In an interview with Abhish K. Bose, eminent journalist BRP Bhaskar speaks about a number of issues including the national media reporting of the troubles in Manipur; the lack of proactive action from the government side.
Ninety one year old BRP Bhaskar is perhaps the senior most functioning Journalist living in the country. Mr Bhaskar who worked in senior editorial positions at The Hindu, The Patriot, Deccan Herald, The Statesman, United News of India, was also a columnist with the Gulf Today Newspaper published from Sharjah. A voice of sanity and clarity, Mr Bhaskar is an active presence in the socio cultural scene of Kerala and an activist who comes down against human rights violations. He was also an editorial advisor to The Asianet News, and handled Media Watch programme for the channel. An eminent scholar on the socio political scenario of India Mr Bhaskar is the recipient of the Swadheshabhimani – Kesari media award given by the Kerala government for comprehensive contributions to Journalism.
In an interview with Abhish K. Bose, he discusses a number of issues including the national media reporting of the troubles in Manipur; the lack of proactive action from the government side; the Kerala government registering case against a TV channel reporter; and against online media groups; a comparison with the intolerance against media and political dissent by the Modi government and the LDF government of Kerala.
Excerpts from the interview
Abhish K. Bose: The new coalition of the twenty six opposition parties named INDIA has recently formed in Bangalore in a bid to challenge the BJP led NDA in the general elections 2024. What do you think will be the prospects of this alliance? Can the alliance break the strangle hold of BJP in the frays?
BRP Bhaskar : I think It is too early to come to any conclusion regarding the prospects of the new formation. Because we have to see how it functions over a fairly long period. The election is still some time away. How this grouping functions can only be assessed realistically after we have seen its workings over a fairly long period to the extent of cohesion in the alliance and the extent of leadership in the alliance. Regardless of what ever they may say in their documents the impression the public is gathering regarding their stand on the political, economic and social issues should have to be taken into account before we can reach any informed conclusion on its prospects.
Abhish K. Bose: Though Prime minister Narendra Modi has broken his silence over the atrocities against the minority tribal communities in Manipur can we take the PMs condemnation of the incidents in Manipur in good sense with little assurance from the government comes in the form of proactive actions to mitigate the crisis. Do you think that under the BJP rule in centre the religious and ethnic minorities of the country will be safe?
BRP Bhaskar : The BJP must realistically accept that there are doubts in people’s mind about its position with regard to religious or any other minorities. This is because they have a majoritarian kind of philosophy on which this party has been built. In the course of their first few decades of working, people have formed certain opinion about the political positions of this party. All this has to be taken into consideration to come to a conclusion on this matter.
Abhish K. Bose: Do you think that the BJP government at the centre has effectively intervened to mitigate the crisis ongoing in Manipur?
BRP Bhaskar : The government actually faces the criticism for being silent on Manipur. The Prime Minister was keeping silence on Manipur. There were reports circulated that the ruling party was also involved in some of the troubles taking place there. This is a very sensitive area, one is a border area, the other is a tribal area where different types of tribes are living and this area has a history of disquiet. Judging by the reports I have seen, I was not able to come to a firm conclusion about the involvement of various political forces in the scene. The reporting of the media is very weak. There are certain regulations with regard to the coverage of sensitive issues of this kind. The media has to be watchful, and should make sure that the situation there should not be worse. By and large the kind of coverage I saw in the media I prefer I will not reach any conclusion. Because of that I do not make any firm categorical statement.
Abhish K. Bose: You said about the functioning of the media is weak in the reporting of the events ….
BRP Bhaskar : I was not speaking about the Manipur media. Manipur has been going through a crisis for weeks now. What is the kind of information we are getting in the national media? I was pointing to the weakness of the national media coverage. I have no access to Manipur media. I don’t know what the Manipur media is doing. I depend on the national media for getting the information. Let me be honest on this, there are problems. The media has to be careful and there are standing guidelines which prohibits the media from identifying groups which are involved in the conflicts. At this moment I am more interested in knowing how authorities are handling things more than how the media is covering things. The Union Home Minister visited the place. But despite his visit the trouble went on. His intervention seemed ineffective. In many parts of our country there are situations of different kinds. There are tensions which can broke out into conflicts. So the first duty of the authorities is to handle the system. They have the intelligence machinery. So when the trouble is brewing they have the means of knowing it and they should nip it in the bud. If they are not able to do it things eventually break out into a confrontation. Then of course the authorities have to act speedily. I also suspect whether the governments interventions was effective because the trouble in Manipur went on for several weeks. The governments intervention is with an announcement especially when it is a law and order situation. I can’t reach any conclusion that they are not acting or the security agencies are not acting. But it is clear that they have not succeeded. So it was primary for them to oversee what steps they have took and why it was not effective so far, and take necessary steps to bring peace to that area.
Abhish K. Bose: The reigning political dispensation spends a lot of money by way of supporting pro-BJP publications, promoting the dissemination of stories profitable to the BJP. Is there any way the practice of journalism can be made once again free and fair as conducive to the health of Indian democracy?
BRP Bhaskar : Various people who have been monitoring the state of the Indian media have published a recent annual report that the situation is getting progressively worse. There are some global agencies which monitor the state of the media all over the world and there recent report shows that the condition has been deteriorating from year to year. So this is a matter of concern to us. This is a matter which should actually be a concern to the government also. Because international agencies are monitoring and publishing reports and their reports of the deteriorating situation brings a bad name to the government. So I think the government should also be watchful to the development and take steps that are in their power to bring back the media freedom. This will improve their own image.
Abhish K. Bose: Many among the political leaders of the country are exuding the hope that Kerala the sole state which is ruled by the left should carry forward the mantle of leadership in the fight against BJP and it’s fascism. However, the Kerala government led by the left is also displaying intolerance against political dissent. In what all ways this government is different from the previous governments of the state?
BRP Bhaskar : There is a kind of contradiction in the way the question is framed. You start with the thing that Kerala is the only left state and then you say that they have to play a proactive role. See one must be very practical about this thing. The party which is in power in only one state can effectively make a difference at the national level? The one state party has a very limited role to play at the national level.
Abhish K. Bose: I was referring about the ideology of the left which is a global ideology rather than its ruling presence in a particular state?
BRP Bhaskar : As a global ideology it has collapsed all over the world and where it survived like in China where they practice is not Marxism. The second part of your question is very broad and is not very easy to answer. The governments have their own logic and their own dynamics. It can be very different from what they profess. What they profess need not be what they practice. Today if you look at the totality of the Indian situation, you have a large number of parties in power in different states. There are several national parties, several regional parties and then you know the so called national parties their hold is very limited. So no party today is in a position to say that we have reach across the nation. At the time of independence Congress is the only party which has a national reach. But that is not the situation today. Many of the parties are regional parties and some of them are confined to their state. In the last couple of decades regional parties are also a presence at the national level. But they come to play only at the election time. After the election time they play a very small role in the coalition. There are so many parties in the NDA led by the BJP. To what extend they have an impact over the BJP government. The situation is extremely amorphous and now everybody is preparing for an election and as far as I can see the chances of the next elections bringing material difference is too dismal. Regarding the criticism of the government intolerance I would like to make it clear that when we compare two governments one is the UDF government led by the Congress party and the second the present government led by the LDF.
If we examine the political parties which leads these two alliances there is a big difference in the approach of the two political parties leading the two fronts. There is an expressed different in the approaches of the UDF government led by the Congress and the LDF government led by CPM. In these two parties the differences of the two major parties in their approach to the democratic system is apparent. The Left is led by the fundamental belief that what is happening in the name of democracy is not proper. However, they are not openly saying it now. The Left front is able to capture power now through elections. However, they reiterate on several occasions regarding their belief on democracy that what is ongoing now is not democracy. That fundamental differences will be reflected in their approaches also. They believe that the right kind of democracy happens as a result of revolution.What they perceive as democracy in India and outside are some games inside capitalism. However, they are not elucidating it now since they are able to win elections through the present mode. In the initial period they said that they did not believe in this kind of democracy, however, they wanted to give political lessons to the public thereby participating in this democracy. However, there occurred a change in their approach once they came to know that they were able to win elections through this mode. Every government’s which is in power are supposed to function on the guidelines of the constitution. The Left parties are also participating in the democratic processes by taking into account that limitations.
Abhish K. Bose: There are criticism from a section that the present government is perpetuating such a larger than life halo thereby dismissing all manner of dissent and resistance from the Kerala society. The pandemonium for the K Rail project is one such instance cited by them?
BRP Bhaskar : I don’t think one should draw any wild conclusion from the K Rail project. When the K Rail project came there were people who favoured it, people who opposed it. It is not possible to go forward with any major railway projects by any state governments unless the central government is with you. Because the Railways are the central subject. The criticism you refered here is binding for all governments. The difference between professing one thing and practicing. There is a near unanimity among all parties functioning in democracy regarding their speech and what they practice once they come to power. The difference when what they say while in opposition and when they come to power is apparent. In a place such as Kerala there are no political party which have the belief that they can come to power on their own. The parties bypassed this limitation through the coalition politics. When Communist party comes to power in the state initially in the state, there were only individuals in coalition formed by them and no parties in the coalition. Later on they formed coalition. No party in the state has the confidence to capture power by their strength. Two parties leading the two coalition are big parties that is Congress and CPM. This will be explicit if we evaluate the election results of the state closely.
Abhish K. Bose: It also needs a unanimous support from the people of the state for the projects implementation…
BRP Bhaskar : I agree. In Kerala, we don’t know where these projects are coming from. There should be a way from which the projects should emerge. A project should emerge through the proper way. We have a long terms of grievances about the railway. The Railways should do a systematic study of the states traffic needs. The state government should set up a body to study Kerala’s traffic needs and evolve an integrated policy regarding what should be the role of the Railways in the state. I think you should probably think of the development of the waterways aimed at the development of Kerala tourism.
Abhish K. Bose: The peculiarity that no party can single handedly win elections may strengthen democracy to the extent that there are less chances for authoritarianism ideally. But is that the ground situation?
BRP Bhaskar. : The tendency to behave with authoritarianism is included in the approach of the concerned parties the circumstances may compel them to do so. But ideally in democracies we consider those parties who respects democratic values to be fit to function in the democracies. But it is a fact that those who participate in democracy need not believe in democracy. When such people comes to power there surfaces a contradiction. Democracy is a belief system that should be assimilated. When the first participated elections in Kerala, the Communist party said that they are not believing in democracy but they are making use of it. Theoretically they have deviated from the stand they have adopted initially.
Abhish K. Bose: The media institutions of the state are facing immense pressure in discharging their functions as the watch dog of the society and to be the perpetual critic of the government and the system. It seems they are imbued by intimidation in the wake of the police registering cases against journalists often reminiscing days of emergency. The case against a TV Channel reporter while reporting an allegation while on live is a testimony. As a journalist you worked at the time of the emergency. How far the current scenario is qualitatively different from that of the period of emergency? Or is it an exaggeration to equate it with the emergency period?
BRP Bhaskar : Emergency has become a kind of benchmark whenever we discusses the interference with the media. We must make a difference. Because the emergency was a measure which is provided for in our constitution. The constitution specifies on what grounds the emergency can be declared. So the 1975 was an unjustified emergency, because it was not intended to meet any of those purposes mentioned in the constitution. Now the situation is different. Emergency cannot be used for those purposes. But, attempts to interfere with the media is what is going on. Emergency and all happened at a particular situation. Now, various methods are used to suppress critical media and some highhanded actions were taken in Kerala against some online media. It is totally illegal.
Abhish K. Bose: You are referring to the actions taken against Marunadan Malayali ?
BRP Bhaskar : Marunadan Malayali, various other things are happening like that. If there are any objections against Marunadan Malayali they should be prosecuted. But what did they do? The police raided the residences of the employees of Marunadan Malayali from one end of India to the other harassing their family. What is the purpose? So the intention was not to deal with the illegal actions of Marunadan Malayali but to intimidate the online publication. Is that how things happen in a democratic society. So these are very dangerous tendencies which are raising their ugly hood in Kerala.
Abhish K. Bose: What are your views on the silence personified by the Kerala civil society over such breaches of the government and the administration. Are they too scared by the menacing posture of the state?
BRP Bhaskar : What we have to realise is that civil society in Kerala is very weak. Most of the organizations or movements which should be part of the civil society are actually under the control of some political party or some caste organisations or religious organizations. So they are not really part of the civil society, they have come under the control of some parties or non political organisations. When we realise this we can understand that a real civil society is not easy to find in Kerala. Civil society organisations should work for certain principles, but that is not happening here. We have parties or groups which are representing sectarian interests. But we must also realise that in the past twenty five or thirty years you will find several programs of the successive governments were opposed by the people and the governments were forced not to go ahead with it. So many projects have to be abandoned due to the opposition from the public. On the other hand the public has the ability to mobilise and defeat several government schemes which they consider not for the good of the state, despite the weaknesses of the civil society. But they don’t have the ability to pressurise the government to take up schemes which they think will benefit the society.
Abhish K. Bose: Is it due to the reason that the intelligentsia of the state, a section of the writers, journalists, and other opinion makers got groomed by the leftist intellectual circles help, which hinders them to defy the government?
BRP Bhaskar : There was a time when left was having tremendous influence over the sections you were talking about the so called intellectuals or whatever it is. But I don’t think t is so today. That scenario has been overcome by the Congress by organizing it’s own groups, they also have their bodies and their own intellectuals. So we don’t have that kind of a situation now. But there is one problem in Kerala that the bulk of our society is under the influence of a political or a caste or a religious organization. That is one of our problems. A society remains divided on certain lines then there is no room for any discussion or anything.
Abhish K. Bose: Though the state government and the LDF are strident critics of the high handedness of the BJP led government at the centre, vis a vis media and other opponents, the state government is executing the same when it comes to the expression of intolerance. What do you think are differences of intolerance of the LDF government compared to the BJP government at the centre?
BRP Bhaskar : There is absolutely no point in comparing these two governments in this manner. The problem is between the party in power or the government in power in one place and the media which report news which the people in power did not like. The whole issue can be seen in terms of one single statement. When there is a conflict between power and truth this kind of situation develops. Because power tries to suppress truth.
Abhish K. Bose: Regardless of ideology you mean?
BRP Bhaskar : When it is inconvenient to them power will act against truth. That is the situation.