Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Girish Shahane: A film cancelled, a TV interview canned: Competitive nationalism is eroding free expression in India // Harish Khare: Liberals are caving in to conformist demands

As soon as I read that a previously obscure NGO was protesting the screening of a Pakistani film titled Jago Hua Savera at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, I knew the organisers would drop it from the schedule without a whimper. The festival is sponsored by Reliance Jio, never a firm associated with support of free expression, and one increasingly tied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda. A more worrying form of censorship occurred a little over a week earlier, when NDTV cancelled at the last minute a well-publicised interview with P Chidambaram, who was for years India’s finance minister and also served as home minister for a shorter period. The two incidents are not unrelated.

Around the time of the 2008 economic crisis, NDTV landed in a financial mess and sought a bailout. As this detailed analysis in Caravan makes clear, the final result was a loss of control to a white knight, whose identity was obscured by a fog of complex transactions, but who, the article alleges, was almost certainly Mukesh Ambani, chief of Reliance Jio.

It is still unclear why NDTV canned the interview, but external pressure seems the only explanation for the unprecedented act of killing a conversation with Chidambaram, who is not just a former minister but one of India’s foremost lawyers, extraordinarily cautious in his choice of words, ever careful not to overstep any legal bounds. The dropping of that interview felt like the beginning of India’s transition to a Putin-style democracy, where the broadcast media align in support of the ruling regime through a mix of genuine ideological sympathy, the quest for a higher viewership, and direct and indirect political machinations... read more:

Harish Khare: Liberals are caving in to conformist demands
In this moment of our greatest national satisfaction against Pakistan, we have paid that failing nation a flattering compliment: we have become a bit like Pakistan. We have become enamoured of the idea of intolerance and intimidation. And our liberals have abandoned their professed beliefs and practices. Instead, we have embraced illiberalism and its ugly demand for conformism. 

Just think. A former Home Minister of India has been bumped off by an English language news channel that all these years pretended to be a voice of liberalism, decency, debate and dissent. And who is this censored man? None other than P Chidambaram. He is not some country bumpkin. He is a sophisticate with a competent familiarity with matters of national security. He is not - has never been - a subversive. If there is anyone - probably other than Dr Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee - who is privy to the dark secrets of the Indian State, it is P. Chidambaram. As Finance Minister, thrice, he has been a cynosure of Corporate India; every business house had sought - and perhaps got - access to him. Everyone in the Bent and the Beautiful set, including the impresarios in the impugned media house, would give his left arm to be seen as whispering something in his ear. As Finance Minister, he probably helped “restructure” the outstanding debts of very many media houses. 

Let us make no mistake. Chidambaram is not a softie. He is not a woolly-headed liberal. He is not a closet Naxalite. Not by yards. As Home Minister, he was once accused by a fellow-member of the Cabinet Committee on Security of wanting to put in a place a "Gestapo." This man and his views are now considered a threat to some notion of national security. 

And, who has created this hysterical notion of national security? Surely not the Narendra Modi government. There is simply no evidence to suggest that the powers-that-be, in South Bloc or North Bloc, stepped in to ask NDTV to take the Chidambaram "drivel" off air. It must be presumed that the decision to censor the former Home Minister of India was made autonomously, inhouse, presumably by some fiercely autonomous editors. 

Perhaps, a simpler explanation can be that the channel and its lords and masters were caving in to the competition’s hysterical rave and rant in the wake of the “surgical strike.” May be, it lacked the requisite intellectual fortitude and self-belief to remain true to its professional habit of rhetorical moderation. May be, it thought that the national mood indeed had become ugly and that it must give in to the mob's passions. There can be many other reasons. Castigating NDTV may be necessary, but not sufficient. It is, perhaps, not even about embedded journalism. 

Beyond the personalities and the calculations at work in the NDTV-Chidambaram censorship affair, what we should indeed be mourning is the sudden death of liberalism. A few surgical strikes and, suddenly, all the self-proclaimed liberals walk out of the closet, proclaiming that their protestations and commitments to democratic dissent and dialogue were all a fake. And, they all show a zealous willingness to pray devoutly at the church of national security. 

This can only be a matter of profound regret and sorrow... read more