When critics become enemies of the State, how far will Indian democracy go?

Samarjit Kambam *

Is the Indian democracy weird? No. It's the ruling government at the centre that's weird.

Even though it contains some draconian Acts such as AFSA 1958, our Indian Constitution has in its store some of the beautiful democratic norms of democracy such as right to freedom of expression, right to life, right to liberty, fraternity etc. Of late, the ruling government had made a farce of Indian democracy by throttling the democratic norms of Freedom of Expression.

The Editors' Guild of India is strongly condemning the ruling government for going against this very freedom of expression by scuttling various media houses that come up with news reports, commentor's criticisms that give a blow to the ruling government even though such news reports, comments or criticisms are absolutely true.

Critics come in many forms. There are movie review critics, songs critics, books critics, automobile critics, food safety critics, media critics and even critics of critics. The Opposition is also a form of critic of the system of governance. Many are of the opinion that critics are fault finders. Well, nobody is perfect and no system is fool proof. This is where the requirement of critics come into play. Forget India, there are critics in almost all domains and facets of life throughout the world.

When it comes to manufactured items be it packaged eatables, wine, machineries and other appliances, critics play a great role in giving awareness to the public about the pros and cons of such manufactured items thereby prodding the manufacturers to come up with better products.

Same applies to the system also. Criticism, especially constructive and mature criticisms from the side of the Opposition plays a titanic role in stopping the ruling government from getting dishevelled and going the lopsided way at its whims and fancy. It is totally wrong and unfair to treat critics as enemies of the state.

A healthy democracy needs critics. If a democratic nation cannot tolerate criticism, then the system is tantamount to dictatorship rule. There is not an iota of doubt that advanced countries favour critics and criticisms so that they can learn from their mistakes and go the perfectionist way. There are even awards for 'Best Critic' in their particular arena.

With next Assembly Election in 2019, the union government under Hon'ble Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi has initiated an all-out war against media houses by manipulating news in his favour and pressuring the fouth estate not to criticise the ruling government which is totally against the norms of a democratic country.

It is tantamount to unleashing a reign of terror to the media houses as well as dictatorship imposed on the fourth pillar of the nation. The irony is that criticisms are taken as allegations by the ruling government. That is the worst case scenario tainting the image of India's democracy.

The ruling government yearns for accolades only, not criticisms. But a healthy democracy needs criticisms in almost every facets of governance. Criticism is sort of an eye-opener. In September last year, Bobby Ghosh resigned as Editor of Hindustan Times and was subsequently murdered by a fanatic with links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha.

Many incidents of murder of editors and journalists of media houses had taken place in the past also and most cases of investigations into such murders are kept in the cold storage or become 'cold and old' cases or cases considered 'closed'.

The ironic status quo is that whenever a journalist persists in coming up with criticisms however constructive, against the ruling government's governance, the heat is turned on by the ruling government by boycotting the particular journalist/media house/channel followed by withdrawal of advertising and giving threats to undermine revenue-generating events as well as refusal to grant interviews of the leaders of the nation by party men which is so apparent like the sun in a clear blue sky.

Such draconian acts from the part of the ruling government go divergent to the path of a democratic norm. Moreover, to bring news items to the union government's favour, an ecosystem in the fourth media has been created wherein Photoshopped pictures, morphed videos, a WhatsApp rumour mill, online trolls and fake news websites have created a distrust of the professional media in Indian society.

Compounding the situation is the systematic manner in which the ruling government at the centre has gone about trying to discredit the professional media. The party media machine has focused its energies not merely on building up Narendra Modi but on pulling down anyone who criticises him. Anyone who criticises him is considered an anti-national.

Such unwanted developments hit hard to unbiased media houses which follow the true ethics of journalism. It has injected a vast quantity of venom into Indian society and fed a distrust of the professional media by trying to erase the distinction between what is fake news and what is not.

Earlier this year, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry took steps that signalled a government plan to officially legitimise this confusion and distrust. The ministry issued an order stating that print and television journalists found guilty of publishing fake news would lose their accreditation especially to those journalists where government security clearances were given which grants them access to government offices and most importantly to Parliament.

The massive fake news ecosystem has no need for government accreditation because it is not actually in the business of reporting news, so the move was clearly aimed at professional journalists. The media houses and journalists found themselves between the hammer and the anvil and thus the order was hastily withdrawn following a media outcry.

It was impossible to put a positive spin on what was really just an open threat to the media. The prime minister's office quickly distanced itself from it saying the ministry had acted alone. Is the Information and Broadcasting Ministry above the Prime Minister's Office? So weird.

Among the reasons Ghosh had to go, it is reported, was that the government was irked by Hindustan Times' "Hate Tracker", an online feature that listed reports of hate crimes across India. Since Modi came to power in 2014, there has been a significant increase in number of hate crimes in large part such as targeted attacks on Muslims and Dalits by cow vigilantes.

The irony is that Modi has said very little about such violence. His cabinet colleagues and party legislators have defended murders of innocent Muslims by cow vigilantes and he has failed to check them. The Union government has at other times said "law and order" is a state subject and the Centre has no role to play in such incidents of violence. The majority of reported cases have been in states ruled by the very party of the ruling government.

Even harmless popular bollywood fictions are not spared. One mention may be made of "Fanney Khan", a simple film about a cab driver and his dreams featuring a song "merey achche din kab aayengey?(When will my good days come?). It was a sarcastic take on Prime Minister Modi's 2014 electoral slogan of delivering "Achche din" (Good days) for all Indians. Within 10 days, the film-makers were forced by the ruling government to change the song to "Mere achche din ab aaye re" (My good days have come!).

Over and above, three journalists of ABP News were forced to quit. The reason? Criticism of government propaganda. The ruling government at the centre should disengage itself from imposing dictatorship on the fourth pillar of the nation to protect the sanctity of India's democracy.

* Samarjit Kambam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at kambamsamarjit0(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on 24 August, 2018 .

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