My Sunday column in Amar Ujala Page 12 (http://epaper.amarujala.com/dl/20160221/12.html?format=img)
English approximate for those who don’t follow Hindi but may be interested in the issue and freedom of the press.
Last Tuesday, along with hundreds of other journalists, I marched from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court. The placard many of us carried had a simple, but powerful message – “Stand up in defence of the right to report.” At the march, I met journalists of different ideological persuasions, of different age groups, working for varied media houses. Many, like me, were independent columnists.
What had brought us together?
We were protesting against assaults on our colleagues. The previous day, a mob, wearing lawyers’ robes, had gone on a rampage at the Patiala Court premises. The target of their anger was Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar who was scheduled to appear before the metropolitan magistrate. As everyone knows by now, the student union leader from Delhi’s prestigious JNU was arrested in the wake of a rally against the 2013 hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru at which anti-India slogans were allegedly raised. So far, there is no evidence in the public domain to suggest that Kumar himself had uttered any inflammatory slogans which could be deemed seditious. The matter is in the court. The law will eventually decide what should be done.
Meanwhile, the controversy has led to a vicious atmosphere in the country with potshots being fired also at sections of the media.
According to eyewitness reports of journalists who were present at the Patiala House on Monday, anyone who looked young and carrying a mobile was slapped, kicked and chased away from the premises by a mob, many of whom were in black, lawyer’s robe. “When we were reporting from the site, around 15 people ganged up on us asking us to leave. We called the police for help but they said that they could not do anything. After they saw me recording the footage of them beating up others, they threatened me saying that if I don’t leave they will break my bones. Despite all this, if (Delhi police commissioner) Bassi calls it a minor scuffle then its incredible. I’m just doing my job here, they don’t want to hear the truth,” NDTV’s reporter Sonal Mehrotra told ANI.
Sonal was one among several journalists who bore the brunt of the violence in the court.
This is not the first time journalists have been attacked or pressured in this country. Those old enough remember the infamous Emergency years. Those who read newspapers also know about the numerous assaults on journalists across the country, often in places which are not typically covered by our metropolitan media.
Not all journalists are angels. Not all media houses are without vested interests. But what resonated with me and many others as we marched last week was what young journalists who faced the brunt of mob fury, said : “ I’m just doing my job here, they don’t want to hear the truth,”
Today, as the nation gets sharply polarised and loud cries rent the air, dividing journalists, and others who speak up, into ‘nationals’ and ‘ anti-nationals’, we must remember a fundamental truth. Most young reporters who are entering the profession simply want to “do their job” and if they are intimidated, bullied, pressurised from telling the tale as they see it, the consequences will be grave not just for them but for our vibrant democracy.
Truth is a disinfectant. Truth is also often unpalatable and rarely black and white.
Who is a national? Who is an anti-national? Who is to decide? Do all of us imagine our nation exactly the same way? Love, be it of one’s country, or another human being, plays out in different shades. Who is to tell us how to love?
As a proud Indian, I don’t want my country to be dismembered but I also think dangerous ideas can’t be fought only with force. Coercion will merely drive them underground. Is that what we want? Will that make us feel more secure? And what message are we sending out when we let let mob justice prevail? If we let people take the law in their hands in the name of nationalism or anything else, are wenot also contributing to weakening the State?
The media in India is not monolithic. It offers a broad spectrum of worldviews. In today’s hyper-connected world, as mature citizens, we have choices. We can and should check out different versions of the truth and decide for ourselves what to believe and what to discard.
But as we battle with words, let us remember a basic ground rule. In a country as diverse as India, there is no alternative to debate and dialogue, even with those we don’t agree. The truth is somewhere between the extremes. So fight we must, but with words, not with fists and force. That would do India proud.