I would like to reveal my anxieties to you, starting with two anecdotes.
During the second decade of the last century, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi used to run a Hindi newspaper called Pratap. Pir Muhammad Munis, a teacher in Bettiah who was already in the bad books of the British, had been writing extensively about the incidents in Champaran for Pratap. The events that were taking place at Champaran got national attention thanks to Pir Munis and his writings, and the space and independence of thought that Vidyarthi gave to Munis. Mahatma Gandhi, who had recently come to India from South Africa, knew only partly about the struggle of the indigo workers and was reluctant at first to make a visit to Champaran. It is said that Pir Munis wrote several letters to Gandhi. But after Munis met him and gave him a copy of Pratap, Gandhi made up his mind to go to Champaran. We all know what happened next. History was created, thanks in no small part to Munis and Vidyarthi.
Years after independence, the Chief Minister of some Indian state told Ramnath Goenka, founder-editor of The Indian Express, that one of his journalists had been doing exceptional work. The next day, Goenka called that journalist to his office and fired him.
I find these two incidents very interesting as they reflect the role of a journalist – a messenger who reveals to their audience the realities of the field. What prompted Gandhi to run to Champaran was the work of Munis. On the other hand, the revolutionary instinct of Vidyarthi gave Munis the freedom to pen down the problems of the people of Champaran. This very instinct has gone missing from the majority of our journalists and editorial policies. Good journalism is the kind that cites human problems – pull out all the newspapers and you’ll find that most front pages don’t.
For journalists, parting ways with the establishment and being on the other side is vital, for the sake of both journalism and the political structure of the country. These days, mainstream journalism has limited itself to a few cities (mostly the capital) and fewer villages, and the ‘human problems’ are strictly urban. India lies in its villages and small towns and reports from these areas have practically vanished. The centre of all discussions in our newspapers and TV channels is Delhi, and the politics surrounding it. Of course, Pakistan and Kashmir get some space, but the discussions around them are based more on emotions than rationality. The journalists of today are much too comfortable sitting in their offices and making presumptions based on the views of a few party spokesmen who have not stepped out of Delhi in the last three years.
From the moment Arnab Goswami launched his Republic TV, he has been banking on exposes. I would say that the man has some great marketing skills, thanks to his Oxford years. But his ability to create discussions around issues which may concern a larger audience is minimal. In the age of Modi and Yogi, where the suffering of fellow humans (particularly Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis) is at its peak, expectations from journalists are at a maximum. Where are these journalists, these messengers? Even if there are some who are citing these problems, why are they creating so little impact?
The people of this country should understand that by revealing these problems, the journalist is trying to create discussions within the public and the government. The result, ideally, should be a better-functioning government and better lives for the people. People have problems when the government is criticised or when fingers are raised at the Army. In a democracy, every structure should be analysed closely and the loopholes must be brought to public attention. The freedom of thought necessary to create discussions over these loopholes is very rare today. Only some newspapers choose to exercise this freedom. Windell Phillips, American orator and reformer, once said, “If there is anything that cannot bear free thought, let it crack.”
The messengers should come out of their cocoons and exercise their supreme duty. They should break free from the state and every other element that confines them to a smaller audience and problems that don’t concern the masses. People, on the other hand, expect the messengers to be those who initiate discussions around such problems – discussions that should lead to better policies from the government and a better future for all.
Had Pir Munir been afraid of the British and confined himself to his comfort zone, the story of Champaran would have been buried like many such stories from our contemporary villages and small towns. Had he not met Gandhi, history today might have been different.