As we celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, a thought experiment that could yield provocative insights would be to explore what Gandhi would say about different aspects of modern India. Since Gandhi was a journalist before he became a political revolutionary, I will conjecture how he would have responded to the state of the Indian media today.
Gandhi, the journalist
Gandhi started as a journalist with the Vegetarian in England, before launching a weekly newspaper called Indian Opinion in South Africa. When he returned to India, he founded publications like Navajivan , Young India , and Harijan that became communication platforms for the freedom movement.
Also read: A struggle against social orthodoxy
Writing about the Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi highlighted the critical role of the media. He wrote: “I believe that a struggle which chiefly relies upon internal strength can be carried on without a newspaper, but it is also my experience that we could not perhaps have educated the local Indian community, nor kept Indians all over the world in touch with the course of events in South Africa in any other way, with the same ease and success as through Indian Opinion, which therefore was certainly a most useful and potent weapon in our struggle.”
Believing strongly that journalism should be accessible and empowering, Gandhi was an ardent supporter of the regional media. He published Indian Opinion in four languages: English, Gujarati, Hindi, and Tamil. He also inspired other journalists to write in regional languages. On this front, he would have been happy to see that the regional media is flourishing in India today.
Also read: Gandhi and the Gita
Gandhi argued that “one of the objects of a newspaper is... to fearlessly expose popular defects”. Thus, a vital role of the media is to speak truth to power and ensure accountability and transparency. However, today, he would find a media that has mostly acquiesced in a Prime Minister taking no questions at press conferences and generally eats out of his hand. He would have been appalled, for instance, by how the mainstream media avoided asking hard questions on the economy during the 2019 general election. When the Modi government rejected the Periodic Labour Force Survey that showed record levels of unemployment, it was given a free pass. After the election, when it acknowledged that the data was indeed valid, there was no outrage from the media on such an important issue. So, is the Indian media cowed down by epithets such as “presstitute” and “anti-national”? Or is concentrated ownership of Indian media houses by businesses that are afraid of attracting the government’s wrath affecting the editorial line?
The Modi government is already denying advertisements to some media houses. While Gandhi had no problems with big business (and garnered substantial support from them), he did decry a dependence on advertising.
Also read: Gandhi has not spoken his last word
The Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders in August 2019, ranked India 140 out of 180 countries. The report highlighted how criminal prosecution, especially sedition, is rampantly used to gag journalists. It also noted that “at least six Indian journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018”. The recent death anniversary of Gauri Lankesh is a chilling reminder of the cost of standing up for truth in India. A strong critic of communal politics, who refused to sell ad space in her newspaper to protect its integrity, and wrote mostly in Kannada, Gauri was a journalist Gandhi would have been proud of.
Gandhi was ready to face sedition charges for his journalism. In 1922, he pleaded guilty in order to expose the undemocratic nature of the sedition law, which he termed a “prince among the political sections... designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. He would be astounded to see this British-era law being used against journalists and activists today too.
In the era of fake news
Gandhi emphasised that publication of “false news is a crime against humanity... Young India will be stale when truth becomes stale.” He would have been shocked that doctored videos became the basis for demonising student leaders of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The infamous “tukde, tukde gang” label was propagated by TV anchors, who spun malicious and fictitious tales to whip up public frenzy.
Also read: Recovering Gandhi’s religious vision
Further, Gandhi would have been disgusted by prime-time TV debates, which are sensationalist, jingoistic, partisan, exploitative of viewers, and prone to warmongering. Given that journalists can choose what information to share and what aspects to emphasise or downplay, they are in a privileged position to influence thinking, behaviour and attitudes. Gandhi would be saddened by the blatant misuse of this privilege.
One development that would have thrilled Gandhi is the rise of social media platforms. He would see these as empowering technologies that allow citizens to share their ideas and mobilise politically. He would have welcomed how the Internet has allowed independent, non-mainstream journalistic voices to fight on valiantly.
However, the prevalence of fake news on social media would have deeply upset him. Gandhi would find it unbelievable that WhatsApp messages can trigger mobs to lynch people. He would have condemned BJP President Amit Shah when he praised the fake news-spreading capacity of his party members. He would have been relieved that fact-checking sites have emerged to debunk fake news.
Given Gandhi’s foray into Noakhali in 1947, he would have tried his best to communicate with our fellow citizens of Jammu and Kashmir and to lift the lid on what is actually happening there.
Gandhi said, “Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forgo.” At another time he stated: “It is my certain conviction that no man loses his freedom except through his own weakness”. One can only hope that the media heeds his words and reclaims the strength and independence befitting the fourth pillar of our democracy.
M. V. Rajeev Gowda is a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha representing Karnataka. Views are personal