The year 1993 was Mumbai’s annus horribilis: The post-Babri demolition riots were followed by the ghastly terror blasts. What is perhaps less known is that that very year, a few journalists were attacked and their offices vandalised by the Shiv Sena. Rather than stay mute spectators, Mumbai’s journalists showed great courage in uniting to protest outside the Shiv Sena headquarters against any form of physical intimidation by the then all-powerful Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray and his foot soldiers. The few who did not join the protests were co-opted by the scent of power and handsomely “rewarded” (some even later became Sena or BJP MPs).
Contrast the unity shown by journalists in the pre-TV era with the sharp divisions that have surfaced now in the aftermath of the murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh. It’s almost as if the battle lines in society are being mirrored in the media too: Left versus Right, Hindutva versus secular, liberals vs sanghis, even “nationalists” versus “anti-nationals”; it almost seems as if personal political agendas now shadow an unrelenting search for the truth. If for one side, Lankesh’s death is an occasion to mourn and agitate, the ‘other’ side is busily pointing to the selective outrage of her supporters. If one news channel will condemn Lankesh’s killing as a Naxal hit job, the other will turn the gaze on Right-wing Hindu extremists. What should be a moment to collectively join hands in demanding justice for a defenceless woman citizen of this country has been reduced to an ideological “war”.
When the Press Club of India and other media groups held a condolence meeting last week, most Right-wing journalists chose to stay away. Even the politicians who came to express their solidarity belonged to Left-liberal political parties. There was no one from the ruling BJP present even though the organisers insist that the meeting was open to all. When a reporter from a “nationalist” channel tried to take a sound bite, he was shunned by Left activists. Journalists were being pushed into camps, forced to take positions, when there was only one side to take: A rousing call for action against the forces of violence.
Yes, Lankesh was a “Leftist” in her political leanings and a strident critic of Hindutva politics. But surely when a woman is targeted in this senseless manner, her politics are immaterial. Or is a section of the media so trapped in the loud nationalist narrative of prime time television that it has lost the capacity to think for itself, to separate right from wrong, to be able to rise above the noise and defend its fellow journalists?
Sadly, the media is being driven by an ominous “them” versus “us” binary pushed by a morally bankrupt political class: It’s a systematic campaign of bilious hate that reflects in a growing intolerance of contrarian opinion and a constant manufacturing of “enemies” who must be targeted, if not in a TV studio, then on social media, and finally, on the street. In this bitterly polarised atmosphere, the space for an independent interrogation of facts is shrinking rapidly. For the cheerleaders of the ruling ideology, Lankesh was a “presstitute” and “libtard”, demonised as a Naxal-sympathising “traitor”, much like noted author Arundhati Roy, who a BJP MP shamefully called for to be tied to a jeep for her views on Kashmir. Legitimising any form of violence is the first step towards inciting the mob to take over.
That Lankesh was a woman journalist writing in her own language made her perhaps even more vulnerable. English language journalists are, to some extent, cocooned by the limited universe they operate in; a regional language journalist, by contrast, speaks to a much wider audience which is more rooted in ground realities. There is a media elitism which has left journalists in regional dailies/channels more exposed to threat, attacks on them rarely making headline news.
Lankesh’s death, in that sense, should ideally be a turning point since she was a high-profile bilingual journalist who had broken the English-Kannada barrier. If we have failed to raise our voice as effectively as we should have in previous instances of violence against journalists, then the time to change that is now: If we stay silent and disunited, there will be more Gauri Lankeshs who will pay the price for our collective failure.
Post-script: In one of our recent conversations, Lankesh told me how she had come out of a TV debate feeling sick in the stomach. “I felt like I was being physically assaulted for the views I held”, she said. When civilised dialogue is replaced by the dangerous violence of the mind, the sharp-suited anchor spewing venom on TV one day can only provide ammunition to a masked gunman the very next.