In times when dissent is dangerous, Ravish Kumar’s new book minces no words.
I Speak, Therefore I am.
These five words form the crux of Ravish Kumar’s book The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation. Translated from Hindi into English by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh, this non-fiction narrative is anchored in Kumar’s experience as a broadcast journalist with NDTV India during the Prime Ministerial tenure of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi from 2014 until now.
The television channel Kumar works for is not exactly in the good books of the government. In fact, many in the media world allege that the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a money laundering case against NDTV’s Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy in June 2017 owing to the perception that NDTV is overly critical of the BJP, and was too soft on the earlier government led by the Indian National Congress.
Kumar does not refer to this case in his book, but he adopts a consistently personal tone to highlight how deeply he is affected by the clampdown on dissent. He confesses to being afraid of the harm that might come his way if he continues to ask tough questions of people in power. He is regularly advised by colleagues and well-wishers to tone down his incisive demeanour. However, he cannot help speaking up because that would mean giving up his rights as a citizen in a democracy.
His fears are not unfounded. They are rooted in the understanding that there is a nexus between political parties and non-state actors who mobilize mobs when threats have to be issued, vehicles have to be torched, and people have to be murdered for not falling in line. Kumar is aware that he might come across as alarmist, but it would not be incorrect to say that he echoes the feelings of many citizens who are openly critical of the present government.
While Kumar provides multiple examples of journalists who have been harassed, and falsely accused of engaging in anti-national activities, the most chilling case he recounts is that of Gauri Lankesh who was gunned down in Bengaluru in September 2017. She was known for using her pen to oppose right-wing Hindutva, caste-based discrimination and communal violence.
Kumar does not venture into the legalities but it is worth mentioning that a 21-member Special Investigation Team is probing Lankesh’s murder. One person has been arrested, and it is hoped that the identities of his collaborators will be revealed soon. It is difficult to predict at this moment if all the people who were directly or indirectly involved in Lankesh’s killing will be brought to justice.
Though this brutal act was publicly condemned by the BJP as well as its closest ally the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a large number of the protestors who gathered in solidarity with Lankesh after her death placed the blame squarely on the BJP’s doorstep. Kumar is not keen on playing the role of a judge here. He seems focused on his role as a journalist, and the task of holding the government accountable. It is clear that he would continue to do this, regardless of the ruling party. This stance seems unlike that of other famous journalists who, in their mandate to fight the BJP, have begun championing other parties.
Kumar’s book is interested in a broader discussion on topics such as democracy, citizenship and freedom. Therefore, he is open to scrutinizing the role of his own media fraternity in contributing to the decline of ethical standards. He is anguished by the spread of fake news which is made possible by journalists who do not verify facts, and run stories planted by the BJP’s Information Technology Cell. Some of these journalists also humiliate guests on television talk shows if they express views that challenge the status quo.
Kumar writes in a manner that is endearing because it speaks of his vulnerability and his strength. He has great regard for the sacrifices of the people who fought for India’s freedom from British rule, and it hurts him when he sees how the dream of a vibrant democracy has been thwarted by small-minded individuals who spread hate in the name of religion and caste. His antidote to this travesty is an impassioned call for fellow Indians to exercise their rights as citizens, and speak up.
The book is not all frustration and fury. Kumar also salutes individuals who have resisted the politics of intimidation, and taken courageous steps to safeguard the rule of law. One recipient of his adulation is journalist Gulab Kothari from Rajasthan Patrika who wrote an editorial saying that his newspaper would boycott the state’s Chief Minister until she revoked an ordinance to stop anyone from reporting on corruption charges against public servants, magistrates and judges.
Another is the father of a young Hindu man named Ankit Saxena who was fatally stabbed for being in love with a Muslim woman. Though there have been attempts by others to give this incident a communal colour, the father has made it clear that he wants justice for his son, but not by making it about religion. Kumar does not mention him, but activist Harsh Mander has been at the forefront of a massive civil society initiative called Karwan-e-Mohabbat that involves visiting families of those who have lost their loved ones to hate lynchings. His team has travelled to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Delhi.
It is true that many people are becoming too cautious about what they post on social media lest they end up offending someone powerful who might make their life miserable. They are scared that speaking up might lead to them being silenced. On the other hand, it is also true that many people are rising up to claim their rights because they do not want to cower in fear or lead a life less dignified. The farmers’ march in Maharashtra is perhaps the best example from recent times.