As a democratic republic in its 75-year history, India has not yet fu ly attained the freedoms in its constitution.
Although India never enjoyed the robustness of Western democracy, it has always been viewed as a troubled yet functioning democracy since its independence from Britain in 1947. It won praise for being able to conduct largely free and fair elections, adopting secularism as a constitutional value, establishing an effectively functioning national parliament, and other fine state institutions among other things. Like in any other democratic setup, the media played a critical role in India’s collective endeavours to meet the high standards set by its founding fathers, visionaries like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. There were times when democracy in the country faltered, more evidently between 1975 and 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a nationwide Emergency, and the media, in the words of a seasoned Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Lal Krishna Advani, “were only asked to bend but they crawled”. Yet arguably the state of media today is much worse than it was during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
In the intervening years, the media suffered from restrictions imposed by all parties that came to rule India. However, the situation now is quite alarming. Many in the country describe Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government rule as a period of “undeclared Emergency”. In power since 2014, Modi’s iron grip on media houses is progressively tightening as is the case with all other institutions meant to keep a check on his authority. India’s ranking on the Press Freedom Index plummeted to 142 in 2020 following his victory for a second consecutive term in the 2019 general elections.
Apparently, as the Prime Minister of India, Modi is successfully doing what he could not do as the Chief Minister of the western state of Gu- jarat during the gruesome three-day anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 where more than a thousand Muslims were raped and murdered under his watch. In a bone-chilling interview with a reputed international media house, when asked what his biggest regret was, Modi said it was his lack of management of the media.
Most Indian television news channels have become a scene for popular on-screen personalities turning into party propagandists as they increasingly collaborate with ruling party politicians and pro-government corporate houses. These channels play a key role in spreading government propaganda through their debate shows as well as social media accounts. Those resisting this trend have been left with no other option but to resign. Remarkably though, a lot of these principled journalists have taken their work to YouTube and are running some of the most-watched news programs on the platform. Despite all the odds, they are preventing independent journalism from dying out in India.
One of the reasons that make Indian media vulnerable to government and corporate interference is that for decades newspapers and television stations have relied on advertisements from them for revenue generation. As a result, pro-Modi billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited has progressively come to own a large chunk of mainstream TV news channels, a consequence of which is the fact that Reliance-owned media houses are some of the biggest Modi apologists and peddlers of fake news favouring the ruling of BJP.
On the face of it, the Indian media is one of the most diverse ones in the world with publications in more than 123 languages and dialects, however, this diversity is also being rendered useless as they are all but gradually being taken over by a few crony corporate houses. India has also become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists in terms of violence against them by both state and non-state actors. According to Reporters Without Borders, four journalists were killed in 2020 because of their journalism. Furthermore, physical attacks against reporters on the ground by police and political mobs are an everyday reality, and online intimidation and harassment are consistent, so much so that some of the prominent government critics like Ravish Kumar from NDTV cannot even step out on the streets without high-level security.
In its 75-year history as a democratic republic, India has never fully realised the freedoms enshrined in its glorious constitution. However, because the ruling BJP and its ideological master Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) do not approve of this constitution, they are particularly ruthless in attacking constitutional freedoms, including freedom of the press.