Journalists, writers and cartoonists have been at the receiving end of trolls and violence for speaking out against the State, in an age where reasoned discourse is virtually non-existent. This isn’t a battle that will end soon.
On May 17, 2011, Tarakant Dwivedi, a crime reporter working for the city tabloid Mid-Day, was arrested by the Government Railway Police under the Official Secrets Act. It was for a story he wrote for his previous newspaper in which he exposed how arms and ammunition acquired after the 26/11 terror attack were lying in a leaky storage area at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and how that could have compromised the weapons, making them unusable in an emergency.
The Official Secrets Act is a draconian piece of legislation meant to be invoked for an act of treason, including spying for an enemy country. It was clear that Mr. Dwivedi was merely doing his duty as a journalist to highlight the rot in the system, and how, even after 164 deaths in a terror siege that lasted three days, the State had not taken the matter of security seriously. But instead of the state thanking him for writing an important story that impacted millions of lives, he was charged with criminal trespass and sent to prison. It took a fierce legal battle involving some of the city’s senior lawyers to get him out of jail, where his company for the night were cockroaches and vermin.
Journalists marched in peace to the then home minister R.R. Patil’s office to impress upon him how the case was manufactured to keep a free press under control. The minister did not withdraw the case; instead, he asked the newspaper and the journalists to take the legal route. The lower court, rightfully, quashed the case, and the government, realising it was a lost battle, did not pursue the matter in a higher court.
The question then, as it is now, is not just why a police inspector invoked an anti-treason Act to imprison a journalist, but also why the entire State government machinery, led by the home minister, sat mute in what was a clear case of overreach. After all, some of the State’s most senior police officers were present at the meeting between journalists and the home minister, and could have easily advised him to exercise restraint to uphold the fundamental principles of democracy.
Though Mumbai has prided itself on being a welcoming place for free spirits of all persuasions, it has historically been a battleground for free speech. There was a time when journalists, artists, filmmakers, writers, and cartoonists won in the skirmishes, and were looked up to for their victories. Blitz, a fiery weekly tabloid owned and edited by R.K. Karanjia, frequently took on the high and mighty, and won. His favourite targets of ire were the Congress party, corporations, a corrupt bureaucracy, and the underworld. Mr. Karanjia, who established the newspaper with two other journalists in 1941, ran the enterprise for four decades, and was applauded for his courage and resilience in the face of danger.
‘Art succeeds because it is non-confrontational’
That was not the case with another journalist, Nikhil Wagle, whose newsrooms have been ransacked on several occasions by leading political parties such as Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party.
In 2012, in September, Aseem Trivedi was arrested under the sedition law in Mumbai. Best known for his ‘Cartoons Against Corruption’ campaign, Mr. Trivedi was arrested and jailed for the cartoons he displayed at the MMRDA Ground during the India Against Corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare. A nationwide agitation followed, leading to a debate in Parliament. Soon, the Maharashtra government withdrew the sedition circular under which Mr Trivedi was arrested.
It seems hard to believe that this is the same country where Jawaharlal Nehru once told a cartoonist who regularly lampooned him, “Don’t spare me, Shankar.” (It is another matter that it is under the same Mr. Nehru that ‘reasonable restrictions’ were placed on free speech in the first amendment to the Consitution.)
The trouble with the phrase ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’ is that, on almost every occasion its definition is restricted to what we speak or write. In a manner of speaking this is correct, but the larger more significant impact is on our way of life.
In the simplest terms, free expression is the liberty to express your thoughts in a public or private forum without fearing for your safety or the safety of your loved ones. (It does not mean that anyone must agree with you. After all ideas can be countered with other ideas, with debate to convince one another or reach a middle ground.) It is the duty of the State to protect its citizens at all costs; indeed, it is the first duty of any democratic government. It is in this duty that governments have consistently failed. Not just that, governments have either remained mute spectators to — in effect abetting — violent expressions of dissent by self-righteous rampaging ‘activists’ or worse, governments themselves have targeted dissenters.
For example, in 2005, Mid-Day’s offices were ransacked by workers of the Congress party for a story that called the then chief minister ‘silly’ for redirecting relief material to areas not affected by the July 26 cloudburst. The State did not do much to protect the journalists who had questioned the CM for his administration’s bungling.
More recently, in 2012, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, two young women from Palghar district on the outskirts of Mumbai, were arrested for writing a Facebook post following the death of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Their crime? Asking why the entire State should be shut down following the death of one person. Once again, it took a nationwide agitation and international ridicule for the State to withdraw the case against them.
In recent years, artists have had shows vandalised or cancelled, filmmakers have had to bow to communities vociferously ‘offended’ by movie scripts or to a Central Board of Film Certification’s readiness to be offended on their behalf, writers’ books have been burned or banned; so much so that an environment of self-censorship gets created. As a consequence, there is no public discourse without threats, there is no argument without the fear of being physically assaulted or mentally broken on social media, and the State continues in its ways without an active watchdog.
In the social media era, the looming threat of physical assault is supplemented with what is nothing less than mental torture. Armies of ‘trolls,’ both affiliated and unaffiliated to political parties, have made it their mission to break down people who have views that oppose theirs. Women face rape threats, journalists face death threats, film personalities are routinely targeted and stand-up comics have imposed a sort of self-censorship on making jokes about the government. It is not just about fear, but the fear of fear itself.
It need not even be fear. In a with-us-or-against-us world where being critical of, say, the Prime Minister’s choice of pocket square is seen as being anti-national, anti-Hindu, anti-sanskar, and automatically pro his political opponents — never mind that you have been scornful of the opponents’ sartorial choices too — there is no room for nuance, for reasoned argument, for thoughtful debate. It is a toxic, hate-filled world which some of us have chosen to leave, or to at least engage in far less because it is depressing. (Disclosure: this writer is one of them.) Perhaps that is the point then, to shut down discourse. The late great Behram Contractor, writing about the Emergency, said that the only safe topics left were cricket and mangoes. On Twitter today, only mangoes can be discussed with good humour. Maybe.
In both the new-age battlefield and the traditional, Mumbai seems to be losing. But, to be honest, Mumbai is not alone. Journalists across the country, especially those in the regional language media operating from small towns where rule of law is a misnomer, have been targeted for exposing politicians, self-styled godmen, oil pilferage scams, road scams, just about anything you can think of. In the most recent news cycle, we have heard of how the editor who first exposed the rape convict Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was killed. Not surprisingly, in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, India ranks an alarming 136th, down three places from 2016 and back to the same rank it was in 2015.
Those of us who are journalists in the traditional sense know that our job is to report facts. C.P. Scott, the former editor of the UK newspaper The Guardian, once wrote, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” To be targeted for bringing facts to light erodes the strength of free press.
There is no way to win this battle but to fight back without fear. Freedom of expression is one of the pillars upon which the edifice of democracy stands. Demolish this pillar, and the edifice crumbles along with other institutions. And no authoritarian government would want this pillar to be a strong one. Naturally, this conflict is a continuous one and it won’t end anytime soon.