Wednesday, June 28, 2017
   
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India's disappearing freedom of expression

Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and a historian who has authored numerous books on Indian History and random societal matters, recently enumerated eight reasons why Indians cannot speak freely. He says India is a 50-50 democracy. It is democratic only in a few respects and it is not so in many other respects. He says the country is free in respect of conduct of free and fair elections and movement within the country. It is, however, only partly democratic in other ways. “The democratic deficit” that largely occurs is in the area of freedom of expression.

According to him, there are eight ways freedom of expression is being threatened. Analysing the whole gamut of connected issues, Guha cites retention of archaic British-era laws, a faulty judicial system where the lower courts, particularly, are too eager to entertain petitions seeking ban on individual films, books and a variety of works of art, the rise of identity politics, especially of the regional kind, behavior of the police force which generally sides with the “goondas”, pusillanimity of the ruling class in decision making, particularly when votes are at stake and dependence of the media on the government for advertisements as some of the ways in which freedom of expression has been brought under threat, even curtailed.

Guha’s analysis is unexceptionable. I have purposely not dilated on all the ways that he thinks freedom of expression is being denied in the following paragraphs only to keep this discourse short. I, however, wish to write about the last one as it has hit me, and I am sure many others, at a personal level. I find myself in tune with the last one as I have experienced the denial of my right of expressing my views on local and other wider issues.

I am a casual writer and took to writing after retirement from the Government of India. To start with, the lack of civic amenities in Bhopal provoked me to write letters to the editor of the Central Chronicle, then the only English language newspaper in Bhopal with substantial local content but with limited circulation. In those early days I had no computer and I used to bang away on my portable typewriter the deficiencies in performance of the civic body. Twenty years ago the public bodies and other utilities were far more inept than they are today and there was much to write about. Most of the times the letters would not have any effect but some would go home and yield some results. That itself gave a great deal of satisfaction.

The postal system was reasonably good in those days and my letters to the Central Chronicle on local issues would get published within two or three days. The ones that I used to send on wider issues to The Statesman in Calcutta would take five or six days to be published if the newspaper’s editor, the venerable Mr. CR Irani, happened to put his seal of approval on it. I was gratified to see that some of my letters would occasionally lead the letters column on the Centre Page of the Statesman. That was a huge matter for me, and I would indulge in some slapping of my own back. The electronic media had till then not made the kind of inroads in the area of journalism as it has done now. The Statesman was then in a healthy state and used to be published from New Delhi and Calcutta and its Centre Page occasionally used to carry letters of readers in two whole columns

Soon the Hindustan Times came to town. And, perhaps, simultaneously, I acquired a desktop that made writing far easier. The newspaper had a four page city supplement which used to cover political, social news as also news from the world of fine arts and sports. Its editor, Askari Zaidi was a fantastic journalist who had a different kind of take on journalism.  He once happened to tell me that he thought that the newspaper and the city would gain and become richer if the local thinking people were given a platform. And he did that and, as far as I am concerned, there was never an occasion when my piece did not find the light of day in the Supplement.

He, therefore, published articles from Late Mahesh Buch, Kripal Dhillon, former DG Police who was hugely concerned about the deteriorating quality of life in the city, Prof. Zamiruddin Ahmed who has a flair for writing in English as well as Urdu, RJ Khurana, retired chief of Joint Intelligence Committee of Government of India and so on. I too joined them and my first article entitled “The Dying Lake”, a hard copy of which I left at Zaidi’s office, was promptly published. I had written the piece as somehow the Lake appeared to me to be degrading and decaying. Mr. Zaidi published it with photographs and all. It was an out and out criticism of the way the Upper Lake, a great asset of the city, was being managed.

My honeymoon with the Hindustan Times continued for more than five years till, sadly, Mr. Zaidi had to leave. Since then the editorial policy changed and the newspaper would not publish unsolicited articles. Even the Times of India, which later started publishing from the town, adopted the same policy. At that time it was not clear whether this posture of the newspapers was adopted of their own accord or the management received directions from the local government. Now, however, it seems the print media is under threat of losing government advertisements were it ever to publish comments and opinion pieces that happen to be against the government.

So we, all of us who happen to have opinions of our own and can ventilate them in our writings were effectively gagged. For some time I was terribly annoyed and peeved but could do nothing about it. People who used to read my columns would ask why I discontinued writing. I could only shrug my shoulders and say that my lips were effectively sealed. Sadly, the healthy Bhopal supplement that Hindustan Times used to bring out was scrapped and in its place what they came out with was nothing better than a rag. The same goes for the supplement of the Times of India which goes by the name of Bhopal Live – having more of Bollyood news than of Bhopal.

Print media, whether managed by corporate world or run on their own juice, are financially very vulnerable. While private sector ads seem to be running riot these days yet most of the papers hugely depend on government advertisements. Government is, therefore, a great beneficent for the promoters of print media. Scarce is a newspaper that cares little for the government ads. The net result is that a reader has no way to have his opinion published. Most people would have noticed that even the column of “letters to the editor” has been scrapped.  What has been provided is space for a measly few words through what they call “feedback”. So, even if on an issue one boils within with rage or gnashes one’s teeth one cannot communicate it to the people through opinion pieces or letters to the editor

Guha very rightly says that the dependence of media on government advertisements is especially “acute in the regional and sub-regional press. The state and political parties can and do coerce, suppress and put barriers in the way of independent reporters and reportage.” Quite logically, therefore, the guillotine fell on us and we were all gagged, our freedom of expression flying out of the window.

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