Democracy without a free media is a shrine without the Holy Book — a Gurdwara without Shri Guru Granth Sahib, a Temple without the Gita or the Hanuman Chalisa, a Church without the Bible and a Mosque without the Qur’an.
And yet, media has no holy men or prophets. The devotee himself or herself is the only God known to the religion of the press. The reader is the editor, for it is his or her absolute insistence on knowing the truth that decides what a newspaper or a journal publishes. The only censor which is legitimate to the creed called the media is the refusal of the reader to accept lies or even half truths.
The important thing to understand is that when the press is fighting for its freedom, it is not fighting only for its freedom to tell but also for the freedom of the people to know. Therefore, ideally, every fight that the press wages for freedom of ideas and their expression is in fact a fight for people’s freedom.
Democracy without a media that is free and fearless is like an army fighting without its greatest weapon. But freedom, even of the press, has no meaning without the courage to use that freedom. Courage, therefore, is the core of the freedom to speak the truth.
My own experience with the media in general and mainstream journalists in particular is that what the government can control in the media is not even worth controlling, and what is worth controlling is always beyond the suggestion of being ‘persuaded”, forget about being controlled.
Media can never be controlled or ‘managed’. This is because the moment you control the media, it no longer remains the media. The very act of being controlled or having been managed turns the media into pamphleteering. It is cheaper for any government to print its pamphlets disguised as newspapers or journals than to try and win over the media. Quite simply, media that has been controlled or managed does not qualify to be called the media.
Ironically, all governments have in them people who are intelligent enough to understand the futility of trying to win over the media, and yet all governments believe that they can and they must keep the media under control. The interesting thing here is that expecting the governments to ensure freedom of the press is like expecting termite to protect wood against decay. No matter what the rule book says, in a democracy the responsibility for ensuring the freedom of the press rests with the Press itself.
These are some basic tenets of a free press and its relevance in a thriving democracy. When the country got independence in 1947, freedom of speech emerged as the most notable symbol of that independence. That freedom was not a goal in itself but a means to some other goals which the country considered crucial at that stage. Among the most important of those goals were economic equality and riddance of the people from dark superstitions that found powerful expression through social evils such as caste system and gender inequality.
In the early years of her freedom, India was fortunate to have leaders who understood that a democratic country means essentially a free society, freedom of speech being the most important condition for that freedom to be meaningful. A society and a country that frowned upon freedom of speech would be seriously paralyzed in its quest for helping its citizens to realize their full potential as individuals. No one symbolized that spirit better than Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru did. It’s quite a paradox that democracy found its greatest champion and hero in Nehru who was known to have a strong autocratic streak in the intellectual and emotional fabric of his personality. It is a tribute to his commitment to democratic impulse that he kept his autocratic streak under a thick veil, if not under check all the time.
And what an irony that democracy in India was to face its first and so far its biggest challenge from Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.
If we want to understand the challenges being posed to the freedom of the press today, we must grasp details of what happened in the country just before and during the internal Emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi. Even in this darkest chapter of Indian democracy, there were positive signals that helped people’s faith in the democratic functioning of our system from collapsing altogether. It’s important to remember that even after the imposition of Emergency and suspension of all fundamental rights and civil liberties, Indira remained at worst a reluctant dictator. She went to considerable lengths to tell people that the Emergency was strictly a fleeting phase, a temporary solution to a temporary problem, and that a return to democracy was only a matter of time.
Indira could have but didn’t succumb to the ‘friendly advice and pressures’ from within the party to change the form of Indian democracy from parliamentary to presidential form of government. She repeatedly emphasized that India was and will always remain a parliamentary democracy and the imposition of internal Emergency was a painful decision for her and it was one that she was keen to revoke at the first opportunity available.
In fact, to her credit, she herself chose to lift the Emergency even though almost the entire Opposition in the country, with exception of the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, silently acquiesced in it. The Akalis were the only political people to launch a full scale agitation from the precincts of Sri Akal Takhat Sahib in the Golden Temple, Amritsar.
Almost 10,000 Akali workers courted arrest during the Emergency to protest the assault on democracy and freedom of the press. All other opposition leaders were either behind bars or went underground.
Mrs Gandhi was as good as her word in lifting the Emergency in less than two years – 21 months to be precise — and announce the resumption of democratic processes with a General Election to follow in March 1977. Documents that have surfaced over the past few years indicate that Indira Gandhi had planned to impose the Emergency only temporarily for some time till the violence that was erupting in the country had subsided.
In the elections that followed, Mrs Gandhi herself lost her seat to the socialist maverick Raj Narain. As election results poured in, the entire opposition was readying to go into a hiding, fearing another round of Emergency and reprisals by Mrs Gandhi. They simply could not believe that Mrs Gandhi would bow before the popular verdict and resign gracefully, paving the way for the formation of the first non-Congress government at the Centre. This was the first time since Independence that power was changing hands at the Centre. Mrs. Gandhi ensured that the transition was as peaceful, smooth and dignified as it should be in a mature democracy.
Censorship of the media had already been lifted by Mrs Gandhi herself, reiterating her faith in the freedom of the press as vital for the success of democracy in India. In one of her speeches, she said that elections in the absence of a free press would be a sham.
Interestingly, once again was India to hear about parliamentary democracy being replaced by a more authoritarian Presidential form of government. This time, the proposal came not from Mrs Gandhi or her Congress party but from her staunchest opponents and members of what is now the ruling party, the BJP, with LK Advani being the strongest protagonist of that shift.I have re-traced the entire history of India’s first encounter with a full-scale and formal nationwide censorship on the media to emphasize one point: that free media in India is not just an article of faith with those who matter at the top in government and the media but it is in fact wired into the psyche of Indian democracy. India and Indians will never look at censorship of the press — overt or covert — as a natural condition. In fact, censorship is totally unacceptable to the Indian mind, and that mind is a product of timeless tradition of debate even in our spiritual arena. The Vedas bring out truths as the natural fruit of debate — both internal and social. The Budhha asked his followers to vigorously question everything and accept the truth of things only when their own minds find it to be true after debate and analysis. Guru Nanak Dev adopted debate and discussion (Sidh Goshti) as the means to approaching the truth. (As long as you are alive in this world, listen to others and discuss everything before accepting it, he said.) Arjuna subjects Lord Krishna to all kinds of questions and asks him to resolve his self-doubt through explanation and discourse. This is Indian tradition. Censorship is not a part of that tradition. In some form, free media has been a part of the Indian psyche long before media as what we know it now became a popular medium.
It is in this light that the present debate on the new legislation in Rajasthan needs to be viewed. In this country, no one is likely to accept any laws that give the government the powers to subvert the flow of information and stop law from taking its normal course. If opposition to such an exercise does not appear to be too vocal at a given time, that need not blind us to the possibility of people venting their disapproval and even ire at a later date. Sometimes, the loudest Indian protests are registered in the quietest of ways: at the polling booths.
Governments in Rajasthan and elsewhere need to keep the Indian response to the Emergency in mind if they want to understand how people here react to attempts at gagging the media or denying transparency in governance. There were hardly any protests of note against the Emergency during the 21 months that it lasted. There was absolute calm and peace across the country and very few turned out on the streets to oppose its imposition. This misled Mrs Gandhi and her son Sanjay into believing the myth of popular endorsement of their decision to impose it. But with the March 1977 elections, all hell broke loose. All hell will always break loose every time someone in the government tries to control or gag the media in this country.
This is not to say that all is well with the Indian media. But that is a subject for another day.