NDTV India ban: Have laws to protect nation’s sovereignty; don’t blame freedom…,writes Bikram Vohra

720-NDTVDozens of letters arrive from righteously indignant readers supporting the ban on NDTV, almost revelling in their delight that a media organ has been boxed in the ears. Using profanity, vituperative, ugly threats and even ‘gandi gaalis’ towards those who have on principle expressed dismay at gagging the channel, none of these people, including anonymous trolls, realise that it is the same freedom of expression that they are so cavalierly attacking, which allows them the option of being so vicious themselves.
No one has ever said that the media is above the law or that if a channel has erred in aiding and abetting the enemy it should not be penalised.
Making quantum leaps into conclusions that being against the ban is somehow anti-national is a cruel pre-judgement. What the media, at large, is saying is that there has to be rules of conduct and certain statutes. Also, the penalties must be levied instantly and can include criminal proceedings where the nation’s security is concerned.

In this case, there is so much military information out there online and through books like Jane’s manuals that the Indian media would be relatively ignorant of the latest.

What is valid is the live coverage of terrorist activity and the line in the sand between bringing viewers to the screen with unfolding events and interfering with operational procedures. When politicians, military officials, cops and witnesses are only too ready to get their 10 seconds of fame (look, Mummy, it’s daddy) then it goes beyond just the channel. Who gives the data? Who allows the access to the operation? If NDTV is to be punished, so must those who gave it classified data and offered information freely, whenever a mike was thrust in their faces.
Throw the bloody media out Colonel, don’t take it with you. But once we get on the slippery slope from national security to personal peeve to private vendetta, where do we end and how precious is this freedom that we do not register until we lose it.

Let me tell you what happens when it goes. Most of today’s media have no idea about how it worked when freedom is snatched in even the littlest of terms. I was working with a magazine in Mumbai when I got the call. A friend said that Surya magazine (run by Maneka Gandhi) wanted a story within 48 hours.
I refused. Oh, were we cocky then? I said I didn’t write on order. The arrogance of youth.

Within an hour I received a call from a former Illustrated Weekly colleague who said, “Bik, it’s an emergency man. There are no refusals, just write it, no one says no, they say, yes please thank you. What is wrong with you, you don’t want to know the repercussions.”

The next day I was banned from Doordarshan where I was doing a regular TV show. No reason. I did not know Maneka Gandhi, except that I believe we used to play seven tiles at the Whelers Club in Meerut and she probably did not even know her minions were pushing so hard.

A couple of days later I was told that Sanjay Gandhi’s advisor Rukshana Sultana would like to speak to me. She never did. We met many years later and became good friends.
In three days, a mini cog in the wheel, on flipping a stupid article, I had become so jumpy but would not write that article.

At the same time I published the latest edition of For You, a controversial, but hardly earth-shattering personal venture in Mumbai. It was on family planning and the law and we had a man and a woman lying on the bed with a cop dressed in blue in between and taken from the top angle with the help of a stepladder. It was a full colour cover picture and hilarious.

Making quantum leaps into conclusions that being against the ban is somehow anti-national is a cruel pre-judgement You bet. No one was laughing in the corridors of power. We had made fun of Sanjay Gandhi’s campaign. The next day the PM’s office called and ordered me to fly to Delhi.
My contact at Surya screamed down the line as to how I was being an idiot and this could have an impact on my family, including my dad and uncles (they were in the army).
What are you yammering about, I said; it is a cover. This is India, what is going? You don’t have a clue there in Mumbai, do you, it is an emergency, there are rights.

For the first time I felt that scorching liquid fear. You are not serious, I said, why do they want me in Delhi, not for a writing a frigging article, are you mad? Just come, he said, and leave your bravado behind; your name is on the list.
What list?
You don’t want to know.

Late next evening, I found myself being strip-searched in the gloom of a Delhi dusk outside 1 Safdarjung. I could see Prime Minister Indira Gandhi playing with her golden Labrador in the lawn about 50 yards away. The click of 9 mm Sten guns and 7.62 LR rifles did little to encourage waving at her.

I was then escorted to where I& B Minister VC Shukla had an office. Before that I was made to stand next to a guy I dimly recognised, who wouldn’t loo k up from his paperwork. It was RK Dhawan and I was finally acknowledged and given a thorough verbal workout about going against the policies of the country.
There was no bravado. Pure funk. You have no idea how lonely you can be when absolute power slams you in the face. This was absolute power corrupting absolutely.

After the reaming I was led to an out office with leather chairs. Already seated there was Vinod Mehta, then editor of Debonair.
What are you doing here, I asked him.
Don’t know, he said, some of the content or pictures, who knows.

He was called in first and then me. Shukla had a copy of For You with the offensive cover, or so he said. There were no introductions, no hellos. Instead he flung the magazine against the wall, railed for a while and then put me on a warning with the words “we will be watching you”.
That is pure ghee fear. It crossed my mind that at this moment with gun-toting-no-questions-asked-unbridled-power one puny journalist less would not even be reported.

The menace and the threat were like evil smoke in the air.
No one to back you. No IFWJ, no Press Council, no management; not a soul would even know what became of that fella who was in the Weekly. He fell off a cliff, into oblivion. Never have I felt that kind of rage, fear and impotency.
Shame that we had come to such a pass.

That is what gags do. That is what happens when freedom is ordered to be curtailed. When you are told as a troll sorry, we won’t carry your comments, as a reader your criticism gets spiked. When we are told, this is against the party in power and so it is anti-national, kill the story. When your movies are censored and your words are cleansed.
When your opinion is canned, your stand has a broken leg, your disagreement is disloyalty.
By all means have laws to protect the sovereignty of the nation, the security of its people and penalties for those who cross the line, but don’t blame freedom. She is our most precious commodity.
Even when you badmouth me or this piece, it is because you have the right to do it. Don’t ever have to be summoned to a dimly lit room and castigated because someone took it away.



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