That’s what they are – the Indian media. Its been three days since the “secular” communist government of West Bengal arrested (and then released on bail) the editor and publisher of “The Statesman” because of “Muslim anger,” and barring very very very few exceptions, the whole Indian media is absolutely silent – as if nothing has happened at all. 20 people barged into a bar, and the Hindu Taliban is born; 4000 people riot in Calcutta and everyone behaves as if nothing has happened. Why is the Indian media silent?
- What happened to “The Masthead of India” – the world’s largest selling English newspaper? The mast broke, or the paper doesn’t represent India anymore? When the Ahmedabad police commissioner filed sedition charges against its city editor, it expected, and did get support from journalists across the spectrum.
- What about the “Journalism of courage”? Its on a temporary hiatus? What happened to the Ramnath Goenka spirit. Why give meaningless awards then? Saving grace – a column by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the man who resigned from the National Knowledge Council on the OBC quota issue. Nothing short of an editorial will do, though.
- What about the “Maha Vishnu of Mount Road”? Doesn’t it have an opinion this time round, or time to write more than a couple of paragraphs on the subject? It screamed bloody murder when Jayalalitha threatened to throw its editorial staff, including publisher N. Ram, in jail. (The SC, and Vajpayee, saved them)
Some decent “Indian” coverage from-
- The wires – Reuters, and the Press Trust of India, and the Indo-Asian News Service.
- Outlook Magazine – a story, and a commentary.
Johann Hari, the man whose article made the mob go crazy for its Prophet, says he stands by his article-
A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.
That’s why I wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”
An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”
Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.
Religious leaders – often self-appointed – are easily outraged and mobs easily incited into action that sees them torch public transport, block crucial nerve centres of already chaotic traffic systems and even bring about total city shutdowns (locally called bandhs).
But does that mean bowing before the diktats of a handful of fundamentalists at the cost of curbing free speech?
This was the first time that an editor of a respected daily was arrested for “outraging religious feelings”, which incidentally is an offence under the Indian Penal Code.
When I called The Statesman, they did not seem very keen to discuss the matter and pointed me to their and the Independent’s website.
But a former colleague at a senior editorial position of another city English daily (who wished not to be named) provided some insight. Despite “liking the logic of the article”, he admitted that his paper (with a significantly higher circulation than The Statesman’s) would not have reproduced it because it was simply “not worth getting into the trouble”. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for press freedom. But when you know the possible outcome, it’s best to be practical and avoid these situations.”
He also assured me that very few if any at all among the protesters had bothered to read the original article or were expressing anger they genuinely felt. That job was left to the religious bosses who pulled their strings. The demonstrations had only started after local Urdu papers picked up the issue and urged fellow Muslims to take action over it. The result – protests, clashes with the police and the subsequent arrests of the Statesman duo.
“Practical.” Figures. I am waiting to see what MJ Akbar’s take on the issue is – in tomorrow’s Times of India is – if he bothers to touch it. The next time an Indian newspaper or television channel editor talks about “the freedom of the press,” spit on his face.