What a Modi government might mean for freedom of speech

Let’s face it.
Let’s face it.
Image: Reuters
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To a lover of democracy, the fervor surrounding the Indian election results is seductive. A record number of voters—the most in history, anywhere—have collectively pushed the frontier of Indian democracy forward but, quietly, another face of that same democracy has simultaneously regressed further into the shadows.

It is hard to imagine anything being chilly as temperatures continue to climb towards the beginning of monsoon, but the frigidity in India is in words, not places. Free speech, or more broadly, freedom of thought, is the foundation of modern India, a foundation that has been slowly crumbling for some time. This crumbling accelerated alarmingly during the elections. “Free” speech now needs to come with an asterisk in India that reads, “free, so long as you agree.” Based on precedent, such a resounding victory by Modi has the potential to dismantle this freedom completely, a worry many journalists have shared in hushed voices amongst themselves.

“I am shit scared for India’s future and I am afraid to stay here,” confided one journalist in Mumbai.

“I will probably lose my job—I am really worried,” whispered another in Ahmedabad.

“Get ready for a much scarier and bleaker media scene in India,” lamented a third over coffee in Delhi.

These journalists, and many others who have all tellingly requested to remain anonymous, have sensed this change in the climate and it is one of the most worrisome trends the election has borne witness to. India has always been an emotional democracy; Indians defend their beliefs with zeal, which is an admirable trait—no one wants ambivalence. But pathos, or passion, is only one part of Aristotle’s triangle. Logos, or logic, cannot be forgotten.

Since I was first introduced to India, I’ve known that the usually open parameters of free speech are not quite “free” here. When I was a student at St. Stephen’s, I frequently brought conversations to a dead halt by expressing views that were just not acceptable. While I was used to throwing out hypothetical extremes for the sake of wholesome argument back home, like “maybe the U.S. should abolish the minimum wage,” equivalent extremes in Indian conversations were dismissed with the vigor of blasphemy. Eventually, I learned to remain silent. This “chilling effect,” as it is known in legal circles, hurts everyone.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some policy recommendations I might give to the new administration:

1. Cede Kashmir entirely to Pakistan and China. The crores upon crores of rupees it has cost India defending that territory for the past half century and the billions more it will cost in the future can be better spent on feeding starving children.

2. Phase out all subsidies completely. They falsely alter the market, waste resources, and they are a “give a fish” instead of a “teach to fish” solution.

3. End government spending on cricket. It’s popular enough and can be fully supported privately. Let’s get some other sports in the mix.

4. Completely demolish the Babri site and build a secular university. I cannot think of a better ideal to build an altar to than knowledge.

I don’t actually subscribe to those beliefs, but if I did I would expect threats, maybe a bandh, and a rioting mob outside my residence. What I should expect is a series of counter arguments and criticism from opponents and a healthy media that critiques my stances. I should not be afraid. If you go back and re-read all of those stances, in each one there is an idea worth considering. Debating, at least, even if it is ultimately dismissed. Sadly, that middle area of the speech spectrum is eroding, particularly with the BJP and its followers, leaving only room for the two extremes: agree or get out.

Congress, though, is not blameless and has presided over a decidedly cool India. I’ve lost count of the books that have been banned, films that have been protested, reputations that have been impugned, apologies that have been demanded, bandhs that have been called, riots that have been started, and inciting speeches that have been made because of some perceived transgression against the “Hindu way” or the “Muslim way” or, more broadly, the “Indian way.” India slid into this dangerously cold territory a while ago, but to slide further would be disastrous.

While Congress has kept Indian discourse chilled, if past trends continue then a Modi victory has the potential to make things truly arctic. An article by Shivam Vij in Scroll a few months ago shows how Modi has dealt with journalists for doing their job. A recent Quartz piece highlighted several more:

“Resignations from high-level positions at Indian media houses in recent months have been linked to pressure to cover the BJP or Modi in a positive light, including India TV’s editorial director, the former editor of Open Magazine, a popular talk show host and the former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, whose apartment caretaker was assaulted in Delhi this year, reportedly for the editor’s  outspoken comments against the BJP.”

The resignation of a college principal was demanded because he wrote a cautionary letter to his students, imploring them to make an informed decision. Politicians threatened opponents, saying their views would “only have a place in Pakistan.” As the list continues to grow, the temperature continues to fall.

More than businessmen, a cadre of society you do not want to scare away are journalists. The BJP has been particularly intolerant of criticism and is flanked by followers who troll dissent online by plugging their ears and screaming, “You’ve been paid off by Congress!” But the people who pay journalists to ask the tough questions are their editors – being critical is not a conspiracy.

Not every instance of this social censorship is perpetrated by Modi personally, but by not strongly condemning it amongst his followers, he is silently condoning it. Most Modi followers chant their icon’s name because they see Modi as personifying the strong leadership India needs, but it would be a grievous error to equate strength with an aptitude for muzzling criticism. To be strong does not mean to be unopposed and silencing the voices of your detractors does not make you louder, it only makes you a bully and chills the volume of the democratic process.

Even without government pressure, media in India has already been slipping. Watching Arnab Goswamy’s election day coverage felt like the dregs of a holiday gathering where the night ends in drunk relatives yelling at one another. John Oliver even made fun of him for it. For years I’ve jokingly referred to the pillars of Indian media sensationalism as the ABCD’s—Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, and Devotional—but the joke is not funny. There is also the blatant commercialism of the media. While everyone focused on the ethics of Modi’s selfie on polling day in Ahmedabad, no one seemed to care that the cover of the Times of India that day was a full page BJP ad with an even bigger Modi pic. On polling day in Varanasi, arguably the most important contest in the election, a BJP ad completely covered the front pages of Dainak Jagran, the most read newspaper in India according to the Media Research Users Council, Hindustan, and Sahara, obscuring the real purpose of these publications: news. The media needs to collectively step up their game.

“Free” speech is clean because it only reinforces existing beliefs, but the real thing is actually quite messy. It’s not fun to listen to someone you fundamentally disagree with, especially if the applause they receive is louder than yours. Yet, while I may debate you until I am out of breath, protest you until I collapse, and vote against you when given the chance, I will even more vehemently defend your ability to speak. On this, we must all agree.

This is my plea: that the discourse in India can course-correct and warm up to ideas that may not be as conventional, as comfortable, as we all might like. I hope Modi can turn a new page – embrace his mandate to govern and simultaneously be a steward of India’s freethinking soul. As a decision maker, I would want every view to be on the table because only with the greatest selection can a person make the best choice.

I referred earlier to Aristotle’s triangle, but why even turn to Ancient Greece? India was one of the original pioneers of logical thought. Indians looked at a previously impossible logical problem – using something to describe nothing – and decided to simply draw a circle around empty space. Thus the concept of zero was born. Indians need to draw another circle, but this time around all thoughts and ideas, from agreeable to distasteful, and give this seemingly impossible concept a name: India.