When fake news, alternative facts, trolling and vituperative abuse are now the new normal, public space is no longer for the faint-hearted.
Like politics, journalism is a calling and like politics got defiled by covetous, crooked politicians, journalism has also been debased by what Arun Shourie describes as “North Korean TV channels” and what I characterise as the ‘kept’ media.
However, like there are some good politicians still left who have the courage of their convictions, there are also some good journalists left who have conviction of courage to say and do the right thing, speak truth to power in the days of Modi, Trump, Erdoğan, Duterte and the rest. When fake news, alternative facts, trolling and vituperative abuse are now the new normal, public space is no longer for the faint-hearted.
It is here that Gauri Lankesh stood out as a beacon of hope, living a life of activism by the pen in a vernacular language that most of us, convent/ public School or even upwardly mobile government school types have shunned.
Like every politician in his heart of hearts knows that his end may be violent, so does every journalist. However, we comfort ourselves with the thought – it won’t be me. For that is how we go on. But the uncomfortable fact remains that your sheer presence may be inconvenient to an alternative viewpoint forget about your work that becomes an added irritant that provokes a physical response aimed at neutralising you and what you stand for.
Not being a stranger to the spectre of political violence, having experienced it first-hand fairly early in life, I do accept that politics, journalism and even activism carries certain risks in conflict areas. But what has unfolded in the past three years is a perilous and menacing trend where everybody who has the gumption of articulating a point of view not to the liking of the ‘powers that be’ is scorned, abused, vilified and then perhaps should also be prepared to meet the same fate as Gauri Lankesh did.
I am not a clairvoyant, but I had seen it coming. There is no difference between totalitarian, majoritarian, religio-chavunistic, Stalinist or even right reactionary tactics when it comes to intimidating and browbeating inconvenient opinions.
In November 2013, at the International Film Festival of India in Goa I had warned the assembled luminaries of the creative community: “Dark forces of right reaction and national subversion are waiting in the wings and therefore for the creative community, I would like to reiterate that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Do not delude ourselves into subscribing to the optimistic naïveté… that any compromise with the forces of darkness can buy us the peace of our times.”
Earlier on the occasion of the National Press day again in 2013, I had verbalised my trepidation in the following words: “If I were to liberate my thoughts from the seemingly vexed issues that bedevil the media remit and ask a very simple question as to what is the fundamental public interest of our times? The answer can perhaps be articulated in one simple sentence — upholding the constitutional values, which define the very idea of India. As we go about our everyday chores dark clouds of Fascism loom ominously over the horizon — a great evil stalks our land.
The first casualty of this spectre would be the constriction of liberal spaces, curtailment of creativity and circumscribing the right to challenge the conventional and think off the beaten path. History bears testimony to the harsh reality that evil has always triumphed when good men have chosen to keep quiet and do nothing. When the immediate has taken precedence over imperative! When, like Lord Neville Chamberlain, we have been naive enough to believe that compromising with the forces of Fascism, right reaction and national subversion can buy us the peace of our times. At such a crossroad, ladies and gentlemen, do we today stand!”
This prophecy has unfortunately come true because what we are witnessing is the battle for the second Republic of India. At the dawn of our bloodstained independence they were two competing visions: a liberal, inclusive and a permissive idea of India, the Nehruvian construct, and an alternative fundamentalist, obscurantist, bigoted notion that believes that India should have been a Hindu Pakistan. Fortunately, the former triumphed and flourished over the past 70 years. That is now being subverted.
Underpinned by the narrowest electoral base in the past 70 years for a majority government, aided and abetted by troll factories on social media, the RSS/BJP combine is seeking to redefine the fundamental basis of the Indian nation state. The paradigm is one nation, one religion, one tax and only one voice.
Gauri Lankesh was jarring, she worked for mainstreaming the Naxalites, was opposed to Right-wing politics, believed that Lingyats were a new religion and a myriad other such causes that was totally out of sync with the project for a New India.
Like many of us, she was still delusional about the fact that the people at the helm of the Indian state believe in the Constitution or its values, and therefore we can do as we wish. It is just not true any longer. For when the Prime Minister of India follows vile trolls it is not just endorsement, it is patronage.
What you will see unfold over the next 20 months is a battle for the very soul of India, and regrettably, there may be more Gauri Lankeshes in the days ahead.
Manish Tewari is a former Information and Broadcasting Minister, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. Twitter: @manishtewari