Note: This article was originally published on February 28, 2019, and is being republished in the light of journalist Ravish Kumar winning the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award.
The following is an English translation of a speech by journalist Ravish Kumar, given at the latest iteration of The Wire Dialogues, held in New Delhi on February 24:
What was once considered unacceptable and unethical in the public domain has been made entirely acceptable and ethical by the mainstream media in the last five years. 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.
To be vulgar and immoderate is no longer wrong – be it on the street or in the studios of news channels. This is not the work of one odd channel or anchor; hundreds of them are at it all the time. Sure, you are free to single one out as the leader of the pack – what I want to say is that they have all been flag-bearers of decline, glorifying falling standards.
This transformation has been made possible by the complete fusion of the mainstream media and politics. In the process, the media has recognised the political supporter as the only kind of viewer there can be. Since the consumers and supporters of this media are adherents of a particular ideology and political party, the dividing line between viewer and party supporter has been erased. It is by ending the sheer diversity of information in news that this section of political supporters as viewers has been created. I think of them as the informationless horde, which has grown quite big. For that reason, I take it seriously, refraining from making fun of its follies. When ignorance takes the place of learning, it is no laughing matter.
Periodically, this horde is tested for its singular lack of information. For instance, following the Pulwama incident, the debate was not on the prime minister’s silence but on why Sachin Tendulkar had not spoken out! We have made the cardinal mistake of presuming that the expansion of communication media implies the expansion of information. But that is not so. The sharp erasure of the diversity of issues is what leads to a deprivation of information – a state of informationlessness. And that is what has happened across a proliferating mainstream media.
The ‘national curriculum’ project that mainstream news channels have been running for five years now has been crystal clear about its intent from day one: to snuff out the engaged viewer within you (who asks questions). Only then would the process of seizing democracy without killing it be complete. It is quite another matter that blood has flowed on the streets in the process – the crowd did not spare anyone, be it Subodh Kumar Singh or Akhlaq. That is the kind of impact the national curriculum launched by the present-day dispensation has had. I believe this project has succeeded, overwhelming our democracy and our consciousness of being citizens, of being the people.
The mainstream media launched its national curriculum as soon as the Modi government came to power in 2014. At its core was the idea of ensuring a continual process of Hindu-Muslim divide. For that, it was necessary to create a growing sense of division among citizens. So, the media has been trying to break the people’s very awareness of the idea of citizenship. Since information and questioning are the basis of citizenship, the possibility of either has been severely curtailed. Our mainstream media does not question the government; on the contrary, it interrogates the people on behalf of the government! The political line emerging from these channels in the wake of the Pulwama blast has shown that clearly.
Enemies are being manufactured from within the ranks of citizens. To that end, a sentiment of ‘Hindu frustration’ and ‘Muslim frustration’ – armed with half-baked information – has been generated within all of us. The frustration was there earlier too, but has been magnified several times over and ‘installed’ in the media. For that reason, today’s mainstream media is not the people’s media – it is a media for Hindus. To be more accurate, it speaks for those playing politics in the name of Hindu religion, those professing Hindutva. Five years ago, who would have thought that this Hindutva media would occupy almost 90 % of the mainstream media space! Yet it has happened so.
The mainstream media, in its new Hindutva guise, is certainly not going to confront the dispensation or the establishment. On the contrary, it is their defender, for they too are of the same persuasion.
This is not to say that citizens did not perceive themselves as Hindus earlier. But that understanding has been replaced by a new perception of being Hindu – one who is shorn of courage and running scared of the people standing alongside him. One who looks at the person next to him with suspicion, seeing in him a Hindu who is anti-Hindu. And, by extension, anti-national.
It is for the first time that I am seeing a Hindu who is fearful of other Hindus. Put it down to the contribution of the present-day mainstream media. Its conduct goes completely against those Hindu conventions which are claimed to be superior and are constantly lauded. The Gita may say that anger destroys our powers of discrimination, but our news anchor who takes its name continues to rave and rant in the same breath, speaking only in anger.
The mainstream news media and the social media have forged a new kind of bhakt. Or maybe this new kind of bhakt has helped the media become what it is today. I feel that every citizen ought to be a Kabir or Ravidas – that is, be able to challenge the everyday practices of established religion or the government of the day. Without the example of Guru Ravidas, we would not have been able to comprehend what the purity of mind and heart is all about. A dip in the Ganga would have been the only way to prove one’s faith, and Tendulkar would have had to go to some news channel to prove his patriotism. Today’s mainstream media is against all Indian traditions. What it seeks to do, and has done, is fashion a bhakt who is completely bereft of information. One who is informationless is loveless as well.
This is the baseline of our democratic system now. Its very basis has changed; so too its reference point. If you ask a question, you will be accused of being the following in that order – a Congress agent, a Naxal, urban Naxal, an opponent of Hindu unity, a supporter of Muslims, and, finally, an opponent of Modi, which is where the accusations come to rest. In reality, this final point of offensive defence – why do you oppose Modi? – happens to be the starting point for the end of our democratic system.
To forge a feeling of ‘Hindu frustration’, the media played up a fear of Muslims – in fact, the entire project of building Hindu anger has been centred on this idea. It is worth noting that the project ended up having the same impact on Muslims as it did on Hindus. Just as the Hindus stopped asking questions of the government, the Muslims, out of fear, did the same. In fact, the latter have not just stopped asking questions, they have been abandoning their political right of representation as well in a bid to stem further polarisation in society – they are withdrawing from public and political spaces. Political parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also been affected by this build-up of fear – they too have withdrawn from asking questions on these issues for fear of losing out.
I see before me a craven India where everybody is putting their respective fears forward. It is imperative that we regain our consciousness of being citizens or else we stand to lose the India we attained after a century of struggle. Both Hindus and Muslims need to liberate themselves from fear. For that, they will have to free themselves of the mainstream media.
If one studies the speeches of politicians, the angry demeanour of news anchors, the slogans gracing TV screens and the language of WhatsApp messages, a certain mental complex becomes apparent. A Tendulkar whose language does not reflect that complex can be an anti-national; so too lieutenant-general Syed Ata Hasnain. Today’s mainstream media has shown that stupidity, vulgarity and immoderation can provide a revenue model for good business.
It is not that this process is not being challenged. Members of the public are posing questions to the government through YouTube. A new kind of media is emerging, such as The Wire, Scroll, The Caravan. Then there are newspapers like The Telegraph. We too have been making an effort. The numbers of those who understand what the media ought to be are on the rise. Intrepid female journalists who are fighting the system also provide hope. In terms of the scale of what they are up against, all these efforts are small. But I have faith that these signs of hope will grow with time.
For now, what can be said is that our present-day mainstream media is no longer the fourth estate of democracy, it is the first estate of a political party. Thanks are due to the BJP and Modi ji for bestowing such a spineless mainstream media on India. Really, Modi ji, I am tempted to ask: from where have you got the temperament of a fakir? Only an unworldly fakir can give his blessings to a media such as this.
I often wonder what the prime minister feels when he sees himself on news channels broadcasting their pure devotion to him 24/7. But then he is a fakir. Why should a fakir bother himself with all this?
Ravish Kumar is an anchor with NDTV India
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan