(This piece was originally published on 29 August 2020, and is being republished in light of the Supreme Court proceedings and order against Sudarshan News channel.)
It has been open season for hateful attacks on India’s Muslims since 2014. These attacks seem to have become even shriller since the re-election of the BJP at the Centre, with an even larger mandate in 2019.
These hate attacks sometimes erupt in violence, such as in the series of gruesome cow-related lynch attacks and the communal conflagration on North East Delhi in February. But for the most part, the visceral assaults have been verbal, through hate speech.
It is against this background that we need to evaluate the political and social implications of the latest egregious example of hate reporting.
Who Is Suresh Chavhanke?
Social media is jammed by images of a somewhat portly man in a saffron waistcoat walking up and down a garden path waving his hands, promising a sensational scoop. The revelations which he promised through his brand of ‘investigative journalism’, were to be aired in a programme that was scheduled for Friday night, but which has been temporarily stayed by the Delhi High Court. His charge is of a ‘wide-ranging conspiracy to increase the numbers of young Muslim women and men in the higher civil services’.
“How has the number of Muslim IPS [Indian Police Service] and IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officers increased recently?” he asks in the video he tweeted. “What will happen if ‘Jamia ke jihadi’ rise to positions of authority in the country?” He sees this as a new form of ‘jihad’ – ‘naukarshahi jihad’ or bureaucracy jihad – and foretells a grim future for the country if the heads of districts – the District Magistrate or Superintendent of Police – or Secretaries of various government departments are Muslim.
The man in the promotional video is one Suresh Chavhanke, the owner and chief editor of NOIDA-based television channel Sudarshan News. He tagged his tweets both to PM Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), signalling where he derives his sense of impunity as he broadcasts his bigotry. Why he is assured that the law of the land will not punish him. He claims to have attended RSS shakhas from the age of three, and worked for an RSS publication.
His TV channel routinely peddles hate.
But even by Suresh Chavhanke’s standards, his latest foray touches a new low in many ways.
Why The UPSC Still Enjoys A Reputation Of Fairness & Integrity
Recruitment to the higher civil services is done through the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC), a body mandated by Part XIV of the Constitution. In a time when virtually every democratic and constitutional institution has been unable to escape the taint of partisanship and corruption – including the judiciary, the Election Commission and indeed, the higher civil services – the UPSC is almost unique among institutions of the state for the reputation it continues to enjoy for fairness and integrity.
It is for this reason that over a million young people sit each year for the examination conducted by the UPSC for less than a thousand positions in the higher echelons of the civil service.
They are assured that they will not suffer from any kind of bias – based on their religious identity, caste, gender, language, the wealth, education or livelihood of their parents – or from the malign influences of money and power.
The examination system itself has been critiqued from time to time as being less accessible to young people of various disadvantages – those from rural areas, those less comfortable with the English language and so on – and every reform in recruitment systems have attempted to make the examination more egalitarian.
But no one has ever been able to bring any serious charge that the UPSC was biased in favour of or against people of particular faiths, castes or regions.
Why Importance Of An Institution Like UPSC Can’t Be Overstated In India
The importance of such an institution, striving to remain worthy of such faith, cannot be overstated in a country like India, where in virtually every other highly-sought profession, many young people inherit from their parents and grandparents establishments and positions – be it as businesspersons, politicians, judges of the high courts and supreme court, lawyers, cinema actors, and even private medical practice. It is only because of the credibility of the UPSC that the daughter of a sanitation worker, a daily wage worker, a rickshaw-puller or a sex worker can legitimately aspire to occupy positions of high power in government.
It is this credibility that Mr Chavhanke and his latest reporting seek to break.
Memories Of My Days At The IAS Training Academy
I have many fond memories of the months I spent at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in the hills of Mussoorie between 1980-82 (a total of a year sandwiched between a year of training in the districts). As we prepared ourselves for our duties holding positions of authority and power in the districts and later in the secretariats of state capitals and Delhi, we also built friendships and bonds among ourselves, some of which would last a lifetime.
I don’t recall our religious identity having any bearing on who we chose to be and who we chose as our friends.
I returned to the Academy in Mussoorie in 1993 as a member of the faculty. The times were more sombre. A year earlier, the Babri Masjid had been demolished by a mob fevered by religious hatred. In the Academy, we heard that the topper of the IAS 1992 batch, which preceded the one which we trained, had organised a party to celebrate the demolition of the Babri Masjid. There was not a single Muslim officer in the 1992 batch of the IAS. I shuddered to think of what kind of leadership this IAS topper, and indeed, all the other officers – who joined the celebration of the symbolic humiliation meted out to the Muslim people through the celebratory mass-razing of the mosque – would provide to the people in the jurisdictions of their authority if their was a communal riot.
Who Are The Champion Purveyors Of Hate Speech?
There have been three ‘champion purveyors of hate speech’ against Indian Muslims. The first of these have been persons holding high positions in government and the ruling party.
In an analysis during the fourth year of the Modi government, NDTV found a spectacular 500 percent rise in what it called ‘VIP hate speech’, or hateful speeches and calls to violence by elected representatives of parliament and legislative assemblies, chief ministers, and those holding high offices like party leaders and governors. A fair application of criminal law would have required that the majority of them should be charged with grave crimes. But since this hate is ‘led’ from the very top, they know that they enjoy impunity.
The second channel for this runaway hate speech against Muslims is social media, this time with the craven and morally-bankrupt tacit protection of companies like Facebook.
And the third is the mass media, with many TV channels and large sections of the Hindi and other Indian language newspapers becoming fevered conveyors of shocking bigotry, communal falsehoods and incitements to violence. It would be a mistake to describe these trends as the work of ‘fringe’ elements of the media. Hate reporting has been mainstreamed, illustrated most recently by the enthusiastic participation of some of India’s biggest media organisations demonising the Tablighi Jamaat as ‘COVID super-spreaders’. Hate reporting targeting Muslims enjoys impunity.
It is instead sober, restrained, responsible and evidence-based reporting and commentary which has been reduced into the minority within contemporary Indian media.
The Values We Imparted At The IAS Academy
In the three years that I worked in the faculty of the Academy, my highest priority was to help try to nurture the ideas of fairness and fraternity among my trainees, to strengthen their understanding and belief in the values of equal citizenship embedded in our constitution. Through story-telling and analysis, I tried to assist our trainees to grapple with their multiple inheritances of prejudice, of communalism, caste, gender and class. It was a golden period in the academy.
Our Director was scholar-administrator NC Saxena, and my peers in the faculty shared the same commitment to our constitutional values and the mission of what kind of education we should strive to offer to our young trainees. Dr Saxena and I sometimes wonder today if our training made a difference. We look with pride at the life journeys and choices of many of our trainees, who are now older than I was as their teacher in the academy. I then feel convinced that it did make a difference.
Along with what we spoke and discussed in and outside the classroom, I was also convinced that greater diversity in the academy and in the services would be the best vehicle to build perspectives of pluralism and fairness.
By 1993, I was pleased to find young Muslims among the recruits to the IAS, diplomatic and police services. Many of them said they benefited from IAS coaching centres started by Hamdard University in Delhi. Jamia Millia Islamia University also runs such a centre, which has led to somewhat higher numbers of Muslim students in the higher services in recent years, and it is this which Suresh Chavhanke seeks to demonise.
Number of Muslims In The Higher Services Is Still Significantly Low
I have sustained bonds of affection and friendship with my trainees of the three years when I was their teacher in Mussoorie. An outsider to the service for the last 18 years, I still look out for how my former trainees are doing. I don’t look for their conventional advancements of career. I look for whether they have been fair to people discriminated and excluded because of their religion, caste or gender, whether they have stood with the poor, whether they have withstood temptations of money, and whether they have stood up against unlawful orders of their superiors.
I have also looked out for the careers of the Muslim officers whom I trained, as they negotiate a difficult journey.
I am happy to report that I have not been disappointed in them. The pride I sometimes experience is their gift to me as their teacher.
The higher services have become only a little more diverse in recent years, but the numbers of Muslims are still significantly below their share in the population.
Muslims make up 3.46 percent of the country’s 8,417 IAS and IPS officers. Of 292 Muslim officers, 160 are among the 5,862 serving officers today, who are what are called ‘direct recruits’ into the civil service, or people who passed the UPSC examination. The remaining 132 are among 2,555 IAS and IPS officers who were promoted to the IAS or IPS from the state civil services on the basis of seniority and performance. These are called, with more than a hint of snobbery, ‘promoted officers’.
Why It’s Not Enough To Simply Condemn ‘Sudarshan News’
The share of direct recruits to the higher civil services recruited by the UPSC hovered above 3 percent in 2013-15. It rose to 4.55 percent in 2016, rising further to 5.15 percent in 2017, but falling a little the next year, and rising to 5.42 percent in 2019. It is this modest rise which Mr Chavhanke seeks to red-flag. The contribution of special coaching centres has been significant in this rise. The Jamia Millia Islamia University faculty points out that almost half the successful students from their coaching centre were of Hindu identity.
The question is of course that, in an open highly credible merit-based examination, why should anyone have an objection if citizens of any identity work hard and succeed in the examinations?
The toxic canard being propagated by Sudarshan News does not arise from ‘fringe madness’. It is mainstream because the RSS is the ideological mentor of the ruling party. Mr Chavhanke is able to describe modestly rising numbers of Muslim officers as an existential threat to the nation, as ‘infiltration’ and ‘jihad’, only because this fits neatly into a century-long project to demonise India’s Muslims.
Therefore, Mr Chavhanke and his Sudarshan News do not matter. It is not enough to condemn his poisonous propaganda. What India is witnessing is the incremental growth of bigotry and hate as a normalised part of the social consciousness, in which the utterances of a TV channel are only among the most explicit and brazen articulation of much more widely held prejudices. The battle is between the extreme right wing world-view and of the constitution. It is here that each of us must take sides.
(Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)