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November 3, 2017



When asked to bend, they choose to crawl

I have always been a news junkie. While everyone in my family has been a compulsive reader, I am not sure when I moved from reading children’s fiction and novels to newspapers and news magazines.        

When boys of my age were busy with cricket and other fun and games, I found myself spending a great deal of time in the neighbourhood library with Urdu and English newspapers and newsmagazines. In the evenings, I would listen to the BBC’s World Service with my father as he ceaselessly strolled in our cylindrical courtyard.         

I grew up reading Urdu fiction and poetry and studied English literature at university, perhaps because my father happened to be an accomplished poet and author. However, I consciously chose journalism as my profession, quitting a well-paid government job in the face of stiff opposition from my family.        

Of course, there had been this rather innocent or naïve belief in using the power of media for social change. More than anything else, though, it had been my sheer fascination for the business of news that kept me going for long years in the trenches of journalism.       

I loved what I did, for nearly two decades, often working late nights and even during the weekends and thoroughly enjoying it. Until of course I was shown the door by my newspaper in the Gulf, for which I had given my best years, because of my big mouth or inconvenient writings. Speaking truth to power often demands a heavy price.  

This forced exile from journalism has now extended into its sixth year although I continue to write, thank God, persisting with my weekly rants for what it is worth.      

I still miss journalism though, hopelessly and inexorably, even though I seldom work under pressure now, have more time at my disposal and mostly spend nights at home in my bed. Because what I did then was not just my job, it had been my life.          

Meanwhile, in a sign of the growing clout and reach of the forces that rule my country now, newspapers in the region have become increasingly wary of any criticism of the BJP government and its disastrous policies since taking office in 2014.

The situation back home is depressing and frustrating. The Indian media, once known for its fierce independence of spirit and strong social commitment, has undergone a sea change since I left the country 15 years ago. Much of it now acts and speaks like the PR agency of the government, dutifully lapping up and dispensing the official, sanitised version of the ‘truth’ and much else peddled by the government.

Commenting on the Indian media’s surrender during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency years, BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani had famously noted that when asked to bend, many had chosen to crawl! Today, it is even worse. Except for some noble exceptions like my former feisty paper   ‘Indian Express’,       which defied Indira’s censors by choosing to leave editorial space totally blank, much of the Indian media has quietly buried its professional ethics and integrity.

One wouldn’t mind it so much if it had been limited to a harmless parroting of the official line and occasional grovelling before the powers that be. What is really disturbing is the new low that the media has touched in its eagerness to embrace the jaundiced worldview and divisive narrative that have been the hallmark of this government led by Modi.    

Not only has the media disastrously failed in confronting the regime on the reign of terror that has been unleashed on the Muslims and other minorities in collusion with various Hindutva organisations and outfits, it has launched its own war on the vulnerable community.

If it had been just one English television news channel three years ago under our self-important friend Arnab Goswami that went on night after night fighting Pakistan and other phantoms like the non-existent Indian mujahideen or Isis, today it is just about everyone trying to be more jingoistic than others.  

Except for NDTV, the first independent English news channel pioneered by the soft-spoken Prannoy Roy, which has maintained its objectivity and still tries to speak truth to power in the face of great odds, nearly everyone has hopped on the Hindutva bandwagon.

As for the hundreds of Hindi and regional channels that have sprouted over the past few years, the less said the better. In the race for TRPs and in sync with the new dogma of the nation, each one of them has been trying to come up with more sensational and absurd fare – facts and truth be damned.        

Not surprisingly, many of these ‘special stories’ and ‘investigations’ target the voiceless and increasingly marginalised Indian Muslims, painting them as a community of terrorists, traitors, Pakistani spies, and serial polygamists.  

Sometimes, they shout their heads off suggesting that states like Kerala and Kashmir have been hijacked by Isis terrorists, although the Indian government keeps insisting that India’s Muslims have been unaffected by extremism because of the glorious secularism and pluralist Indian democracy. These days they have been going on and on about the “clear and present danger” posed by a harmless Muslim organisation called the Popular Front of India (PFI), which is known for its charitable activities and peace initiatives.  

The PFI has been accused of a million things – from working for Isis and preparing for jihad against India to presiding over the so-called love jihad in the southern Indian state of Kerala by converting gullible Hindu women to Islam. Clearly, a case is being built against the PFI, a la SIMI (the Students Islamic Organisation of India) which has been banned with scores of its activists and sympathisers rotting in prison for years.      

Then there is the bogey of Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’ and now Rohingya refugees flooding India’s north-eastern states, and worse, joining hands with Pakistan’s ISI and even Daesh.   

If it is not the fake news stories of Indian Muslim terrorists, cow killing and ‘love jihad’, then it is the grave threat that the nation ostensibly faces in the Muslim Personal Law and triple talaq. And if they get tired of it all, they go back to the comforting familiar of Pakistan bashing and its alleged harbouring of characters like Dawood Ibrahim.

Tune into any Indian TV and you are bound to plunge headlong into any or all of these mindboggling ‘debates’.          It is nerve-wracking stuff and hard to watch for more than five minutes even for a new fanatic like me. Which is perhaps why I have lately taken to watching wildlife channels full of blood and gore!

All this has been going on while there are real challenges and threats facing India – an alarming number of cases of lynchings and violence in the name of the cow and all that is holy, disappearing jobs and thousands of farmer suicides amidst the circus of demonetisation and GST. Yet the media manages to find time and space for pressing issues that do not even exist.

I joined journalism believing that it is the best possible way to strive for justice and a fairer world. The media is supposed to be a friend of the underdog and the voice of the voiceless. We are supposed to take up the cudgel for the oppressed and vulnerable and stand up for those who cannot do it themselves. Since when have we joined the side of the oppressor?

The writer is an award-winning journalist.