It goes against the grain of the Indian electorate’s traditional beliefs to associate the Congress with bigotry—notwithstanding the pogroms that happened on its watch, and allegedly at its instance—or with playing watchdog, although the idea of the Aadhaar was mooted by Nandan Nilekani, several cartoonists and writers were accused of sedition by its lawmakers, and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned in India even before it was banned in Iran when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister.
Similarly, voters are unlikely to associate the BJP with corruption, notwithstanding the business scams and the bizarre flights of the wanted men, or an exercise as futile and inconvenient—and undemocratic—as demonetisation.
We like to think that corruption will end when the BJP comes to power, and communal hatred will end when it is the Congress’ turn.
Hartosh Singh Bal’s piece in The Caravan, in which he refers to documents prepared by a Group of Ministers in consultation with partisan journalists, in order to prepare a roadmap to silence the media, has gone viral. Among the ideas he discusses from the documents he says he has accessed is that of colour-coding journalists, and ensuring “leaks” to a selected group. We pretend to be shocked, and we pretend we have forgotten all about the Niira Radia tapes.
The outcome of the US election, and the actions of the new President Joe Biden make for a stark reminder of what politics really is—an intoxicating power game, one which prompts the players to do anything to retain the power and prestige that are suddenly theirs. Biden’s hesitation to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his attitude to detention camps have caused disillusionment among the voters, particularly the volunteers who worked at the grassroots level thinking they were changing America.
Just as, if the Congress comes back to power, the Indian liberal Twitterati will believe they have changed India 280 characters at a time and the Instagram liberals will believe they have changed India one farmer photo at a time—just until a new “draconian” act is passed. Nothing will really change. Of course, any party taking over from another will reverse a few key decisions and find the odd way to mark its territory within the first month of assuming power. But then, it will continue to do the same things as its predecessor, while naming them differently. A good education can be helpful, you see, as can one’s command of English. The very articulate Barack Obama was able to spin his decisions far better than George W. Bush, whose pronouncements included, “They misunderestimate the compassion of our country.”
There is no political party in the world that does not have a coterie of journalists and an agenda for the narrative it wants to weave in the media.
The only surprising thing about the document The Caravan claims to have accessed is the unbelievable stupidity of putting down in writing such damning evidence of intent. Whether it is authentic or not, it could serve as something of a toolkit—oh, that word again—to any government that wants to bend the media to its will.
We must accept that free speech, freedom of movement, and privacy of any kind will be increasingly restricted in India, as it will in the rest of the world. We leave digital footprints and fingerprints everywhere. We can be traced through multiple methods of surveillance.
If we want to continue to tell our stories, we must perhaps model ourselves on Iran.
Since the Revolution of 1979, Iran has become a changed country—one in which journalists and bloggers know they could be “disappeared”, and a stint at Evin Prison is almost a rite of passage. Words are routinely banned from newspapers and other media, and journalists are forced to find alternatives to convey what they want to.
At some point, Iranians began to turn to music and poetry and literature, first underground and then above ground, once the creators had managed to find asylum in countries where they were not in immediate danger from the regime.
In this context, Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, comes as a stunning form of documentation. The translator chose to remain anonymous, suggesting that he or she is not on safe ground. The novel’s tone, narrator, and storyline are drawn from the magic realist genre, but it becomes more than an allegory—it is a historical record, a fearless one told through the prism of fiction, narrating events that are real and remembered through characters that are more or less imagined.
We live in a world where the Left and the Right, the reactionaries and the moderates, have begun to sound like each other, where the self-proclaimed liberals’ fear of seeming Islamophobic has allowed countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to spread a toxic form of Islam. Worse, it has acquiesced in or even caused the silencing of crucial voices from those countries, voices that their governments considered “too progressive”.
In this context, protest in the media cannot be restricted to news and social networks.
Perhaps we should stop bemoaning the fictionalisation of news and turn to forms traditionally associated with fiction—cinema and literature—to document the events and atmosphere of our era.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com