An Indian man watches live news channels broadcasting images of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman returning to India from the India-Pakistan Wagah border in New Delhi on March 1, 2019. The pilot shot down in a dogfight with a Pakistani aircraft returned to India after being freed in what Islamabad called a 'peace gesture' following the two countries' biggest standoff in years. (Photo: AFP)
It took close to a generation, or at least a quarter of a century, for Indian television to slip out of government control and into homes in villages and towns riding cable and satellite in a mind-boggling 898 private TV channels permitted so far by the government.
At 226 million, the number of “television households” in India at the end of 2022 would make us the most television-hungry country in Asia, perhaps in the world. In a dozen or so languages, TV has brought into our homes a rich diet of dance and drama, films and songs, some news, a lot of sports, and a little bit of education.
It was for education that the government first brought in TV sometime in the early 1960s. The late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, first experimented with satellite TV back in 1975 for the poor, although she had suspended democracy for two years and was then ruling the country very much like a dictator.
In the last nine and a half years that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been ruling us much like a dictator, his political opponents and rights activists allege TV has brought into our homes hate as it has never been felt since Germany in the early 20th Century and in Africa’s Rwanda in the early 1990s.
Everyone remembers how the Adolf Hitler-Paul Joseph Goebbels hate machine led to the murder of 6 million Jews and a world war. People, especially in Asia, have forgotten the government hate campaigns in beautiful Rwanda. In 100 days from April through June 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsi tribal people were shot dead or macheted by fellow citizens. Reports estimated that 75 percent of the Tutsi population was butchered.
Germany and Rwanda did not have powerful TV news at their command.
"When he began his highly polarizing electoral campaign for power in 2013, Modi has been clear in naming his enemies, opponents, or targets"
Indian television news, in English but more so in Hindi, the language spoken or understood in more than half the country of 1.30 billion people, has penetrated deep into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime’s overwhelming control of the political and social landscape.
Modi’s massive portraits illuminate every petrol station and food grain outlet and of course every government office, school, playground, public hospital, railway station, bus terminus, and airport. Do remember please that these number in their tens of millions each.
If they are the visuals, the TV news debates provide the accompanying sound, magnifying Modi’s message, tearing into his enemies and making them their own foes in a much-personalized identity fusion.
Right from when he began his highly polarizing electoral campaign for power in 2013, Modi has been clear in naming his enemies, opponents, or targets. They are, though perhaps not necessarily in that order, the Congress leader and Italy-born Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi, the broad spectrum of “opposition” parties from the Trinamool Congress ruling West Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in power in Tamil Nadu.
The other two targets are Pakistan and the Muslims of India, always hyphenated, and always linked. The dog whistle classifies the Muslims as pro-Pakistan, if not actual traitors, who will outnumber Hindus by the end of the century and therefore pose an existential threat to the people of the land.
Gandhi is variously styled as a foreigner, and the head of the dynasty, with her son as the crown prince and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the “spare” in waiting.
There are also many other pop-and-mom caste-based political groupings that, nonetheless, have wrested power in half a dozen states from the BJP and the Congress. And then the Communist parties which once ruled three states — Tripura, Bengal, and Kerala — but are confined now to Kerala.
Collectively these parties have denied Modi the glory that he so desperately seeks as the unchallenged leader of all India, or Bharat as he now insists everybody call it.
"Every evening they sit down and abuse the opposition, pillory whoever has been deputed to represent his party or ideology"
“India that is Bharat” is how the constitution calls the land, but Modi says India is a foreign appellation and he will have nothing of it. So Bharat it is.
His attack on the opponents has been ruthless. The Congress to him is a party ruled by the dynast Sonia Gandhi. Also in the dynast category are the large Yadav caste-based parties of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The DMK is easily labeled a dynastic party because for the last fifty years, it has been led by the late M K Karunanidhi and now by his son, Chief Minister M K Stalin.
Not that the BJP has no dynasts. Modi, though married, has never lived with his wife, and has no children. But every single senior leader in his party is either the son of a politician or the father of an aspiring one.
In recent years, perhaps two dozen Hindi and English TV news anchors have emerged as powerful media allies of Modi, his personal cohorts, so to say. Every evening they sit down and abuse the opposition, pillory whoever has been deputed to represent his party or ideology. Hapless specialists, including journalists who come as commentators, are caught in the crossfire. There have been occasional fistfights.
Muslims, scholars, mullahs, or politicians, are not spared. The language can be of the gutter. In collateral damage, Catholic priests and evangelical pastors get the same treatment. At the end of the “debate,” they emerge thoroughly shaken. Some a little disturbed. A few with a new fear. A fear Muslims who may have seen the debate would understand.
The debates teeter on the verge of war-mongering against Pakistan and China, or any other country Modi has decided to take out his anger for whatever reason. They valorize the soldier but exploit the coffin and the young widow’s tears to rouse passions of the viewers.
In news programs with a participating studio audience, passions are aroused to a fever pitch, with the sound studio resounding with cries of Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Hail Mother India, and Jai Shri Ram, Victory to Lord Rama. You get the point.
With perhaps six months or even less to go before Modi dissolves the Lok Sabha, the House of the People's, and calls a general election, his third, the Opposition has said it has had enough of the TV News “Tamasha” or commotion.
"It was “non-cooperation” on the pattern forged by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom"
Over the weekend, the I.N.D.I.A combine of non-BJP parties, now in a loose alliance for the coming election, announced they will not cooperate with 14 of the most notorious news anchors. It was not a boycott of TV News studios or even of these anchors, they said. It was “non-cooperation” on the pattern forged by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle.
Congress spokesperson, Pawan Khera, speaking for the opposition parties' committee that made the decision during their virtual meeting, said certain channels had been running a "nafrat ka bazaar" (market of hatred) for the past nine years.
The freedom struggle against crony TV — or Godi Media as it is popularly called in a rough and ready translation of Lap Dog Media — is however divisive.
While the ruling BJP party has denounced it as a hark back to Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship in which media was banned, even a BJP critic like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has dissented, saying he does not agree with boycotts of this nature.
Not surprisingly, it has also divided the Indian press. The News Broadcasters & Digital Association, a non-governmental umbrella organization, said it was "deeply anguished and concerned" by the decision of the Opposition alliance. Many of the indicted TV News channels are part of this association.
The Editors Guild of India, the watchdog group representing the top newspaper and TV Editors in the country, which has indicted the government on many counts of unofficial censorship in the past, seems divided and cautious. Some smaller press unions have welcomed the unofficial “boycott” wholeheartedly.
The matter may well come before the Supreme Court of India in some form or the other. The court already has public interest writs seeking its directions on control of hate speech, whichever is the source — politician, religious leader, or TV anchor.
Tempering the debate is the realization that a free press is crucial to India remaining a secular and democratic country, supple enough to rebound from any regime, however disastrous. There is no surety that a boycott is a good precedent.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.