(Extracted with permission from 'Keeping Up the Good Fight: From the Emergency to the Present Days' by Prabir Purkayastha, published by LeftWord Books. Paragraph breaks have been added for readers’ convenience).
Among the most enduring memories of the Emergency (other than enforced vasectomies) are those of a scared, docile The administration had powers to muzzle the media — what the press wrote had to be submitted to censors.
Everyone recalls LK Advani's chastising remark to the press after the Emergency: "You were asked only to bend, but you crawled: But we also have to remember and salute honourable exceptions that didn't bow down, or carry government propaganda.
The Indian Express managed to operate within the new constraints. Its blank editorial was a powerful symbol of protest against the attack on the role of the fourth estate. Smaller organisations also resisted the bully censor; for instance, the journal Seminar run by Romesh Thapar. Of course, what they could do was necessarily limited.
How does the Indian media scene today compare with those times? Media then meant mainly the print medium-the press. We have a number of platforms today, and it's certainly much harder to control them all. The media is much more heterogeneous; and the agenda for media has been set differently.
Earlier, print media set what made news. The headline of the day would determine what the news was. Now that we have 24x7 news channels on television, the news has changed. Watching prime-time news 'debates' can give us a preview of the news cycle.
Social media has completely changed the landscape of what was earlier considered news or commentary, and so also with the influence and reach of media.
Social media even sets the news now — what issues will be discussed and commented upon by both journalists and readers. This is, obviously, much more difficult to control. Which is why, despite the best efforts of the BJP and Modi acolytes, you do hear other voices.
Of course, the government and its cohorts are anxious to control the large number of individuals using social media; to do this, they have to come up with measures different from what sufficed during the earlier Emergency.
In other words, a technological change has taken place which makes the task of muzzling the press rather different from what it used to be. If you want to muzzle a million or more people, you cannot use the Emergency instrument, which was direct censorship. What are the new censors — official and unofficial — to do?
'Self-Censorship Becomes the Norm'
They make an example of a few to create a chilling effect They make people afraid; self-censorship becomes the norm. They make use of continuous harassment, by filing FIRS all over the country; what used to be called lawfare in other jurisdictions.
Remember the case of the artist MF Husain? Cases were filed against him practically everywhere. Criminal proceedings we initiated against him for allegedly hurting public sentiment with his paintings Groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal issued threats against the 90-year-old painter Finally, unable to take it anymore, Husain left the country and lived in self-exile till his death.
The more recent examples are in some senses even more alarming. Any perceived criticism of the government or the Hinda supremacist project makes the journalist vulnerable to trolling, physical attacks, prosecution under the Information Technology Act and IT Rules of 2021, or detention under draconian counter-terrorism and sedition laws.
Independent news organisations are definitely on the hit list, especially of government agencies such as the ED and Income Tax department. Critical journalists have been charged for tweets, and social media users for sharing posts on Facebook. Students have been booked for sedition, for allegedly cheering for Pakistan in a cricket match.
Advertisers have been threatened with boycotts for using words or symbols perceived as Muslim, and bullied into withdrawing advertisements that represent a syncretic culture. The list of restrictions and attacks on media freedom is long and varied, and grows every day.
As always, the muzzling of the media is one part of the narrative, whether we are talking about the bad old days of the Emergency or the arguably still worse days of today's unnamed Emergency. At every turn, I think it is essential to see with clear eyes the terrible details of repression, but also the brave resistance offered by people. We see this courage around us, in the present and the very recent past. Take the media, for instance.
There are many critical voices on the news platforms today, and not just digital platforms.
We read, see and hear criticism even in mainstream news. We saw, for instance, how newspapers, even those who were pro-government earlier in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, exposed undeclared COVID-19 deaths. Of course, they paid a price for this transgression later, with income tax raids on their premises spread across the country.
‘Where Is the Working Class in the Media?’
Another phenomenon is a kind of double role some of the mainstream newspapers seem to play. They provide a platform for government 'news' as well as some manicured real news, the proportion waxing and waning, perhaps depending on how much readers will accept before they stop reading the paper altogether.
This is true for television as well, as the prime-time news spots have been replaced by gladiatorial contests, with the anchors playing ringmasters goading the opposition or critical voices.
Despite this, some critical strands continue to find their way even into the mainstream media. Although even here, certain developments are carefully ignored. I am referring, of course, to news and commentary on people's struggles and popular movements.
If we look at the 'national' or 'mainstream' media spaces today, where is the working class? Where are the unions? The farmers? The industry beat is essentially about the industrialists; you hear the voices of the management, and you discuss the finances of the company.Prabir Purkayastha in his book
The shift away from people working in the industry and towards its owners is stark. So is the growth of what used to be called the society page or page 3 — fashion and lifestyle — as celebrity news spreads across the entire paper, sometimes reaching even the front page.
Development journalist P Sainath, founder of the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), has pointed out if there are 40 media persons covering fashion shows in Mumbai, there may be just the one journalist covering rural Maharashtra and the deaths of agricultural workers and small farmers.
People's movements, so critical in any impetus to change, are often innocent of social media and unused to the ways media is used by the current generation. I remember my grandmother's generation saying that if something was in print, it must be true.
In a similar vein, older people today seem to think anything on WhatsApp must be true. The younger lot may well be a little more discerning. At any rate, it will take a while for us, whether old or young, to acquire social media literacy. Unfortunately, the various organs of the BJP and RSS have had a head start in the manipulation of social media, reinforced by the money power they wield.
How do we increase social media literacy and how do we increase social media capabilities in the movements? That's a tremendous challenge, but when you have the numbers, it will happen. This is what we saw in the case of the farmers' protests they found their own voices; they found their own media.
Yes, they had access to sympathetic news platforms, including NewsClick. But their content, their take on the movement, was their own, whether it was the broadcast of their marches, their music or their first-person reports, all expressed in a multitude of voices, often with humour.
And all this was often directly communicated on platforms they set up, whether on YouTube or Facebook, or with their four-page bi-weekly, Trolley Times. This is only one example.
Unlike the earlier Emergency, where cutting the electricity supply to the newspapers stopped the printing presses, now, in the digital age, shutting down all forms of media, including social media, is much more difficult.