Backstory: Censorship Comes in All Shades and Sizes in India

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The Government of India, in its present avatar, has displayed a rare appetite for censorship. This could range from something as seemingly discreet as power cuts to stop public screenings and presenting important information to courts in sealed envelopes; to shooting the messenger upfront by locking up journalists, sometimes for years on end, as is the case of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who has been in jail since August 2018 (‘1,000 Days and Counting: How Long Will Kashmiri Journalist Aasif Sultan Remain in Jail?’, The Wire, May 27, 2021).

But one of the intriguing aspects of the Narendra Modi government’s move to block the BBC programme, ‘India: The Modi Question’, was that it set off a string of unintended and untidy consequences. An attempt to shut down a work of documentation had the opposite result of publicising it contents widely. Nothing reflected this more than the way in which students in university campuses across the country organised, against all odds and massive police repression, public screenings of the proscribed documentary (‘Indian Students’ Screenings of BBC’s Modi Documentary Despite Ban Make Global Headlines’, January 26). Indeed their spontaneous actions of defending their right of freedom of expression, I would say, celebrated more effectively the 73 years of the Indian Constitution than a militaristic Republic Day parade streaming down Kartavya Path with the Egyptian president, widely regarded as a dictator in attendance as chief guest.

Getting a handle on censorship is a difficult proposition. Authoritarian leaders may want to do it, they may have the stomach to do it, they may have the infrastructure, laws and capacities to do it, but as German cultural theorist Beate Muller put it, censorship is “process of actions and reactions in the struggle for power, publicity, and the privilege to speak out, rather than merely as a repressive tool with predictable results”.

Look at the manner in which the Modi government tied itself into knots while trying to slam the lid hard on the BBC Pandora’s Box. Our first view of its discomfiture was captured in the hapless figure of the MEA spokesman who at the outset tried to kick the can down the road and ended up stubbing his toes badly. When asked about the banned documentary, he began: “Do note that it has not been screened in India so I cannot comment on it..,” or words to that effect. But why was it not being screened in India – that after all was the moot question. The young mandarin, to be fair to him, should however be credited for having come up with three concepts that the Modi establishment quickly adopted to frame the official government position on the documentary:  it was a “propaganda piece”, “lacking in objectivity”, symptomatic of “a continuing colonial mindset” (‘Govt Calls BBC Film ‘Propaganda Piece With Bias’, Channel Says Govt Had Declined to Respond’, The Wire, January 19).

Before long we were witness to an endless line of government apologists seizing the opportunity to appear more loyal than the other by tearing into the documentary. There was the Aligarh Muslim University Vice Chancellor Tariq Mansoor who had, three years ago, already ingratiated himself with the political establishment by calling the troops into his campus to subdue students protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act. Now, he shrilly excoriated the BBC’s “biased reportage” that he claimed was “peppered with outdated condiments” (this should get him a governor’s post at the very least).

Then we had 303 “eminent Indians” come marching in. More than half of them were military personnel or former RWA officials and well steeped in command culture. They accused the BBC of “Delusion of British Imperial Resurrection” (whatever that may have meant, it certainly took the shine out of the “colonial mindset” terminology!). To make their own biases clear while raising the charge of bias against the BBC, they began their public statement with this overwrought line: “Not this time. Not with our leader. Not with India. Never on our watch.” What?

Some whom the nation had almost forgotten also came to throw pebbles into the pond. Kabir Bedi’s tweet full of righteous anger against an “utterly biased documentary” immediately caught the attention of television anchors looking out for studio guests who could be trusted to disparage the documentary. Suddenly there was Bedi in the kindly glow of prime time studio chat shows, breathing in deep the oxygen of publicity.

But all the chest beating and table thumping only meant that a docu-series that may have otherwise raised hackles in New Delhi for a few days, suddenly became a topic of conversation for the world. It also prompted many at home to recall the violent political legacy of their prime minister and the innumerable ways his government had censored, and continues to censor, important public information; how it had subtly denuded the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression; how it had rendered a law like the Right to Information Act into a dead letter. According to transparency watcher, the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, there are at present over three lakh pending cases before central and state information commissions across the country. Two of the 29 commissions in existence are completely defunct. The others, going by the evidence at hand, have failed to impose penalties in 95% of the cases that called for such action.

While existing laws on the free flow of information have been hollowed out, new rules have been introduced to hold out existential threats to media organisations. The Information Technology Rules, 2021, was one such initiative and became functional without the required parliamentary scrutiny (‘New IT Rules Used But Not Considered by Committees of Subordinate Legislation of LS, RS’, The Wire, January 24). Over the last two years these rules have remained like a battleship parked in the neighbourhood from where missiles could be dispatched at any point of the government’s choosing.

Two recent examples illustrate this perfectly. On January 17, the Ministry of Information and Technology came up with a proposed amendment to the IT Rules which would allow the Press Information Bureau – the official publicist for the government – to take down any news on the government that it considers “fake”. An angry blowback from media bodies and journalists to the proposal seems to have prompted the authorities to put the plan on hold for the moment.  Three days later, another ministry – this time the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – decided to deploy the “emergency powers” under the IT Rules to block the public viewing of the BBC documentary (‘‘Emergency’: From John Cusack to Prashant Bhushan, the List of 50 Tweets the Modi Govt Has Censored’, January 22).

The IT Rules, incidentally, do not anywhere define what constitutes an “emergency”. In the latest case, it was not as if Auntie Beeb was advancing on India, all guns blazing, with the malign intent to invade its territory. The very fact that the government and its bureaucratic minions saw a two-hour docu-series as an existential threat to the country demanding an “emergency” response only indicates the dangers of leaving the extraordinary powers of censorship in the hands of bureaucrats. These minions chose to shoot from the shoulders of the apex court this time by claiming that their censorious action was aimed at protecting the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India against which the documentary, in their reading, had “cast aspersions”. The real reason – that it had cast Prime Minister Modi in poor light – was carefully left unstated.

The greatest irony of all is that those who are today accusing the BBC of a colonial mindset are in fact drawing from a very ugly colonial legacy of the gag order. The distinct chill, that The Wire spoke about (‘Editorial: A Dark January’, January 23), is certainly in the air. As the editorial emphasised, the first month of the New Year has spelt trouble for anybody interested in India’s future as a democracy. How will this spool unravel in the months to follow?


Why Hindi journalism matters

Benedict Anderson understood well the alchemy of language and printers’ ink, and argued that European nation states grew around their “national print languages”. Imagine for a moment the number of countries that India could have birthed given its 22 national languages, all of which had newspaper reading publics? In 1954, the country’s first Press Commission counted the newspapers of the day and came up with some astonishing figures but what was conspicuous was that while Hindi newspapers at 76 were almost double in terms of their numbers, than English language newspapers at 41, they had a combined readership of a lowly 3.79 lakh in contrast to the 6.97 lakh circulation of their English language counterparts. In other words, the big daddies of the newspaper world in those days used the tongue of their erstwhile colonial masters and enjoyed great advertising support from the big capitalists of the day.

Today, while the English language media may still punch over its weight in terms of advertising and capacity to influence policy, publications in Hindi far outstrip those of English in terms of both their numbers and circulation. According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India, there are (hold your breath) 42,493 registered publications in Hindi, while English language accounts for 13,661. Not all of them are newspapers of course, but they still tell a story about the burgeoning of the news space in India’s Hindi speaking regions. As Sevanti Ninan in her 2007 book, Headlines from the Heartland, noted: “the early 1990s saw the expansion and reinvention of the public sphere in the Hindi belt.”

A new book, The Journey of Hindi Language Journalism in India From Raj to Swaraj and More (Orient BlackSwan), by Mrinal Pande, which was released in New Delhi on January 24 to an appreciative audience comprising many linked to the media world, tells the story of how that expansion and reinvention took place.

This is a view from the inside because Pande could be said to be part of the evolution of this industry, not least as the first woman editor-in-chief of a multi-edition Hindi daily. No mean achievement this, given that – as Pande observes ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek – the social political culture of the Hindi belt ensured that these publications remained “upper caste-centric and female deficient”.


Readers write in… 

Who is Jack Straw?

A Wire reader, Ahmed, pointed to a seeming error: “In his interview with Jack Straw, Karan Thapar referred to him as the ex-foreign secretary. In fact he was home minister of the UK. This error needs to be acknowledged.”

My response: The confusion arose because while the interview headline read, ‘Ex-Foreign Minister Jack Straw Confirms UK Report said: ‘Modi Directly Responsible for 2002 Riots’ (January 22), a caption referred to him as former home secretary of the UK. However, Karan Thapar very carefully notes that Jack Straw was foreign secretary at the time of the Gujarat violence (2002), and he is correct.


Resources for the Black community

Jair Ruiz, who works with Annuity.org, which provides resources on the internet when it comes to annuities and structured payments, wrote in: “Dear Wire team, hope this email finds you well! I recently came across your page https://thewire.in/history/gandhi-racism-blacks-satyagraha-blm and was impressed by the resources you share for the Black community! I thought you might be interested in our work to help the Black community as well. Many experts say that closing the racial wealth gap in America isn’t a simple fix, but education and financial literacy can help. To shed light on the topic, we’ve created an in-depth article discussing: The impact that the financial literacy gap has on the African American community vis-à-vis socioeconomic and cultural barriers and the role of Black financial advisors.  Please take a look at it: https://annuity.org/financial-literacy/black-community/


An error in the docu-series

N. Jayaram writes in: “The BBC docu-series that everyone is talking about has one major error: It initially says Muslims started the fire in Godhra and later fleetingly equivocates on the issue.
Muslims DID NOT start that fire. Please see the Justice U.C. Banerjee Commission Report.


Pakistani journalist Shahid Aslam’s arrest condemned

Comments from Dr. Roshmi Goswami and Dr. P. Saravanamuttu, co-chairperson and bureau member respectively of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders: “SAHR vehemently condemns the arrest of Shahid Aslam, a special correspondent of BOL News, a privately owned official News TV channel of BOL Media Group, without any notice on the night of January 13, 2023.  He was arrested for allegedly passing on tax data of former army chief General (retired) Qamar Javed Bajwa, to Fact Focus, a platform for investigative journalism. He is accused of bribing a Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) employee for purposes of collecting information for which no evidence has been found so far. Aslam was released on bail on 19 January 2023. Shahid Aslam’s arrest without notice clearly indicates the risk entailed for journalists and media personnel in Pakistan, specifically those who critique the military. It was only in October 2022, Arshad Sharif, the Pakistani investigative journalist who fled the country for being critical about the military, was killed in Kenya, two months after he left Pakistan. Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021 of Pakistan guarantees the rights of journalists and media professionals including the right to privacy and confidentiality of sources. However the Act is yet to be implemented despite repeated demands to protect fundamental rights of journalists.

“SAHR calls upon the relevant authorities of the Government of Pakistan to immediately release Shahid Aslam unconditionally. The Government of Pakistan must end harassment of journalists and respect the freedom of expression of the people as enshrined in the constitution.”

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