Narendra Modi has bullied critics and suffocated the press into endorsing his Hindu-nationalist version of modern India.
Narendra Modi received a letter last summer. It was signed by 49 writers, filmmakers, scholars, and artists. Describing themselves as “proud Indians”, they beseeched the prime minister to put an immediate halt to the public lynchings of Muslims and of Dalits – formerly “untouchable” people, deemed so impure by the scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system – and urged him to end the castigation of critics of his government as “anti-national”.
“These are not the Middle Ages,” they wrote, reminding Modi that there “is no democracy without dissent”. The prime minister remained silent and the letter appeared to go unnoticed by the public – until a judge in eastern India accepted the petition of a Modi-worshipping busybody who alleged that signatories to it had “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister.”
One of the signatories to the letter was the historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha, an esteemed public intellectual in India. In December 2019, months after the letter was published, Guha stood alone outside Bangalore’s Town Hall. He was there to protest Modi’s decision to amend India’s citizenship law. The amendment will grant expedited citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring countries already present in India but excludes Muslim refugees.
Modi’s activation of Section 144 in Bangalore – a colonial penal code that prohibits the assembly of more than four persons – did not deter Guha. He was one the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have poured into the streets over the past four weeks across the country to object to India’s conversion into a Hindu state. The police have truncheoned, detained and shot dead protesters. When Guha began speaking to a television interviewer, three uniformed men descended on the scene and dragged him away.
Compared to other critics of the Modi government, Guha was lucky. Yet his arrest seemed like the moment when India formally migrated to a post-democratic reality. In the year that the government celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, Modi invoked the same draconian penal code that British colonial authorities used to detain Gandhi in order to imprison his biographer. Though pluralism was long the linchpin of India’s robust democracy, Modi has recast the republic as a Hindu nation. He has bullied critics, silenced dissidents, and suffocated the press into endorsing his sectarian vision for modern India.
During a visit to London in 2018, Modi declared that he “welcomed criticism”. “In a democracy, if there is opposition but no criticism, then how can it be called a ‘democracy’”, he asked. “Criticism is the beauty of democracy.” Yet in a country with thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television channels dedicated exclusively to news, dissent — with some notable exceptions — has shrunk to the point of near-extinction. Primetime television shows on the most-watched networks are packed with panellists who trip over one another to praise the prime minister. “Influential owners, anchors, editors across the nation,” the journalist Krishna Prasad observed in The Hindu, serve as an “advance party to quell dissent, manufacture consent, set the agenda, drum up support, and spread fear, venom, hatred, and bigotry — sometimes through sheer silence.” Prasad was eased out of his job editing Outlook, one of India’s best-known English language magazines after he scrutinised Hindu nationalists too vigorously. India’s media, Prasad went on to write in The Hindu, is “gasping under pressure not felt even during Emergency’s darkest nights”, referring to the 21 months following Indira Gandhi’s suspension of the constitution in 1975. Indira Gandhi shackled the press. Modi has co-opted it.
2017 was the year that Modi consolidated his hold over the media. In June that year, officers from India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a body notorious for doing the bidding of politicians, raided the home and offices of journalists Radhika and Prannoy Roy. Radhika Roy co-founded NDTV, one of India’s last remaining bulwarks of independent broadcast journalism, in 1987. According to the CBI, Roy and her husband had defaulted on 3.5bn rupees loaned from a private bank almost a decade before. That the bureau was determined to recoup a sum on behalf of a private lender when India’s own state banks are owed far more by the country’s oligarchs, was mystifying (NK Singh, a former head of the CBI, questioned the true purpose of the raid). Modi is obsessed with NDTV and English language journalists who covered the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat. A year before the CBI raided Roy’s residence, the government accused NDTV’s Hindi station of imperilling India’s national security, forcing it off air for a day after the station – like many others – reported on a terrorist attack in Pathankot in Punjab.
The raids didn’t end with Prannoy Roy. In 2018, tax authorities descended on the properties of Raghav Bahl, a media proprietor whose publications have taken a balanced editorial line towards the Modi government. In June, the enforcement directorate, the government body responsible for economic crimes, charged Bahl with money laundering. Two months later, Prannoy and Radhika Roy were detained by authorities at Mumbai airport. The objective, it seemed, was more to humiliate and frighten the Roys – who had bought return tickets – than to prevent them fleeing the country. Shortly afterwards, the CBI lodged a fresh case against the couple.
On a recent afternoon, I met Prannoy Roy in his Delhi office. Though he put on a plucky face, he seemed shattered within. Advertisers were pulling their spots from NDTV; business relationships built over decades were collapsing. Revenues from government advertising – a major source of income for all media houses – had practically dried up. The CBI had recently questioned both Prannoy and Radhika about a $150m investment the American corporation NBC made in NDTV’s non-news ventures shortly before the financial crash of 2008. According to the CBI, the investment was evidence of a money-laundering scheme for “unknown public servants in India” – accusations that Roy argues are risible. When we spoke, Roy expressed his frustration that NBC – whose cable news network MSNBC has repeatedly skewered Donald Trump for attacking the press – has not stood in solidarity with NDTV. Though Roy was confident that NDTV would prevail, the threat of arrest continues to haunt him and Radhika.
Elsewhere, Modi’s government has harassed outliers and silenced critics. Karan Thapar, one of India’s sharpest television interviewers, was one of the few journalists who unnerved Modi with his direct questioning in an interview after the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Payback came in April 2017, when India Today TV, Thapar’s former employer, refused to renew his contract. A few months later Bobby Ghosh, editor of the Hindustan Times who introduced an online “hate tracker” that logged sectarian violence under Modi, lost his job following a meeting between Modi and the owner of the broadsheet.
An atmosphere of self-censorship has pervaded many of India’s newsrooms. The government’s information and broadcasting ministry have a large department monitoring news channels across the country. And what remains of India’s fourth estate is being repurposed into a PR service for the government. While the careers of Modi’s critics have tapered away, the prime minister’s champions have prospered. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an investor from southern India whom the BJP later nominated to the upper house of parliament, recently helped launch an unabashedly pro-Modi television news channel called Republic. Its chief anchor, Arnab Goswami, behaves like a bully with an outsized pulpit.
In 2019, many well-heeled media personalities in Delhi and Mumbai were appalled when India was ranked 140 in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. That the world’s largest democracy was ranked so low was, to them, proof of an international conspiracy to discredit Modi. Many now loudly denounce the aggressive coverage of the prime minister as a left-wing conspiracy against India, from foreign publications that once swooned over Modi. What such fulminations don’t account for is all that is happening around them in India: the silencing of critics, the hacking apart of intrepid reporters and the quashing of dissent. The democratic content of the republic is being hollowed out, but the people believing themselves to be the guardians of democracy are concerned most of all with an image. India, you see, has become Modified.