Guest post by BISWAJIT ROY
Now that the xenophobic and paranoid big media clamour for slapping sedition charges against Arundhati Roy and others for speaking up their mind on Kashmir, has temporarily subsided, it is time for some reflection. This clamour has only underlined the increasingly shrill bigotry of a section of Indian journalists who are deeply embedded in the right-wing statist mission, a la Arnab Goswami. Their stakes in the race for Padma awards or Rajya Sabha nominations may be one of their personal motives for behaving the way they do – baying for the blood of the dissenters and whistle-blowers while ignoring the ground reality in Kashmir valley today. But there may also be corporate institutional compulsions. However, they are espousing bigotry at the expense of the media’s role as the protector and disseminator of dissent in public life as well as watchdog against excesses and abuses of power by the government and other wings of the State in the name of national security and national interests. As a media professional, I would like to share some of my encounters with these self-proclaimed guardians of Indian nationalism in media and frontiers of mainstream journalism.
The Kargil War: the self-proclaimed guardians of national interests I was working with a TV News channel in Delhi during Kargil war. The latest Indo-Pak hot war over Kashmir was the first televised war in the subcontinent. Caught unawares by Pakistani covert moves to control commanding heights beyond the Line of Control in Kashmir’s Kargil and Drass sector that threatened India’s strategic positions, BJP-led NDA government launched an orchestrated campaign promoting plastic nationalism. It was primarily aimed to deflect the domestic Opposition and secondly to rally the public opinion in favour of the government’s war-efforts. Mainstream Indian media lapped it up as an unforeseen opportunity for multiplying their TRP and circulation.
Soldiers have always been made the most revered heroes when a nation is at war, though they are usually forgotten in peacetime. So frenzy of hero-worshipping drowned the concerns about Indian army’s lack of operational preparedness that turned them into sitting duck for Pakistani artillery positioned at better heights in the first part of the war. Imitating a catchy Cola ad campaign, young middle class army officers made a war cry—‘Ye Dil Mange More’. They became nation’s real-life macho action heroes. Media willingly collaborated with the propaganda blitz on glorification and mystification of soldiers and war.
Footages or sound-bytes of those instant celebrities of the nation’s first televised war were used deliberately as the ammunition of the TRP war that was raging parallel. The big media’s cocktail of elite patriotism of our political class and page- three glitterati that blended with rhetorical praises and promises for common soldiers was selling high. Its feverish marketing blurred all lines between the Cola war and another gory battle for Kashmir.
In this backdrop, I was trying to do some journalistic reality check on some aspects of the war, albeit, within the patriotic parameters. I tried to expose the hollowness of plastic nationalism that flooded soldiers at the Kargil front with tall promises by governments, parties, politicians, corporate groups and civil society organizations including media houses. They promised to take care of post-war needs of bereaved families of fallen soldiers and look after the war survivors with amputated limbs.
I tried to unravel the myth of nation’s gratitude by little investigation into the status of the promises made to common soldiers during the earlier wars.
I interviewed some family members of the fallen soldiers settled in Delhi and its suburbs who had lost their breadwinners during 1965 and 1971 wars as well as some surviving infantrymen. They revealed that the politicians and bureaucrats and corporate honchos did not honour the pledges made to the families of the forgotten heroes of earlier wars. The piece of farmland or homestead, government or private jobs, fund to open food kiosks or telephone booths, vehicle permit and gas stations as well as admission of their orphaned children in government school and colleges—most of these promises were never fulfilled. They were left to fend for themselves. I thought people have the right to this information and let them know the plight of the former heroes when government and media joined hand to create hype over the new generation of cannon-fodder.
I also found that situation was far better for the families of educated and middle class officers. Many of their families had contacts in army headquarters and defence ministry. They also enjoyed social and political connections to pull the strings in government babudom. The Indian army, despite being described as a great melting pot of multi-ethnic, multi-religious Indian society, never really had shed off its colonial legacy of class, caste, religious and gender biases. The contrast between experiences of the better-connected officers’ families and the common soldiers only underlined that reality.
My second story was on the inadequate war preparation that compromised the lives of soldiers. The government was busy in drumming up supports for its ‘befitting reply to the betrayers of Indian goodwill’ while claiming recapture of one or other strategic heights. But soldiers were freezing to death due to inadequate supply of proper winter cloths, shoes and other provisions needed to survive on the frosty heights. Secondly, the lack of night-vision glasses and other equipment needed for nocturnal moves turned many of them sitting ducks for Pakistani artillery and machinegun positions located at better heights.
This story was based on the interviews with the injured soldiers who had been brought down to army hospitals in Delhi from Drass and Kargil sectors. I also incorporated opinions of some retired generals and defence experts on these shortcomings and their effects on battle-preparedness of the soldiers and their morals.
My boss, a pro- RSS media celebrity, who was not in the town when I had planned and executed the stories with the nod of the next man in the hierarchy came back and previewed them little before they were about to be aired. He immediately spiked both of my stories and summoned me.
“Yab sara desh sarkar or armyke sath hai, tum donoke piche chhori goph ne ka kam kar rahe ho (You are back-stabbing both the government and army when people are supporting them), ‘’ he yelled and threatened to fire me.
Nevertheless, I tried my hand in ‘subversive journalism’ again by highlighting the contrast between the Vajpai government’s policy on the use of nuclear weapons and RSS campaign on it. Buddha had smiled at Pokhran desert few months ago. After India had conducted its second series of nuclear tests, RSS was demanding that time was ripe for teaching Pakistan a nuke lesson ( Ab sabak sikhane ka samay aa gaya- said an editorial of Panchayanya, the RSS organ). But the government was keen to follow the ‘no first attack’ policy, presumably under US pressure, though its claims of securing a ‘credible nuclear deterrence’ had already been deflated following government’s failure to stop Pakistan’s retaliatory nuke tests and its subsequent surreptitious moves in Kargil and adjoining areas.
This time I was not lucky enough to complete my interviews. As soon as I began interviewing RSS leaders at their headquarters, I got a call from my office ordering to me pack up and rush back. “Now I realize that you work for the CPM. Henceforth you won’t file any story without discussing it with me,’’ ordered my boss. Next week, he fired me on the ground of my ‘incompetence’.
I was really not a communist mole in the RSS den. The mainstream lefts never really opposed the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. In fact, I did not find a single leader of Indian mainstream communists issuing a statement opposing the second series of Pokhran blasts in unequivocal terms. They joined some other anti- BJP parties in congratulating Indian nuclear establishment for their feats but criticised the BJP-led NDA government for the n-tests. Similarly, they were hardly serious in organising the public opinion against the war mongering by joining hands with anti-war forces at both sides of the border. Instead, they stuck to the Opposition dharma by pulling up the government for its failure to stop the Pakistan army’s surreptitious moves into Indian Kashmir. “We cannot risk political isolation by going against the tide, let the popular emotion subside,” a senior Left leader had commented in private.
Renegades in the army of patriotic journalists
It was not only my channel boss, a pro-government journalist, who found me lesser Indian. The capitulation of almost entire Indian liberal media along with almost the entire political class to the Hindu right-wing jingoism was evident. All sweet talk of civil society initiatives for people- to-people relations between India and Pakistan, all pangs of peace-loving doves and exponents of regional co-operation were suspended at both sides of the borders once the guns went galore. In this scenario, journalists too were engaged in outsmarting each other in the game of patriotism. “Brigadier Sab, bahot ho gaya. Aab Lahore par atom bomb gira do (Sir, enough is enough. It is high time to nuke Lahore),” said one of my peers at the sidelines of the army briefing during the Kargil war.
I tried to douse her flames of avenging zeal by reminding that Amritsar would also be scorched in case of Lahore being nuked. Nuclear fireballs and radioactive clouds would not bother to stop at the border. It only provoked a barrage of invectives from a group of fellow journalists, mostly from upcountry states. “You Bongs have a holier- than-thou attitude. You never know that what India needs to solve this nagging problem over Kashmir – a nuke bomb on Islamabad,” shouted one of them. It was not politically incorrect Bongs alone, but Biharis and Mallus or Sardars, for that matter, anybody considered ‘peaceniks’— faced same kind of innuendo from their hyper-patriotic superiors and colleagues.
When a group of us met the army public relation officials to expedite our turn for visiting the war theatre, a friendly official told three bearded guys like me to change our ‘Mullah look’ before leaving for Kargil. Taken aback, we wanted to know whether it was the part of any dress and appearance code mandatory for visiting journos. “You know, war has now reached a crucial stage. Uniformed men at both sides are fighting at positions which are often stone’s throw away from each other. They are engaged in exchange of dirty invectives including no-holds-bar religious hatred. This is a part of psychological warfare where extra shot of adrenaline is needed to keep ‘esprit de corps’ at freezing heights. You guys are looking like Mullahs and our boys may not like it,’’ the officer said.
As we argued that this kind of communal profiling of the ‘enemy’ was not befitting with the image of secular Indian army, we were shocked to learn the reaction of some of our colleagues. “Why the hell you guys are lecturing on secular niceties. We are fighting against Pakistan and Pakis are Muslims,’’ one of them said.
On another occasion, some of my friends drew flak from their superiors as they wrote about a young Pakistani army officer whose body was found close to Tiger Hill after Indian army recaptured the strategic height following a bloody battle. A letter was found in the wallet of the officer in which his wife requested him to take leave and come home to attend his toddling daughter’s birthday. “Tumhari Ladli guria rahe dekh rahi hai (your beloved little doll is waiting for you),’’ his wife had written to him. We heard it from an Indian army official and immediately lapped it up as a ‘good human story’. Some made it politically correct by attributing the death of the young officer and his family’s misfortune to the bloody misadventure launched by war-mongering generals and bigot politicians of Pakistan. Few others thought of lamenting on the tragic loss of young lives at the alter of avenging nationalism or wounded national pride across the battle-line. We have already witnessed and covered many such heart-wrenching last journeys of fallen Indian officers and jawans across the country. But that angle to story of the fallen Pakistani officer evoked derision within the fraternity, high and low. “You can’t equate the Ourbani of our martyrs and fallen dushmans. They attacked our land and paid the price. That’s all,’’ said one of the newspaper bosses while spiking the copy of a friend of mine.
The idea of India and nation-state’s perpetual war at its margin
I still remember the poignant scene that I had witnessed at Moirang in Manipur, close to Indo-Myanmar border, in early nineties. I was working for a Kolkata-based vernacular daily at that time. It was one of the war theatres in Indian North-East during Second World War where Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Japanese army combine breached the British defence at several places during their Kohima and Imphal campaign in 1944 that coincided to formation of provisional Indian government. INA unfurled the national tricolor in Moirang on their way to Imphal. An INA memorial museum now stands at Moirang with an imposing statue of Bose in front of it reminding the tragic battle that ended in heavy casualties and torturous retreat of the INA.
But the irony of history struck me when I found a heavily armed column of Indian army stationed opposite the memorial, to protect the statue and the museum from the militant secessionist attacks. As the INA veterans, gathered to commemorate the history, saluted the iconic statue of their former supreme commander with choked voices, tears rolled down from the wrinkled face of one of their Meitei comrades, Bir Nilmani Singh. I asked the frail, spectacled old warrior later about the tragedy of the tricolor which he and many of his Meitei, Naga and Kuki friends held high but now hated by a good section of their children or grandchildren. “Don’t ask me why our children now hate to be called Indians or consider tricolor as the symbol of their subjugation. Ask the leaders who rule from Delhi,’’ the Meitei elder said with an unmistakably anguished tone.
Recalling his fond memories of Bengali delicacies during his fugitive years as an Indian freedom fighter in different parts of Bengal, he took to me his ancestral home where INA said to have founded its brigade headquarters before being forced to retreat through Burmese and Malay jungles. In his accented Bengali, he insisted that Bose himself had come to his place. The old man who himself became a convert to the dream of legendary Manipuri communist leader Hijam Irabat Singh that envisaged an independent republic of Manipur within an USSR-type India reminded me that the father of Naga freedom movement, Angami Phizo was also an INA veteran.
The disjunction between the Indian mainstream nationalism and the ‘sub-nationalisms’ at its periphery was more appalling when I visited Kangla palace at the heart of Manipur’s capital town, Imphal. Local journalist friends reminded me of the import of the place in the history and culture of the state as well as its link to the Indian epic Mahabharata and Vaisnavite movement in Bengal. Bhavrubahana, the offspring of the romance between the Manipuri princess Chitrangada and Arjuna, the wandering third Pandava of Mahabharata, is believed to be the mythological progenitor of Meitai royal family. The cultural meaning of the romance between the Center and the margin of ancient Indian civilization, immortalised by Tagore in his dance-drama, Chitrangada, may be explained in terms of ‘Sanskritisation’ of North-east India. Kangla, being the temporal abode of Meitei serpent God as well as the home of the royal family with its mythological umbilical cord connected to mainstream India, is central to the Manipuri consciousness and identity. Social historians and culture theorists have underlined the political significance of the mythologies, metaphors and memories—the role of past in the making of present ‘self’, both collective and individual. Kangla is one of its best reminders in postcolonial India.
It was wedded to the history of Indian as well as Manipuri freedom struggle against the British imperialism. Manipuri prince Bir Tikendrajit Singh and his Naga minister general Thangal went to gallows in front of the palace after they had killed the British officials leading the raid of Manipur by Assam Rifles. The colonial army captured Kangla after a gory battle and turned it into a strategic garrison of Assam Rifles.
India attained freedom but Kangla continued to be the garrison of same Assam Rifles. The government of India refused to demilitarize Kangla despite popular local demands, on the ground of its strategic importance for the armed forces in their fight against secessionist insurgents. The central government officials rejected the local sentiments and movement to restore Kangla to the community as ultra-instigated. But this rejection only helped the secessionists who turned it into the rallying point for the campaign against Indian state and military. Kangla became the ‘epitome of Manipuri subjugation and Indian imperialism’ for new generations of Meitei who have been easily drawn to the movement for ethnic revivalism denying its mythological and historic relation with India.
As a result, Bengali script for Manipuri language, which was adopted during the heydays of Bengal’s influence on Manipuri court after the royal family had converted to Vaisnava cult of Sri Chiatanyadeva. I found many non-insurgents sympathetic to the ultra views. “ If Jorasanko Thakurbari (the ancestral house of Tagore’s family in north Kolkata and one of the cradle of Bengal renaissance) was turned into a garrison, what would have been the reaction of the Bengalis?” asked a student of Manipur university when I met the student leaders in search of the roots of secessionism and insurgency.
Immediately I recalled the question I had encountered in another ‘disputed territory’ with divided history. “I have read Tagore. But have you read Bhanubakht, the great Nepali poet,’’ a young teacher asked me in Darjeeling hills during the Gorkhaland agitation in late eighties. Neither the relevance of the historical analogy between Kangla and Thakurbari nor the comparative literary merit of Tagore and Bhanubakht are pertinent here. But the political import of cultural referral points in the construction of ethnic identity and the poignant role it plays in triggering the discontents against the state-sponsored discourse of Indian nationalism was unmistakable.
I tried to write on my understanding of Mairang and Kangla in the newspaper I was working for. But my bosses chided me for being ‘swayed by the insurgent propaganda’ and hacked my pieces making them ‘hard reporting copies with balanced views’. “More you listen to them, more you become sympathetic to their cause. Don’t waste your time and our space by writing on Naga, Mizo, Meiteis or Bodo history. Better you focus on Bengali issues since they are our readers. A career is waiting for you in Hindi heartland. So concentrate on mainstream journalism,’’ a well-meaning boss advised.
A few years later, the gruesome incident of rape and murder of young Manorama Thangjam by some army personnel in Manipur reminded me of the tears of Bir Nilmani Singh. As a professional journalist and an Indian, I felt ashamed of the nationalist silence that became the part of today’s newsroom consensus, imposed and instilled through carrot and stick policy of the institution and State together. The mainstream media’s silence on Monorama episode broke only after the images of the naked Meitei mothers protesting against the army atrocities shocked the world.
As the Imphal valley erupted in flames, the so-called national media started beaming the images from the volatile margin of the nation. National media maintained balance by focusing on the unrest and the spirals of blame-game. But it hardly endeavoured to investigate independently into the army’s role in the murder of Monorama and expose its denials. Neither had it taken the opportunity to highlight the plight of the civilians who had been caught in the crossfire between the ultras and security forces. Nor it probed into the impact of draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Power Act that had licensed the army to kill suspected militants and their supporters with all impunity. Even today who cares for Gandhian fight of Irom Sharmila Chanu who continues her fast demanding the withdrawal of AFSPA for a decade only to be interrupted by force-feeding by the government.
The stone-pelters and my friends from the Kashmir valley
I did not cover Kashmir as a journalist. Watching the young masked and unmasked stone-pelters on the streets of Kashmir valley and listening to their hate and anger-filled slogans against anything Indian, I think of the smiling faces of the Kashmiri Shawl and carpet-sellers of same age who used to descend like the angels from the heaven on earth during the short-lived Kolkata winter with their sack of colourful products slinging on their back.
Many of these boys and young men were so handsome and charmed the local girls so easily that it caused heartburn among us who had grown up under a fierce sun and sultry weather. Some of them became friends with us and maintained contacts until we lost track over the years. Now I wonder whether Bilal is still there in Sopore or Asfaque in Baramulla, both must be middle-aged now, as and when I read of a police firing or clash over funeral procession in those places.
We shared misgivings against governments, politicians over jobs, lack of business opportunities and corruption from Kashmir to Bengal as we grew up in early seventies. But we hardly spoke of religion and ethnic identities and their clashes. We were neither ‘Indians’ to Bilal and Asfaque even when we visited them later nor they were ungrateful separatists, lambs following the dictates of Pakistani fifth column or Laskar-suspects to us as the valley people are now considered by the mainland public perception. I wonder whether children of my yesteryears’ friends are among today’s stone-pelters facing the ‘Indian’ bullets and what have led them to imbibe a self-consciousness that is different from their fathers.
But as an anguished Indian, not in the sense of being part of the caricature of Westphalian notions of a nation-state, I need to fathom the sense of total alienation and hatred against India in the valley while critically factoring in all complexities of its troubled history and geography. I refuse to mortgage my Indian identity or professional creed to those who are justifying the military occupation-like situations for decades in troubled margins of the nation, be it in Kashmir valley or in the north east, and the killings of young men and women with impunity under the Armed Forces Special Power Act. All in the name of greater interests of Indian democracy, national security and sovereignty.
We have seen boys in uniforms have long been dispatched mainly from the Hindi heartland to pacify the prodigal ethno-religious communities at the rim of the nation-state or the rebellious fragments of the nation inside its heartland like tribals of central India. The margin’s refusal to accept the Centre’s straitjacket notions of nationhood and citizenship, tailored to suit the myopic visions of rulers of divided India, always met by state’s violence which in turn legitimised the secessionist and sectarian violence among a large section of local population.
We need to know what went wrong with the idea of India and Indianness from the perspective of those who refuse to call themselves Indians anymore. While doing so, we don’t need to condone the crimes of those who kill or terrorise the people of other communities or regions in the name of freedom or deny religious, ethnic, political and social plurality in the name of ethnic, community or nationality cohesion or the latest version of two-nation theory of SA Gilani.
But there is no denying of the painful fact that we, the fellow travelers among scribes belong to a minority in mainstream media, for that matter, in the larger public discourse as Arnab Goswamis (I still do not believe how an amiable, soft-spoken and well-measured colleague can morph into such an aggressive, hysterical xenophobe) have almost hegemonised the media scenario. In a sense, it’s a desperate, Quixotic battle to save the liberal tradition of Indian journalism that was endowed by our most enlightened, openhearted and non-statist strand of our nationalism. Rooted in the history of pluralist tolerance and inter-community, inter-region, inter-culture civilisational bonding, it was far more cementing than the blood-stained fetters of reigning paranoid and autocratic nation-state.