Discrediting dissent is a disservice to India

The people of J&K are angry, sullen, hurt and alienated.

Article 370 is no longer operative. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) no longer enjoys special status. Further, it is no longer even a state. It has now been made into a Union Territory (UT), which implies substantially reduced powers to the Assembly of the state, and a far more powerful lieutenant governor, who will be the agent of the central government. Even more, J&K has been divided. Ladakh has been hived away from it; J&K is truncated now.

All of the above has been done without any consultations with the people of J&K, since the state Assembly is suspended and there is President’s rule. Passing such a law in Parliament, in spite of express provisions in the Constitution that the opinion of the people of J&K is a precondition, was a legal sleight of hand. Nevertheless, the deed is done. In many respects, this was the easier part of the exercise. The real challenge begins now.

The people of J&K are angry, sullen, hurt and alienated. The government, on its part, is attempting to put a heavy lid on such emotions through a massive armed presence, and a total information clampdown. Landlines have reportedly been made partially operable, but mobile telephony, broadband, internet and cable television have been shut down. The official position quite clearly is that no news from J&K is good news.

What we do have, however, are official statements, and official handouts. Not unexpectedly, these seek to paint a picture that all is well, there have been no protests, and normalcy is fast returning to the Valley. But, what exactly is the truth? Do the people of India have the right to know what is actually happening, or is the truth now solely the preserve of the officialdom that is running the state?

There is a segment of people who believe that believing unquestionably what the government is saying is the patriotic thing to do. Regrettably, there is a section of the media too that believes this. Such an approach brings into question what journalistic ethics are all about. What, after all, is the dharma of the media? It is to impartially and courageously expose the truth. For this, must it regard official versions as the gospel truth? Or, should it go beyond them, and try to find out what is exactly unfolding on the ground?

Those from the media, and some public-spirited citizens, who seek to interrogate what the government wishes to project, are being attacked by a triple whammy. Firstly, it is said that they are anti-national, as though to question a government narrative is equivalent to sedition. Secondly, they are accused of “helping Pakistan”. This is a truly bizarre allegation. We are a democracy. That is our strength. Diversified opinion, not blind toeing of the government line, is what distinguishes us from totalitarian states. Maybe, some of the criticism of the government, that is the normal template of a democracy, is utilised by the propaganda machine of a nation hostile to us. So be it. India cannot erode its democratic vibrancy for this reason. For, what can the counter-argument be? That India ceases to be a democracy valuing dissent and debate, because Pakistan may use this dissent as propaganda against us?

Thirdly, there are those who damn any version not congruent with that being peddled by the government as ‘fake news’. The assumption here is that official handouts are unquestionable, and that any version different from them, is part of the deplorable business of “fear-mongering” through deliberately falsified news. Fake news as part of malicious and premeditated propaganda is condemnable, but to put all versions of the truth differing from the government into that category is equally so.

Certain sections of the media must squarely be put in the dock for this state of affairs. There are some anchors, and some TV channels, who habitually put anyone who interrogates a government version as a luminary of the “tukde tukde gang”. To my mind, this is an absolutely unacceptable conflation of dissent with sedition. It is also a betrayal of all journalistic ethics, that require the media to be open to a bouquet of opinions, rather than reflexively dismiss those that differ from that of the government. The job of a responsible media in any democracy is to interrogate the government - not for the sake of it - but on the well-founded belief that a media that does not question the government is undemocratically sycophantic.

All this is relevant to the present condition prevailing in J&K. The government's attempt to restore normalcy, in very adverse conditions, is welcome. We wish it all success. We also hope that this normalcy is achieved peacefully and without violence or loss of precious lives. It is also to be hoped that Pakistan's attempts to meddle in J&K, is given a befitting reply, and our armed forces give an effective riposte to Pakistan's well-entrenched policy of sponsoring terrorism against us.

But, this being said, J&K is in a volatile situation, and a total information clampdown is hardly a long term — or even short term — answer to the right of the nation to know the unfolding situation there. Indeed, it is the absence of this transparency which will give a free hand to all kinds of rumours and speculations, and the fake news with the tag of which genuine, and constructive, queries are being tarred today.

The time has come for certain sections of the media to introspect. It is not necessary for the media to be always sceptical or critical of government. As per their editorial line, some media houses could be more supportive of the government. This is understandable, and is no different to what happens in other vibrant democracies of the world. But, to unquestionably and obsequiously endorse the line of the government is not the hallmark of media impartiality. All of us have to strive to make India not only the world's largest democracy in numerical terms, but also in spirit. Those who seek to reduce it to a banana republic are doing the cause of democratic India great harm.

The writer, an author and former diplomat, is a member of the JD(U). The views expressed are personal.

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