The Constitution of India declares the nation as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic”. “Freedom of speech and expression” provided to us by the Constitution under the Article 19 (1) and 19 (2), is one of the main tools in the hands of the citizens that gives them the power to voice opinions. It is the most important element of any democracy. In any authoritarian regime, empowered citizens do not exist.
Four decades have passed since the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi enforced Emergency and press censorship in India from June 1975 to March 1977. This has been considered as the darkest period for freedom of speech and expression in the history of independent India. According to Amnesty International, 140,000 people – journalists, media persons, politicians, activists, had been arrested without trials during the 20 months of Gandhi’s Emergency.
What can be more disturbing than silencing the fourth pillar of a democracy?
Ever since the 2014 elections, India has been sliding down rapidly in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2017, it slipped 3 places to 136 out of 180. War-struck countries like Afghanistan and Palestine were ranked above India with 120 and 135 respectively. With the death of Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, Rajdea Rajan in Bihar and various others across nations for expressing their unbiased views, the right-wing voices can be seen overpowering all mainstream narrative.
Incidents like banning NDTV for covering the Pathankot attack (other news channel covered it too, but weren’t banned), the FIR against a Tribune reporter for the Aadhaar data breach story, and Allahabad court’s verdict banning The Wire from writing anything about Jay Shah’s business are some of the many examples that point towards an undeclared media gag. With indirect censorship against people or media houses going against the popular opinion of the right wing agencies, this would eventually lead to self-censorship.
Former Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar had alleged that national broadcaster Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) refused to broadcast his Independence Day speech in 2017 unless he ‘reshaped’ it. The Congress has time and again alleged that there is an undeclared emergency enforced in the country. According to All India Congress Committee (AICC) senior spokesperson Ghulam Nabi Azad, it has become very hard for the opposition parties to make their voices reach the people.
The suppression of opposition leaders has also targeted the Chief Minister of Delhi and the President of the Congress party. Arvind Kejriwal was detained hours after Deputy CM Manish Sisodia was taken into custody for trying to meet the family members of an ex-serviceman who had allegedly committed suicide over the OROP (One Rank One Pension) issue in 2016. Similarly, In 2017, the then-Vice President of the Indian National Congress Rahul Gandhi was arrested in Mandsaur for trying to visit the families of farmers killed by the police in Madhya Pradesh.
Planting the seeds of patriotism in the minds of the people, tagging people as ‘anti-national’ has become another way of ending all debates with the governments and its bodies. An artificial environment has been created in which any form of speech and expression is converted into a debate for nationalism or anti-nationalism.
This undeclared censorship is prevalent in almost all the spheres of life, keeping a check on what people eat, do, watch or read, both directly and indirectly.
Even artists have not been left unaffected. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) barred the screening of Sasikaran’s “S Durga” and Ravi Jadhav’s “Nude” at the International Film Festival of India, despite being approved by the IFFI jury headed by the acclaimed director Sujoy Ghosh.
Apart from that, new age media has witnessed a gradual increase in the number of ‘digi-bhakts’. Many common people have been arrested or questioned for opinions they expressed on social media. A 19-year-old boy was arrested in Bihar for sharing a morphed picture of the Prime Minister on WhatsApp, while another 28-year-old was arrested for morphing a picture of the Prime Minister in the pocket of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Eddappadi K Palaniswami. At the same time, the government and the police take no action when Suraj Pal Amu, former chief media coordinator of the ruling government, announced a bounty as high as ₹10 crore for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s head or Deepika Padukone’s nose.
Another pattern of this gag can be seen in the appointment of people affiliated with the Sangh Parivar or with the BJP in various universities. Girish Chandra Tripathi, a state-level RSS functionary in Uttar Pradesh, was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. The former chairman of Film and Television Institute Gajendra Yadav, the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University M. Jagdish, the (former) chairman of CBFC Pahlaaj Nihalani, and even the present chairman, Prasoon Joshi, are all associated with the BJP or the Sangh Parivar.
The gag on the country is seeping into various dimensions – whether it’s art, social media, politics or education. On the surface, we have the right to question, we have all the rights protected by the Constitution of India, but like Union Minister Kiran Rijiju said nobody should question the government, “it is not a good culture.”