The New ‘Emergency’ !

The New ‘Emergency’ !

The country will never forget that infamous night of 25/26 June 1975, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a state of emergency declared all over the country. During that dark chapter of the country’s history which lasted for a twenty-one-month period till 21 March 1977, civil liberties were suspended, freedom of speech and expression was totally muzzled, political opponents of the Government and those who protested the emergency were imprisoned and human rights violations by those in power were the order of the day! The most obvious response for the people of India was to say “never again!” and to ensure that those dark days would never visit the country again!

Sadly, that is not the case today! Forty-plus years later we live in a new ‘emergency’ in India! In a brilliant and hard-hitting expose ‘Democracy can die in daylight too’ (The Hindu, 13 June 2019) on the role of the media in the recently concluded general elections, Krishna Prasad a former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook, and former member of the Press Council of India writes, “When the media’s darkest days — the censorship under Indira Gandhi’s 21 months of Emergency — are invoked, L.K. Advani’s quote that the press crawled when asked to bend is airily recalled. But at least the media of the time was adhering to a formal order which had a start date and an end date.

In the 21st century, it didn’t take a presidential order for the ‘feral beasts’ to suspend their instincts, to look the other way, to stoke majoritarian fires, to fearlessly question not the ruling party but the Opposition, and usher in Modi 2.0”. The hard fact is that freedom of speech and expression is throttled as never before. One only has to switch on some of the so-called ‘mainstream’ channels or glance at the headlines of some dailies, to realize how biased they are and how afraid they are to focus on news which are truthful and objective.

Prasad blatantly states how media has abdicated their core responsibilities, “notwithstanding Mr. Modi’s advertised disdain for journalists, making the media forget their core tasks — to witness, to verify, to investigate, and to make sense, in the words of the British media scholar George Brock — was always a vital weapon in the manufacture of consent for the ‘Gujarat Model’. Despite early failures as Chief Minister, Mr. Modi deftly achieved this goal. Established media houses were tamed by patronising their competitors.

Some pesky editors were reined in or eased out by intimidating owners. Advertisements were turned off and on to let the bottom line send signals to managers”. So today if some media personnel have the audacity to witness, to verify, to investigate, and to make sense – the writing on the wall is clear! The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has recently (15 June) barred NDTV Ltd.’s three key promoters -Prannoy Roy, Radhika Roy and their holding firm-from the capital market for two years! No guessing why!

On 8 June, Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, was arrested by Uttar Pradesh police in Delhi for a tweet that had “objectionable comments” on Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Kanojia, was picked up from his home in Delhi after a complaint by a police officer in Lucknow, alleging he tried to “malign” Adityanath’s. Kanojia’s wife Jagisha Arora challenged his arrest in a petition to the Supreme Court. Ordering his immediate release on bail the Supreme court bench said that it disapproves the deprivation of right to liberty by the state “A citizen’s right to liberty is sacrosanct and non-negotiable. It is a fundamental right granted under the Constitution and can’t be infringed upon by the state” ]

Whilst the prompt intervention and decision by the Supreme Court needs to be applauded, there has been a wave of protests on social media on the way freedom of speech and expression are being throttled in the country. ‘The Editors Guild of India’ condemned the arrest of Kanojia and the editor and head of a NOIDA-based television channel, Nation Live, Ishita Singh and Anuj Shukla, saying, “The police action is high-handed, arbitrary and amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws. The Guild sees it as an effort to intimidate the press, and stifle freedom of expression…. a brazen misuse of law….” On 11 June, a journalist, who was covering a train derailment, in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli was beaten up on camera by a group of GRP personnel. The group was seen repeatedly slapping and thrashing the journalist while he tries to reason with them (the video has gone viral). According to ANI, the journalist associated with a news channel, said, “They were in plain clothes. One hit my camera and it fell down. When I picked it up, they hit and abused me. I was locked up, stripped and they urinated in my mouth.”

On 12 June, an eight-member team of the Pune police raided the Ranchi residence of Jesuit Father Stan Swamy. It was the second such raid on the 83-year-old’s house since August 2018. Fr. Swamy, a great upholder of the rights of Adivasis, is an ‘accused’ in the Bhima Koregaon/Elgaar Parishad case in which police have so far booked 23 people, including prominent rights activists and intellectuals. The ‘Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha’ condemned the raids on Stan Swamy and arrests of other human rights activists saying, “the central government and media houses close to the BJP claim that the human rights activists were part of a Maoist conspiracy related to the Bhima-Koregaon incident.

This concocted story seems to be part of a larger propaganda, based on terms like “urban Naxals”, aimed at stifling any criticism of the government. The raids and arrests are part of the government’s growing attempts to stifle dissent and intimidate those who are fighting for justice. Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha demands an immediate end to the raids, dropping of all false charges against human rights activists across the country and release of those who are arrested. These harassment are politically motivated and wholly unjustified”.

The throttling of ‘freedom of speech and expression’ has been happening with frightening regularity in India-particularly in the last five years! Media personnel, academics, intellectuals and others who stand up for justice, transparency and truth and have had the courage to voice these non-negotiable, have had to pay a heavy price; they have been hounded and harassed, arrested and tortured and some even killed! A few months ago, when ‘Reporters Without Borders’ released its annual global press freedom index, India was ranked a measly 140 out of 180 countries. A pathetic performance from the world’s largest democracy!

The grip that throttles the essence of Indian democracy, must be released. Bertolt Brecht, the German poet and fierce critic of the Nazi regime, provides a cue

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

It is time now for those who cherish the freedom of speech and expression, to wake from their slumber and their inability or fear to act! But do we have the courage to halt the new ‘emergency’ being foisted on the nation?

Note: The author, Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights/peace activist and writer.

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