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Backstory: 'Population Control' and 'Information Control' Are Part of the Same Package 

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The Nazis practiced the politics of gleichschaltung, or the complete ideological packaging of political, social and lived experience.

So while, on the one hand, mores of social behaviour, including sterilisation, were forcibly prescribed – by the end of Third Reich in 1945 an estimated 360,000 had been sterilised, among whom were those deemed genetically inferior or regarded as “political enemies of the state” – on the other, there was a concerted purging of unwanted ideas, as reflected in censorship protocols and even the mass book burnings that took place shortly after the Nazis came to power in May 1933, and which was reported by the newspapers of the day as “action against the un-German spirit”. 

The politics of gleischschailtung continues to surface in countries ruled by leaders with fascist characteristics. India’s emergency of 1975 is a case in point. Along with the censors in the newsroom that this period saw, were the white caravans on the street – Salman Rushdie’s description of the nasbandi (sterilisation) camps that emerged at that point in his 1994 short story, ‘The Free Radio’. 

The new book by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship – The Emergency, 1975-77, notes how by 1976, population control targets were set for states under the direct supervision of Sanjay Gandhi. It led to a competitive cycle of sterilisations between them, each eager to be seen as more compliant than the other. Piquant situations ensued, such as the leadership in Bihar worrying itself sick over how they were still behind their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh despite having achieved 60% more than the number assigned to it. The argument currently being raised by Chief Minister Aditya Nath on the benefits of population control – that it will ostensibly usher in a veritable Ram rajya based on “sustainable development” – was the very one used by the Union health minister of the first emergency era, Karan Singh, and his cohorts. 

Under conditions of strict censorship, it was impossible to report on what was really happening and it needed the 1977 general election, which saw the Congress Party wiped out across north India, for people’s distress to get registered. Journalists John Dayal and Ajoy Bose together wrote a neat primer of that period, For Reasons of State, recalling the mass human suffering unleashed by Indira Gandhi government.

Representative image. Photo: Reuters

The Jaffrelot-Anil book quotes their observations: “Sick women carpeting the floor of the ward”, “stitches broken”, “puss oozing out”, “the smell of antiseptic lotion, blood, and sweat”.

After the emergency was lifted, there was a fair degree of newspaper exposes on it as well as some powerful fiction which should have damned the words “population control” forever. Rohington Mistry’s A Fine Balance with its singeing word portraits, was just one example:

“A nurse hurried to the policemen with new instructions. ‘Please slow down the supply of lady patients,’ she said. ‘There is a technical problem in the tubectomy tent.’ A middle-aged man took the opportunity to appeal to the nurse. ‘I beg you,’ he wept. ‘Do it to me, I don’t mind – I have fathered three children. But my son here is only sixteen! Never married! Spare him!’”

How effective are evocative words in keeping memory alive? This is a question that we as journalists should be asking. How is it that those horrific images from family planning camps of the earlier era were washed away into a sea of amnesia? How is it that four decades later authoritarian state governments can propose the same solutions by citing the same Malthusian justifications?

How is it that data and arguments about India having reached replacement levels and that its population growth is on a declining trajectory even in states like Uttar Pradesh, do not seem to reach policy makers in Lucknow, Guwahati and Bengaluru?

By the way, The Wire piece, ‘India Needs Employment Generation, Not Population Control’ (July 14), has one of the most comprehensible explanations of the ‘demographic dividend’ that I have come across in a while.

It is here we arrive at the nub of the issue which the media seem to be pussyfooting around: the targets of family planning during the first emergency were largely extremely poor people, many of whom were Muslims; the targets in the Modi era are Muslims. Period. The UP chief minister is at great pains to deny such a framing, but he did let slip that he wishes to correct the “balance” between communities. His Assam counterpart is openly anxious to achieve this.

In a recent interview Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed that Muslims in his state are growing at the rate of 29% and Hindus by 10%: “So, we need to bring certain measures whereby the growth of the population can be slowed down.” 

In any case whatever the chief ministers leave unsaid, there are always trolls to fill in the gaps. An Alt News’s fact check on an image of a Burmese Muslim man with his family in a refugee camp in Bangladesh being passed off as that of an Indian Muslim tells this story eloquently.  

Rohingya refugee workers carrying bags of salt this month in a processing yard in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters

In her comprehensive documentation for The India Forum, historian Aprajita Sarcar perceptively points out that “population control has become a rhetoric to restructure the Savarna Hindu family towards more eugenic ends and to stoke fears of Hindus being overtaken by other religious communities in garnering national resources. Even as the myth of large Muslim families remains as false as ever, political leaders affiliated to the RSS raise the slogan of ‘Hindu khatre mein hain’ (‘Hindus are in danger of being wiped out’).”

The population control discourse is also low hanging electoral fruit. The Wire piece, ‘Six Months Before Assembly Elections, Yogi Worries About Excessive Procreation’ (July 15) rightly observes that it is a trope “close to the heart of India’s chattering classes; and one that may be trusted to deflect (from) a whole bunch of failures that beset the record of the BJP, both at the Centre and in the states that it rules.”

Expand Parliament House, shrink the space for media coverage

If the legislature is one of the three pillars of democracy, the media has been designated as the fourth pillar. But while the Modi government is envisaging a large Parliament building to replace the present one, it appears that the space hitherto occupied by the Fourth Pillar is set to shrink rapidly.

As a recent letter of protest from media bodies and journalists addressed to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla pointed out, “There appears to be a pattern of isolating Parliament and parliamentarians from media scrutiny”, with accredited media personnel now being denied normal entry into Parliament in order to cover proceedings. 

Also read: Monsoon Session: Opposition, Union Govt Likely to Face Off on Pandemic, Economic Issues

One freelance journalist who has been a regular visitor to the Press Gallery and the Central Hall thus far, and who suddenly finds such access blocked, observed to me, “They are making the pandemic an excuse to keep Parliament from being the open space it once was.”

A hint of the government’s shrewd thinking on this emerged during Birla’s recent briefing when he said that accredited media houses would be given access when actually access had always been given to all accredited journalists.

The press corps is angry and wants access along earlier lines restored before the Monsoon Session begins. In their letter, journalists underlined the fact that “Media coverage, it has to be appreciated, involves daily news reporting as well as contact with leading political figures for insights and analysis.” They expressed the hope that the Speaker will now “take pro-active steps to restore full access for journalists”, including restoring media passes for all categories and starting the process of renewal of applications for covering Parliament with immediate effect (‘Media Orgs Protest Denial of Normal Entry To Accredited Journalists for Parliament Coverage’, July 14).

UP model of thrashing journalists

The extent of brute force that marked elections to the 476 posts of block panchayat chiefs in Uttar Pradesh recently would not have become widely known if it were not for brave mediapersons reporting it live. Chief Minister Adityanath quickly claimed a great victory for his party in those polls, but had no word to say about this display of brute power.

One of the images that emerged from that cauldron of violence was that of a television journalist Krishna Tiwari being thrashed by a helmet-wearing Chief Development Officer of Unnao, Divyanshu Patel (Editors Guild Condemns Attack on Unnao Journalist, Flags Threat to Media Rights in UP’, July 13).

Clearly that Patel had taken recourse to wearing a helmet indicated his attempt to hide his identity while perpetrating all manner of abuse during the polls, including as it turns out thrashing journalists who had the effrontery to capture his deeds. Nobody in UP’s power echelons is interested in inquiring too closely into the mystery of his helmet or behaviour, but they are more than delighted to smile and clap for the cameras when Patel turned up to apologise to Tiwari with a box of sweets in a bid to bury the fracas. No FIR was filed on the incident, but nothing surprising about that.

 The Wire did well to interview senior journalist Ram Dutt Tripathi and former IPS officer, N.C. Asthana (‘Watch | ‘Power Has Gone To Their Heads’: When an IAS Officer Attacks a Journalist’, July 14) on this sorry episode that presages dangerous times for honest journalists in Uttar Pradesh as the assembly elections draw closer.

Reporters as frontline workers 

We know that journalists, having to report on the many dimensions of the pandemic, have paid a huge price in terms of their health, well-being, and sometimes even lives. The Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies has put out an interesting map detailing this tragic story that remains largely unreported. Over 650 journalists are believed to have lost their lives to COVID-19 between 2020-2021 – the highest such toll in any country in the world:

Readers write in…

Anyone protecting media freedom?

Rakesh Raman, editor, RMN News Service and founder, RMN Foundation, New Delhi, has an important observation to make:

“I am a journalist and founder of the humanitarian organisation RMN Foundation and have been observing the growing attacks on press freedom in India. I am also a victim of these attacks and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India have been trying to protect me from the persecution and threats that I have been facing for my editorial work. During my struggle to protect my editorial rights, I have experienced that bodies like the Editors Guild of India (EGI) exist only as toothless outfits, repeatedly failing to protect the journalists from state repression. Their public statements are simply ignored by the authoritarian rulers who are supposed to follow them.

“In fact, today there is no organisation in the world that is working effectively to protect journalists from state excesses and police brutality. Although UNESCO and other UN agencies also keep releasing loose statements and random reports about media freedom, they too have failed miserably to protect journalists in different countries. Similarly, the organisations – such as RSF, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, associations of journalists, etc. – that claim to be working for press freedom and protection of journalists operate only as secondary news outlets. They lift news from here and there about attacks on journalists and simply publish it under their own banners on their websites along with some customary statements of condemnation. They cannot influence and change the brutal decisions of the authorities that are unleashing terror on journalists.” 

Just as a point of interest, Editors Guild of India was one of the parties which had filed the plaint before the Supreme Court recently on the enormous misuse of the colonial era penal law on sedition.

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Clarification

Aman Kumar writes back:

“Thank you for acknowledging my comment in your last column.

“I think my terse last email was misunderstood. The line, “One thing is certain: public places have become more hostile towards Muslims in the last few years; not only to those who are visibly Muslim, but even to Muslims who are working hard to somehow earn a livelihood” is from the article, ‘The ‘Hindutva Ecosystem’ Has a New Anti-Muslim Narrative. This Time Street Vendors Are the Target’ (June 28). I thought the line just quoted was irresponsibly phrased because it conveys a false opposition between ‘those who are visibly Muslim’ and ‘Muslims who are working hard’.”

Fake news

Mail from New Delhi-based lawyer Shakeel Abbas:

“Popular Front of India (PFI) has filed a defamation suit against news channel Zee Media Corporation Limited, its CEO, and two anchors, and sought Rs one lakh as damages for maligning their reputation. In its show, ‘Khabron ke Khiladi’, it was claimed that PFI funded Rohingyas to create fake identity cards before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The suit filed by PFI’s secretary of public relations, Salim Sheikh, stated: “The accusation is serious in nature and further inciting the public at large by falsely portraying the plaintiff having link with Rohingya People in funding them for creating false IDs.” Civil Judge Aviral Shukla issued notice to all the defendants on July 6 and posted the matter to August 12 for further hearing. 

“According to the complainant, two news anchors said that PFI is shifting Rohingyas to UP before the elections so that their names can be added to the voter list with the help of fake ration and pan cards, on the basis of the statement of two arrested Rohingyas during the show on June 13.

“In a press conference on June 18, Prashant Kumar ADJ (law and order), Uttar Pradesh, has said that no evidence is found so far to link PFI with Rohingyas in creating false IDs. 

“Besides praying for Rs 1 lakh as damages from Zee Media, its CEO, and two anchors, the suit also sought an injunction restraining them from posting any such news on their news channel and sought direction from the court to direct the National Broadcasters Standards Association (NBSA) to take action against Zee Media, its CEO, and two anchors for violating its code. It also requested for a direction to Youtube and Facebook to remove the ‘defamatory, derogatory, obnoxious post’ from their social media platform.”

Missing words

The Wire reader Raj Kumar has this observation to make about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speech from Varanasi:

“Modi ji utters all the achievements in this speech, but economic matters were overlooked. It had nothing on unemployment, inflation rate, and other issues that impact the common person.”

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Endnote

It touched the heart, Satish Acharya’s cartoon showing India weeping for Danish Siddique, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, with the words: “I’ve lost my eyes, Son. You showed the truth.”


Siddique’s career was like an Usain Bolt streak across our collective consciousness as he provided us with some of the most defining images of the times we have had to live through.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in