportunities to put the governments – both at the state and central levels – on the mat, but have failed to do so. One aspect that all parties have tried to excel in is to wield the Hindutva card. The BJP may be the pioneer in this, but the Congress is trying hard to catch up.

“Finally, the choice is left to us, the voters. We need to think carefully about whom we want to rule over us – or rather exploit us — for the next five years.”


Left to Right: LDF campaign led by Pinarayi Vijayan; UDF campaign led by Ramesh Chennithala; and BJP campaign led by K Surendran. Photo: Official Twitter pages.

Sell, sell, sell

Surjeet Singh writes in: “For a while now I have been agitated by the question: What is the role of government? The present government has privatised education, health, electricity, roads, ports, airlines, airports.  It is selling steel companies, oil companies, not to mention banks. “Justice” is being dispensed by lynch mobs and through police encounters. Policing is outsourced to the Sangh’s affiliates like the Bajrang Dal and Hindu Yuva Vahini. Intelligence is provided by cyber vigilantes. It gifts land to its cronies. Land is given to bodies which have changed their constitution from societies to companies for reasons better known to themselves. Narendra Modi does not trust the government to own the Motera stadium and has handed it over to a private body headed by a trusted aide. Further, adding insult to injury, he has added his name to a facility bearing the names of Adani and Ambani, and eclipsing none other than Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. This is happening when farmers, whom the prime minister terms as “parasites”, are agitating against laws designed to expedite the corporatisation of farming.

Brickbats and bouquets

A reader, Pranav Manishankar, doesn’t mince his words: “You guys are the worst news outlet ever, your levels of bias and propaganda are staggering. Shame on you guys for engaging in such activities. You should be shut down at the earliest. I pray to god this happens!”

Rohan Singh Sethi, meanwhile, has this to say:I would like to say thank The Wire and the writer of the piece, ‘With Shringi Yadav’s Bail, Is UP Heading Towards Normalising Hindutva Violence?’ (March 19). This is a very critical time for our country with the media corrupted and the value of truth having lost its meaning. When I read this article I was able to understand that there are still people like you who want to highlight the truth and who are not afraid of these bad elements in our society. I pledge to make a small contribution every month from my earnings to The Wire so that I can support an organisation that is doing truthful journalism and not putting out paid stuff.”

Incomplete analysis

Ashwin Thomas writes in: “This is with regard to the piece, ‘Why Christo-Racist Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Are Gaining Ground in Kerala’ (February 26). I don’t think its research is complete or completely thought-through. It is easy to be critical but I believe the way the writer judges all Syrian Christians alike is going a little too far. Different regions of the state think differently, but to conclude that all Syrian Christians think in a certain way is unfair. I have always considered The Wire to be passionate, fearless and determined. But this article betrays its partiality for ‘extreme journalism’. As the saying goes, you will never truly understand until it happens to you.”


Vexatious vax

Finally, a query from Prasun Deb: “Ever since word came out about blood clots being associated with
Covishield, I have noted a certain trend and am curious about it. Why have all the bigwigs, from the president and prime minister to the finance minister and health minister, opted for the Covaxin
vaccination?  Is it possible that the government was aware of the problem of blood clotting associated with Covishield before the rest of us received this information?”

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