The use of the word “unfreedom” in the title, Between Freedom and Unfreedom: The Press in Independent India, itself gives the reader a clue of what is to come. And yet, it is dangerous to jump to conclusions. What the author, V. Krishna Ananth, has done is to delve into the legal and statutory history of the press in India and thus we have before us a tumultuous journey of freedoms and unfreedoms.
Ananth is currently an academic but has also been a lawyer and a journalist. He wears all three hats in this book. It is therefore a deep dive into the history of the press in India, full of legal references to court cases, judgments, government Acts and the findings of various commissions. Ananth also stays strictly with the press – as in the print media; there are only fleeting references to broadcast and digital media.
However, when it comes to the freedom of the press and its rights within Article 19 of the Constitution, the history is shared by all the media. The extent to which the founders of the Constitution debated aspects of the freedom of the press and the role of the press in a democracy is an eye-opener for anyone who has not investigated our colonial and pre-Independent past. The debates are strong and varied, from the far-reaching freedoms to the need to curtail press freedoms, to discussing how societal norms must also be respected.
Ananth contends that it was perhaps a mistake not to have a separate Constitutional provision for the press rather than include it within Article 19 (1) a, as in the freedom of expression. As we look around us today, it is hard to disagree. Or, as this book reveals, through the course of Independent India’s history, a “Bill of Rights” that specifically mentions the freedom of the press would have been a legal and operational boon for the Indian media.
But as readers will learn, the journey was not just about the freedom of journalists, not least their right to a free wage and the wage commissions set up to force reluctant owners to pay their staff. It was also about the business aspect of the press and how proprietors could use their business interests as well as the scope of their newspapers to influence their brand of journalism. These subjects were also intricately discussed. As our history shows, over the years the proprietors got their way in both wage restrictions and protection of their interests, using legal and other means.
What it is important to remember, however, is that we had intent. We had the intent for a free press, with reasonable caveats. We had the intent to give newspaper workers a fair wage. We had the intent to ensure that newspaper owners did not sacrifice journalism for profit. As human history has proved time and again, intent alone is insufficient and can be counterproductive. Look at where the media is now, in all these terms, and the sad picture becomes clear.
From the freedom struggle and the use of the press to spread the word in spite of British laws of sedition, to the writing of the Constitution to setting up a Press Commission, we were full of fervour and intent. But alongside, insidiously, as this book demonstrates, ran that other narrative of control and restriction. The ability to take criticism is weak as people get more powerful, and India’s social conservatism was often used an excuse to control our freedoms.
The buildup to the events of the Emergency therefore provided all the clues for the biggest assault on democracy and on the press in 1975. Or like all journalists, should I amend that to “the then biggest”? Because several ironies will emerge. The declaration of the Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on June 25, 1977, when her election was declared null and void by the Allahabad high court. Various civil conspiracies and foreign threats to India’s integrity were alleged. And apart from her political opponents, the press was a big casualty.
Ananth goes into these events in great detail, and any journalist and journalism student should recognise the parallels with life in 2021 and the Narendra Modi administration. Thanks to the enormous effort the Opposition of the time, including ironically Modi himself, his political seniors and colleagues and several other politicians and activists put in to fight the Emergency, the seeds were sowed for how to effectively control criticism and the press.
But I get ahead of myself. Ananth’s own journey details the various ways in which some newspaper owners succumbed, how the few editors who tried to resist were treated by these owners and how a small section of owners stood against. Many of these stories are legend within the community. It was Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express that stood out here for its resistance.
Interestingly, as Ananth delves into the founders of India’s biggest newspapers, you see how closely entwined politics and business always were in the newspaper industry. This underlines the fears of the early Nehru administration, in trying to find a way to create and nurture a truly free press in India.
You also learn just how the Indian judiciary played a role – positive and negative – in interpreting press freedoms. And how the media stringently questioned the judiciary.
After the Emergency was lifted and Indira Gandhi lost in 1977, the coalition Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai, with L.K. Advani as information and broadcasting minister lost no time in lifting all the censorship laws and press restrictions. The irony deepens.
One gem within this book is the revisit to the Shah Commission which revealed how newspapers were categorised during the Emergency: “positively friendly”, “continuously hostile”, C + and C- – shifting from neutral to positive and neutral to negative. Using today’s language, we see here a perfect toolkit for control and intimidation of the press.
With the lifting of the Emergency comes what was a sort of golden age for the press in India. The 1980s were a heady time, and journalists produced what are now considered classic investigations into criminality, fraud, corruption and social discrimination: The Antulay case, the rights of slum dwellers, the Fairfax investigation, the Bhagalpur blindings and, of course, Bofors. Arun Shourie, N. Ram, Chitra Subramanian, M.J. Akbar, Praful Bidwai, Neerja Chaudhury, Ashwini Sarin… these are the names that filled my own young ears as a student and in my early days in journalism.
Two other cases mentioned in the book are worth repeating: how the press came together against Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra’s ‘Bihar Press Bill’ and later P. Chidambaram’s defamation or press censorship Bill of 1988, during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership. In both cases, a joint press defeated government attempts to control Constitutional freedoms.
Ananth ends his book here. In his epilogue, he mentions recent changes – television, the contract system which replaced wage boards, how economic liberalisation lead to huge profits for newspaper owners and how information and communication technology changed the media forever.
He will not predict the future in a history book, he says. So we will take the liberty of explaining how current events in the media have taken their cue from the past. I have used the word irony a few times, because many of those who fought the Emergency now use the same methods to control the media today. The recent suggestions by a former journalist, as quoted in a Modi government report on how to influence and control press coverage, to colour-code journalists according to their leanings harks straight back to the Emergency. Many of the big names in journalism dropped their adversarial positions to become part of the BJP or open supporters of the BJP.
Ananth explains this most cogently. It was not just the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, he says. The tipping point was the Mandal commission report of 1990 – additional reservations for other backward castes in Central government jobs – where journalists and media owners alike revolted against its implementation. V.P. Singh’s decision to right a historical wrong even if it was for cynical electoral purposes, exposed exactly that fault line in Indian society which would change the media forever. It was a regressive India which found voice in the media “couched as speaking truth to power”.
We see the debris around us today.
This is not a light, easy read. It requires diligence and attention. But it should be essential reading matter for all journalists, current and aspiring.
Ranjona Banerji is an independent journalist who writes on media and politics. She tweets at @ranjona.