What is the role of a newspaper in a democratic society?
Is it just supposed to reassure us that the sun rose majestically in the east this morning? Is it committing a cardinal sin in reporting that the big fellow may have strayed off his path while we were groggy?
Is a newspaper wrong in airing views that may be contrary to its own or to those of its readers, or even the government of the day? Are those writing for a newspaper—staffers and freelancers—duty-bound to write what only makes readers “feel good”?
Is a newspaper—or a magazine or a blog—wrong in throwing a pebble, creating a ripple; in subversively sowing thoughts that hadn’t infiltrated the craniums of readers before?
Is hearing an opinion, howsoever contrarian, howsoever provocative, injurious to our health and of our democracy?
These are fundamental questions editors and publishers face every day. And they come to us again courtesy the “vibrant” Government of Gujarat.
33 years after Indira Gandhi‘s Emergency, 20 years after Rajiv Gandhi‘s Defamation Bill, Narendra Modi‘s BJP government has responded in kind.
It has decided to file a criminal case against the sociologist Ashis Nandy for an opinion piece he wrote on the editorial page of The Times of India on January 8 this year, in the aftermath of Modi’s resounding victory in the assembly elections.
Prof Nandy’s piece “Blame the Middle Class” had this paragraph:
“Recovering Gujarat from its urban middle class will not be easy. The class has found in militant religious nationalism a new self-respect and a new virtual identity as a martial community, the way Bengali babus, Maharashtrian Brahmins and Kashmiri Muslims at different times have sought salvation in violence. In Gujarat this class has smelt blood, for it does not have to do the killings but can plan, finance and coordinate them with impunity. The actual killers are the lowest of the low, mostly tribals and Dalits. The middle class controls the media and education, which have become hate factories in recent times. And they receive spirited support from most non-resident Indians who, at a safe distance from India, can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible.”
Certainly, the piece contains gross generalisations about the middleclass. It stereotypes communities in different corners of the country and even draws NRIs into the picture. And it makes charges, and it imputes motives and methods that are difficult to prove.
It may be the truth and nothing but the truth.
On the other hand, it may be all lies, through and through.
But it is not news, repeat, not news.
It is an opinion piece by one of the country’s most renowned sociologists, one of six from the country who figured in a global list of the top 100 intellectuals. The Times of India‘s editorial advisor Gautam Adhikari explained as much in a piece a few days after a YouTube video dissecting and lambasting the piece and calling The Times of India “a banana newspaper” began circulating.
“I have been charged with creating animosity between communities for publishing a column. They want to threaten me but they also know that their case has cannot stand against me,” Nandy tells CNN-IBN.
Is a sociologist who has studied societies for decades, not entitled to his views and air them in public, even if they are completely unpalatable to the majority of the public it reaches? Is a political psychologist’s freedom to express bound by what he chooses to express, failing which the might of the state can be invoked to threaten and silence him and the media vehicle which gave him the platform?
Who was it who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
The case against Prof. Nandy comes on the same day the police commissioner of Ahmedabad has decided to file charges of sedition against The Times of India, its (Ahmedabad Market) editor Bharat Desai, reporter Prashant Dayal, and a photographer, for news reports accusing him of having had mafia connections in the past, and questioning the propriety of such an appointment vide an opinion poll.
The newspaper contends that the news reports were based on a CBI report.
But the piece in contention is news, not views, and the newspaper must prove that it was serving the public interest in doing so and that it has the requisite documentation to prove that it was not making it all up. But in filing charges under sedition, not defamation, is the Narendra Modi government justly going on the offensive against the “pseudo-secular” English media?
In April this year, a $100 million lawsuit was filed by the Indian National Overseas Congress against three prominent Hindu activists for defaming Sonia Gandhi during her visit to the United States last October by taking out a provocative advertisement in the New York Times.
Congress first, BJP now, have our parties lost all sense of balance—and achieved a chilling balance of terror?
Cross-posted on sans serif