Ravish Kumar’s Ramon Magsaysay Award speech left me at once proud and troubled. Proud, not because a desi had won a global award (honestly, I don’t put much premium on these awards, even if the Magsaysay Foundation has managed an honourable record so far), but because of the kind of desi Ravish is. Troubled not just by what he said but what was left unsaid.
Ravish Kumar’s journalism is a testament to the travails of truth in our times. He inspires you to believe that truth matters. He also invites you to ask: does truth have to be so lonely? So risky? And so loud?
As he spoke about ‘knowledge inequality’ faced by smaller towns and villages, my mind raced back to 1994-95. I had just moved from Chandigarh to Delhi and was living in a rented flat in the Delhi University area. That is where I met a bunch of bright and passionate students – mostly undergraduate and from Bihar, all of them from small towns and villages – who wanted to launch a serious Hindi journal, ‘an EPW in Hindi’ as some of them called it. Ravish Kumar, that lanky, sharp boy, was one of them.
The group met often at my flat and we had endless debates about the state of Hindi, the state of our public life and the state of our English-speaking intellectuals. We did not call it ‘knowledge inequality’ but a strong sense of being at the receiving end of a linguistic and cultural divide brought the group together. These were all what Delhi would call ‘Hindi medium-type’ students. So was I, except that I was a bit senior and was beginning to get noticed in the charmed English circles. Eventually the magazine, Deshkal, did come out and I wrote for its inaugural issue. But like many such experiments, it died in infancy.
Life kept connecting me with Ravish, though never very intimately. I got to see him graduate, struggle against all odds, from a researcher to a reporter and then to an anchor. We kept in touch, and so did our wives (both academics at Delhi University) and children (all in the same school) – enough for us to call ourselves friends, but never close enough for this to affect our professional relationship. We don’t have a television at home, so I cannot claim to be one of his loyal viewers, but I did follow what he was doing on and to television, something that was well-captured in the award citation.
I recalled all this as I watched him standing tall, literally, speaking English with just that touch of unease. I felt Hindi was standing tall. I thought of Rajendra Mathur, Raghuvir Sahay and Prabhash Joshi who shaped Hindi journalism post-Independence. And I thought of Surendra Pratap Singh, or “SP”, who started Aaj Tak as a 20-minute bulletin on Doordarshan and pioneered independent Hindi news television. (He had special affection for me and was singularly responsible for dragging me to the world of television, before he passed away in 1997). His passion in life was to make Hindi ‘first rate’, not a poor cousin of English media as it was then. Almost the entire first generation of top TV journalists in Hindi came from the team that SP had recruited for Aaj Tak. Ravish Kumar was not one of them. But I could almost hear SP turn to me with a glint in his eyes: “Motihari ka ladka hai” (the boy is from Motihari)!
Substance trumps form
As the award ceremony played some of the clips from his television programmes, it also affirmed something else that SP passionately believed in: substance trumps form. Ravish’s popularity is a living proof of that. When I first encountered the long monologue that he uses to open Prime Time, I feared for him. A single talking head on the screen for more than a few seconds violated the elementary rules of television grammar. I could not have been more wrong. The viewers loved that 3-5-minute long introduction, filled with facts and figures, straight-faced irony and sarcasm, and jibes at powers-that-be. The success of Ravish’s show proves that good substance does not copy a readymade template, it evolves its own form.
As Ravish thanked millions of his viewers, I could see those faces. Frankly, I do not know what is the TRP of Prime Time and I do not care. I do know that whenever I travel outside Delhi and interact with idealist youth, aspiring journalists or activists working on the ground, they hero-worship Ravish in a way that would frighten him.
“Sir, he is one man who has the guts to speak the truth” is the most common refrain. I know this is very unfair to many other journalists in Hindi and all other languages who are equally courageous and truthful, who do not have the kind of platform and organisational backing that he enjoys at NDTV. And I am glad Ravish said as much in his speech. Still Ravish Kumar’s cult status assures us that there is nothing called a post-truth age (distinct from post-truth media and post-truth politics that do exist), that there is hunger for truth.
Darkness in India media
Yet my pride and hope were not unmixed. When Ravish said “a democracy can thrive only as long as its news is truthful”, everyone knew it was an indictment of our democracy. This year India has slipped from 138th to 140th position (out of 180 countries) in the Global Index of Press Freedom. It is not just about reporting from Kashmir, which he did mention. It is all over: Just the week before, an FIR was lodged against a journalist for reporting a truth about mid-day meals in schools. Ravish used the occasion to highlight the plight of “uncompromising journalists” who “find themselves being forced out of their jobs by news organisations”.
The last 10 days have seen a spate of exits: Ajit Anjum and Smita Sharma left TV9 Bhartvarsh, Faye DSouza stepped down from her position at Mirror Now and Nitin Sethi has left Business Standard. No one has blamed the owners or the government for easing them out. But the message is loud and ominous. As we celebrate Ravish for being the bright spark of integrity that he is, are we not commenting on the darkness that surrounds him in the Indian media today?
I could not help but notice that Ravish has greyed before time. The pettiness that he faced from some of his fellow professionals in the wake of the announcement of the award is nothing compared to the systematic trolling, abuse and threats that he has been subjected to all these years. I wondered if all this has started getting to him and taken its toll.
And then came the final somber note: “Not all battles are fought for victory – some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield”. Does that explain what I notice in Ravish of late: a touch of despair, just that extra sharp tone? I should ask him.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.