VIEWPOINT
March 03, 2015

I moved back to India after almost ten years in the United States in 2013. In the interim period, I had missed a lot of stuff that happened in India. One phenomenon, in particular, was The Newshour. The Newshour is a show on Times Now, a 24 hour Indian news channel. It gets a primetime slot at about 9 pm at night and is one of the most watched news shows in India. There is a reason for this. A man called Arnab Goswami, who has had an illustrious career in journalism, anchors it. However, at some point it was discovered that he could make an even more illustrious career on television by basically shouting down his opponents.

 

Some of his shows are entertaining face-offs, usually between him and another panelist. He famously yelled at the son of President Pranab Mukherjee shouting over and over again, “what is a dented and painted woman?” A year or so later, he shouted at Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP spokesperson who alluded to him being paid to take certain stances. “How dare you say I take money?” he boomed at her. She boomed right back.

 

 

However, on February 17, 2015, Mr. Goswami went too far. In a televised debate on Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, being stopped from leaving the country, he went much further that the usual bullying tactics usually employed on the show (lots of shouting). One guest in particular, noted women’s rights activist, Kavita Krishnan, was at the receiving end of Mr. Goswami’s diatribe against NGO’s and activists. He seemed downright condescending when he spoke to her implying that she did not know Indian history well and said words to the effect that activists in India went before their colonizers, the British, with “begging bowls”.

What was this controversial episode about? Let me put the event on context. Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace campaigner, was on her way to depose before a British parliamentary committee on the activities of a British company in Singrauli (a coal mining area with a tribal population), when she was ‘offloaded’ from a flight. She was told there was a “look-out notice” against her issued by the Intelligence Bureau. Some days later, Arnab Goswami and some of the other panelists then popularly accused Ms. Pillai and her ‘tribe’ of activists on international television as being anti-national. The reason she was stopped was that she was seen as a “doodh mein makkhi” (fly in the milk), according to Additional Solicitor General, Sanjay Jain or basically someone with immense disruptive potential. What was being disrupted? Diplomatic and trade relations.

At this point, there are two directions in which this narrative can proceed. I can choose to point out some obvious things. First, only autocratic and totalitarian governments usually try to gag their citizens by using a variety of mechanisms at their disposal. Second, constitutionally unless there are “reasonable restrictions” in place, a government cannot technically stop someone for traveling. Third, Priya Pillai posed no threat to public order or morality. In fact, she was not really doing anything anti-Indian. Instead, she was going to talk about a group of India’s marginalized tribal people and their interactions with a British company before some members of the British parliament. So let’s just take it as given that the offloading of Ms. Pillai had more to do with protecting India’s image as a safe- haven for capitalist investment, where activists and the like are seen literally, if Mr. Jain is to be believed, as flies. I might add here that the comparison is rather unfortunate because it portrays the Indian state as a massive fly swatter.

A second direction is to look at the media reactions to this case. Almost all news channels and print publications reported the Pillai case with some sense of righteous anger. How can a citizen be stopped from giving testimony? However, The Newshour did something different. In a show that aired on February 17 titled “Activism or Anti-national”, there were two corners. The first corner was occupied by a Bharatiya, Janata Party spokesperson (who shows up on the show a lot), a retired army general and a former Research and Analysis Wing agent. In the other corner were the people backing Ms. Pillai – Kavita Krishnan, Ms. Gopal, a Greenpeace spokesperson and John Dayal.

Mr. Goswami started out his show by asking the Greenpeace activist this question, “Ms Gopal the British left India in 1947. Why do you go crying before them?” A minute later he interrupted her response asking, “is this a free speech issue?”, and answered quite quickly on the show. He said, “This is not a free speech issue”.

The trending hypothesis on the show that night was that by deposing before British MP’s, who may have the capacity to impact British trade policy, someone like Priya Pillai may be inviting sanctions against India. The aston on the show read “should we be inviting sanctions regime against our own country?”

One of the panelists on the non-Greenpeace side suggested that the activists were anti-nationals like two well-known Kashmiri insurgents, who incidentally also gave up the insurgent path to become active politicians in Jammu and Kashmir. The activists countered by suggesting that the comparison was ‘nonsense’. How can one compare former insurgents to civil society activists?

In one hour. Arnab Goswami had managed to effectively paint social activists of the left-leaning kind as some sort of anti-India, anti-nationalist lobby working against the larger national interest, especially development and growth interests.

In an open letter to Mr. Goswami, Kavita Krishnan wrote, “we do object, and take serious exception, to the repeated branding of activists as ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic’ – words that are terms of abuse and hate-speech, and that can, when repeated ad nauseam in an influential media space, have serious repercussions. Rights activists, public figures and defendants in legal cases have been subjected to hate crimes, and even killed, in the country. The media, which has a duty to conduct itself responsibly, cannot be allowed to aggravate the vulnerability of human rights activists, who are already being targeted, vilified and demonized, by the state and other vested and dominant interests.”

The Newshour is a show where people shout and try to drown out each other’s opinions. The most powerful microphone in the show belongs to the anchor. Also, many of the voices are male. I’ve counted and there are a disproportionate number of male panelists as compared to female ones. And often women who state their cases vociferously, like Ms. Krishnan and Ms. Gopal did, are told to “behave like a lady”, and “have some shame”.

The show has fast become a surrogate for partisan hacker-y, which in a weird Colbertish way, pretends to not be partisan. But while we know The Colbert Report is satire, Mr. Goswami takes himself rather righteously and seriously, as do millions of people who watch his show.

India currently needs a counter to such a phenomenon. Times Now, the news channel which airs The Newshour, is owned by the Jain brothers, who were famously profiled by The New Yorker, for making their newspaper a runaway success by focusing on profits, celebrities and the like and less on newsworthy content.

There is no doubt that this particular episode was intended to display social activists in India as disruptive rebels who can be held responsible for the derailing of the growth and development project. The show did not allow for a discussion on why growth needs to be inclusive and how activists sometimes do manage to defend the rights of people who are deeply affected and disembedded by projects of development. However, the show ridiculed those who stick up for marginalized groups, and essentially, refused to create a space for voices that talk about inclusive development and sustainable growth strategies.

As Kavita Krishnan’s letter states, “an opportunity to question the accusations raised by the Government was not allowed. Instead, Government allegations were presented as self-evident facts by you as the anchor. You went on to claim that you had the ‘facts’ to prove the ‘anti-national’ character of one organization in particular and activists in general. While the responses of the activists on these panel were deliberately distorted, you as the anchor insinuated baselessly that the said activists were employing ‘hackers’, and that they had ‘deposed against India’.

In a piece called “Zehn ki Loot – The Plunder of Reason by Arnab Goswami”, Ms. Krishnan reflects on how corporate interests have been turned into national interests mediated by government action. In my view, the shrinking space for dissent against state policy becomes a necessary part of this process, because it becomes essential to invisibilize those groups that do not benefit from growth practices, but pay for it heavily.

Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She can be reached over email at vasundhara.sirnate@thehinducentre.com

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