Former vice-president Hamid Ansari delivered the B.G. Verghese Memorial Lecture on ‘Journalism in Times of Strident Nationalism’ on March 9. Reproduced below is the text of his speech.
This is a signal honour and I am grateful to the trustees of the Media Foundation for inviting me this evening to share my thoughts with this august audience.
Boobli George Verghese was a journalist of eminence. To his contemporaries, he was more – a concerned citizen and a man of conscience who firmly believed that journalism at its best involved ferocious scrutiny of power.
He lived and worked in post-independent India. He witnessed and at times participated in the crafting of a modern Indian state on a vision considered unique by the world – of building on the existential reality of a plural society a democratic polity with a secular state structure. He crafted a place for himself in the world of the media and also had time to reflect upon the role of the Indian media in changing times.
He was perceptive enough to observe that ‘as India’s multitudinous but hitherto dormant diversities come to life, identities are asserted and jostle for a place in the sun. Issues of majority and minority, centre and periphery, great and little traditions, rural and urban values, tradition and modernity and all of Naipaul’s million mutinies have to be negotiated and managed. This management of diversity within multiple transitions is a delicate and complex process aggravated by inexorable population growth.’
The media informs, educates even entertains. In a democracy, it plays an important role in the formation, projection and dissemination of public opinion. It is or should be a guardian of public interest, an honest witness to events, a tool to hold government accountable to the people. It is meant to be a bridge between the people and the government by facilitating dialogue for the formulation and implementation of state policies in accordance with the wishes of the people.
A free, fair, honest and objective media is a potent instrument for enhancing transparency and accountability on all sides. Freedom of the media is thus one of the most important ingredients of democracy and reflects the character of the state. For the media to play its designated role, it must be impartial and unprejudiced in coverage of news and views connected with all segments of society. It must not be subservient to vested interests or be distorted by them. If it has a specific orientation, it must say so candidly.
Some months back I had occasion to recall what a journalist of another generation had said on the role of the press in different societies. I seek your indulgence to recall it here:
‘The role of the press in a democracy is different from that in a totalitarian state. Democracy is government by law; totalitarian state is government by authority; in the former decisions are arrived at by discussion, and in the latter by dictation; in the former the press acts as a check on authority, in the latter it is the hand maid of authority; in the former the press makes the people to think, in the latter to obey without question; in the former the press is necessarily to be free, as without free press there is no free discussion, in the latter the press supports authority.’
This provides the rationale for journalism in a democracy. The constitution and its preamble make evident the nature of our democracy. It is dedicated to the attainment of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for the People of India. Its various functions based on these principles are valid and essential, more so in a modern society whose size and numbers need means of communication other than direct face-to-face ones. This is sustained by law.
The Supreme Court has held that ‘the fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Articles 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quirks and of convenience or expediency. Open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.’
Yet, it has not been smooth sailing. Our democratic state structure dedicated to pursuing a development model premised on justice, equality and fraternity are in reality, as Rajni Kothari put it, ‘characterized by the politicization of a fragmented social structure through a wide dispersal and permeation of political forms, values and ideologies.’
Others have spoken of institutional decay and cancerous growth within them. One observer of the national scene has resorted to a line from the poet Yeats to describe the situation: ‘the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ This passionate intensity often goes beyond the lines of democratic behaviour. Lost in the process is Ambedkar’s focus on public conscience and the observance of constitutional morality. There has been some debate of late about this latter term but, as a former judge of the Supreme Court has observed, it comes under three aspects: equality, liberty and dignity.
This general malaise across all sections of society has its media version. The World Press Freedom Index for 2018 based on a set of known parameters including media independence, transparency and violence against media persons has given India a ranking of 138 in a total of 180 countries. It was 136 a year earlier and 105 in 2009. Similarly, the Freedom of Press report of the Freedom House categorises India as ‘party free’ with an overall score of 43 (out of 100).
As in other walks of life, journalism functions in time and space. A former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, wrote last year about contemporary challenges to journalism and about the need for journalism to regain the trust of their readers by rethinking its methods and reconfiguring its relationship with the new kaleidoscope of other voices. ‘The stakes for truth has never been higher’ he observed. In a revealing chapter entitled ‘Do You Love Your Country?’ he sheds some useful light on the approach that Western democracies are tending to take on matters of press freedom. These techniques and practices have been replicated in our own country with our own versions of ‘manufacturing consent.’
Over the years, our media has grown in size and coverage. Despite its impressive numbers and diversity, phenomena like cross-media ownership, paid news and fake news, as also the declining role of editors and their editorial freedom, do raise questions about its objectivity and credibility.
Besides these, an unstated major premise is the pervasive national mood of strident nationalism.
How has this come about? What are its dimensions and implications?
We need to begin with a terminological clarification. Humans are social creature and live in societies as citizens in nations in the international system. They owe allegiance to it by legal and emotional bonds which they seek to strengthen. These bonds in normal discourse are depicted as those of patriotism and nationalism; the terms often used interchangeably. Yet the two do differ in meaning and content, as pointed out by the essayist George Orwell whose descriptions bears citation in full:
‘By ‘nationalism’ I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’
More recently, some European leaders have described nationalism as ‘ideological poison’ and as ‘betrayal of patriotism.’ For this reason, informed opinion is now suggesting the need for striking a balance. An essay in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs highlights this approach:
‘Benign forms of popular nationalism follow from political inclusion. They cannot be imposed by ideological policing from above, nor by attempting to educate citizens about what they should regard as their true interests. In order to promote better forms of nationalism, leaders will have to become better nationalists, and learn to look out for the interests of all their people.’
Strident nationalism, on the other hand, has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights guaranteed by the constitution. It, therefore, has to be guarded against and its ideological premises contested.
The historical process of the making of modern India was depicted as nation-in-the-making by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and some others of that period. Nationhood, therefore, could not be taken for granted and had to be constantly developed and consolidated. This process was undertaken by the freedom movement which provided a platform for its articulation, called it nationalism in all its diverse identity and plurality.
This nation-in-the-making exercise necessarily had many dimensions. It meant freedom from constraints as also freedom to act in pursuit of certain desired objectives. The struggle to be free to decide our own destiny involved in the first place a moral and ethical judgment about the desirability of freedom. Next to it was the question of methodology; how to achieve this objective and how not to proceed in pursuit of it.
Leaders and opinion-makers of that period drew sustenance from diverse sources. The consolidation of the British rule also resulted in the emergence of a class of Indians who imbibed modern education and familiarised themselves with many of the principles that were being articulated in the philosophical, political and legal debates in the world beyond our borders. Both these streams of thought influenced those who led our freedom movement; both impacted on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi.
How did Gandhi ji express his ‘belief in ordered moral government of the universe’ in practical terms? He asserted that ‘it is not nationalism that is evil – it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil.’ He focused on the emotive power of nationalism to forge unity in the regional and communal diversity of India.
Rabindranath Tagore, on the other hand, called nationalism ‘a great menace’ and ‘one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented’. He expressed himself emphatically against ‘the idolatry of nation.’ Nehru on his part was opposed to bringing religion into nationalism.
Alongside, the nineteenth-century renaissance movements lead to an attempt to conflate ideas of Hindu cultural nationalism with mainstream nationalism. This was succinctly expressed by Sri Aurobindo in his famous Uttarpara speech of May 30, 1909: ‘I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is the Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism. The Hindu nation was born with Sanatan Dharma, with it moves and with it grows.’
Later versions of this approach have taken the shape of Hindutva as a concept of cultural revitalisation and political mobilisation. Hindutva, wrote Savarkar, ‘is not a word but a history. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, of Hindutva. Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity, of the whole being of our Hindu race.’
Savarkar’s effort was to define the two main coordinates of the Indian nation, its territoriality and its culture, and to demonstrate their congruence. Some years later, the ingredients of this concept were spelt out with greater specificity by Golwalkar who also expressed his opposition to a federal structure and desired an amendment to the constitution to bring about a unitary form of government.
Thus Hindutva has emerged as a concept of cultural revitalisation and political mobilisation. Its approach of ethnic specificity, in the words of sociologists D.L. Sheth and Ashis Nandy, ‘seeks to subjugate and homogenize the ethnic pluralities by establishing the hegemony of an imagined cultural mainstream.’ It has generated social violence by some adherents of this approach.
These principles, depicting Indian nationalism in terms of the faith of the religious majority, have serious negative political implications for sections of the citizen-body and are in violation of the principles of the constitution. In the typology of democracies in social science literature, it would convert our liberal democracy based on the principle of equality into an ethnic one whose characteristics were spelt out in some detail by the sociologist Sammy Smooha on the basis of Israel’s experience:
(i) the dominant national discourse recognises an ethnic group as forming the dominant core nation; (ii) the state separates membership in the single core ethnic nation from citizenship; (iii) the state is owned and ruled by the core ethnic group; (iv) the state mobilises the core ethnic group; (v) noncore groups are accorded incomplete individual and group rights; (vi) the state allows noncore groups to conduct parliamentary and extra parliamentary struggles for change; (vii) the state perceives noncore groups as a threat; (viii) the state imposes some control on noncore groups.
Smooha goes on to define some of the conditions that lead to the establishment of an ethnic democracy – these include the core ethnic group’s numerical majority, is committed to democracy, has support of a diaspora and enjoys international legitimacy.
It is evident that many of these conditions are tending to prevail in our own land today and the model cited above may have been considered by some as worthy of emulation as in the case of the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill pending in parliament.
One consequence of this approach is the ineptitude and bias in governance and departures from Rule of Law. Another is stridency in advocacy of this brand of nationalism accompanied by intolerance of dissent. Both find their reflection in journalism in ample measure.
Violence against journalists remains a matter of serious concern. It has two aspects: firstly violence by those in segments of militant public who do not want coverage of misdeeds, the Gauri Lankesh case being the most condemnable instance of it; and secondly by the authorities in the shape of local security forces who do not want the media to report strong-arm tactics used against public expressions of outrage in specific happenings.
Correctives to the latter are few and rarely prompt, as in the Hashimpura killings case of 1986. In most of these, there is usually state complicity in acts of omission or commission. Both transgress what the law permits; both violate the Rule of Law.
Some writings in the media are candid about a crisis of credibility, internal constrains, curtailment of dissent and an atmosphere of intimidation highlighted by specific instances of violence. This, overt or covert, trend is attributed by one commentator to lack of economic security: ‘if you challenge the government you run the risk of losing your job. Yet for many, this is not just their livelihood but the anchor of their (and sometimes their families) existence.’
Pronouncements of government personalities are occasionally suggestive of derision of the media. The phenomenon of fake news, ‘alternate facts’ and trolling has added to it in good measure. A former chief election commissioner commented on the adverse impact ‘in a big way’ on voter behaviour in elections and the need ‘to bring in a robust mechanism for the conduct of social media platforms.’
The Editors Guild took note of the deteriorating situation on August 8 last year and issued a statement titled ‘an increasingly challenging environment on freedom of the press.’ It ‘condemned the manner in which the right to practice free and independent journalism is seen to be undermined by a combination of forces – some media owners’ inability to withstand political covert or from the political establishment and frequent instances of blocking or interference in the transmission of television content that is seen to be critical of the government.’
It cited specific instances, decries ‘all attempts on the part of the government to interfere in the free and independent functioning of journalists, either put under pressure directly or through the proprietors.’ The statement urged media owners ‘not to cow down to political pressure,’ described as ‘Owellian’ the interference with TV signals, and demanded that corrective action be taken. It decried the tendency ‘on the part of the government and the political class to ‘use selective denial of journalistic access as a weapon.’
Recent events have produced Indian versions of ‘embedded journalism’ and of ‘gussa’ of the public. It has led to what has been called ‘news-distorting nationalism of ratings-hungry TV news channels.’ Credible media observers have noted that ‘a part-communal, part-pseudo-nationalist poison has seeped deep into India’s collective thinking’ and poses ‘a very real threat to Indian democracy.’
The casualty in the process is credibility. These domestic versions of ‘skewed notions of romantic patriotism or tribal allegiance’ have also contested our propensity for ‘democracy and rational thought’ and propel us to agree with Shri Ramachandra Guha’s observation that ‘while we may all wish to be patriots, writers (as well as television anchors) must never become propagandists for a leader, party or government.’
A participant in recent discussions has put it bluntly: ‘Not only is the media celebrating existing immoralities, it is also scaling new heights of impropriety. Crudity is the new definition of refinement – the mainstream media’s vulgarity has destroyed the norms of Indian democracy that once prevailed in the public domain.’
Textbooks on journalism emphasise that the benchmarks for the media are Accuracy, Independence, Impartiality, Humanity and Accountability. Somewhere towards the end of his First Draft, George Verghese observed that ‘a good or great newspaper or channel is for its readers, listeners and viewers, part university, part government, both teacher and overseer… We need to ask ourselves whether the Indian media has departed, or dare depart from that ideal if it wants to remain true to its mission.’
I leave it to this audience to guess what he may have to say from his lofty perch about journalism in this age of strident nationalism.