First, I must thank the Organiser for inviting me to share my perspective with its readers, especially since I am what they call a ?secularist?. I am deeply committed to the view that India cannot survive as a nation unless it adheres to its original covenant, reflecting in the Constitution which came into force in 1950, that India would be governed only on the basis of secular and civic principles.
It must be recalled that after Independence in August 1947 especially after seeing the bloodbath and trauma caused by the havoc of Partition, it was decided that never again could the country afford religious conflict and allow innocent people to be hurt or killed in the name of religion. Therefore, a set of far sighted visionaries who drew up our Constitution categorically stated that the only one identity to be given any recognition in India'sdemocracy was that of citizenship of the Indian republic. No other label of religion, language, caste or region would be allowed to take precedence over the rights of the citizen. All Indian citizens would have equal rights and were equal before the law. These secondary identities of religion, language and region, could be allowed to play out in the private sphere but in the public sphere, such identities were not to be allowed to have any sway or dominance. The only badge that the Constitution and the Government would give official recognition to was that of citizenship.
The media is an important instrumentality of democracy and its vital role in the public sphere as a communicator cannot be overemphasised. The awesome reach that the media has, can be either used for the good of society or to its detriment. India is a democracy where political freedom has been achieved with great sacrifice. Today the people of India are enjoying all the benefits of a democratic society, allowed to make their own political, economic and social choices. The media has a great responsibility in this situation to ensure that democracy is well served and the authority and sovereignty, vested in the Indian people as a whole, is not usurped by any group, any individual or any vested interests. The essential functions of the media in India as in other democracies are: first, to provide accurate and verifiably truthful information about events and situations; second, to strengthen the institutions of civil society; third, to ensure the transparency of political authority and its adherence to the promises that it makes to the ordinary citizen in regard to development and other issues. The media has two key roles as the transmitter of the truth about situations and as an institution of democracy, helping to strengthen the public sphere in terms of increasing accountability of government and the citizen'sawareness of his or her own basic rights.
In the Indian context, the record of the media is something to be proud of. Very few countries have the tradition that we do of an independent media, which, before Independence, was at the forefront of the struggle against British colonial rule, and as many have pointed out, the role of the Indian press in particular helped build a sense of national consciousness, national unity, where all Indians of different communities, regions and languages joined together to expel foreign rule. The media in India, therefore, is part of the great legacy of the freedom struggle. It can rightfully claim to have helped build parliamentary democracy in this country, increased governmental accountability and in the overall context, increased public understanding of the workings of the democratic system and how their aspirations could be channelled successfully through the democratic process. This ensured that the democratic project stayed on course unlike in many other developing countries where martial law or dictatorship snuffed out democracy and political freedom.
A crucial part of the media'shistoric responsibility is to safeguard the core values of Indian democracy as was conceptualised when this nation was born in 1947. In pointed contrast to Pakistan which had opted for an Islamic state, India opted to preserve its multicultural heritage and adopted a secular national identity. The Indian Constitution framers acknowledged that the freedom struggle in India had the participation of people of diverse identities, all submerging their differences to build a new nation that would reflect this composite heritage. It was clear that citizenship of this new nation was the equal birthright of people of different religious backgrounds, from different regions, speaking different languages. The Constitution by emphatically declaring that India would be a nation based on the parameters of civic nationalism and would adopt a secular ethos of governance was acknowledging the ground reality of India'sheterogeneous cultural base.
The majority of Indians might be Hindus but that does not make India a Hindu nation. To suggest that because the majority of the population is Hindu, the nation is a Hindu nation is a fallacious jump. One reason for the media'scritical scrutiny of the campaign for Hindu cultural nationalism is precisely that. The link between the proposition that Hindus are a majority and the proposition that India must be a Hindu nation cannot be made, especially in the context of the specific historical circumstances of India'semergence as a nation, including the Constitutional rejection of any form of cultural nationalism as India'sgoverning base.
This is why no particular religious faith or group can legitimately argue that its cultural symbols should be given official recognition or consecration. In India, it would be against the Constitutional mandate to alter the character of the national ethos which time and again has been reaffirmed as reflecting a composite heritage. Any ?majoritarian? movement as by the Sangh Parivar demanding that Hindu cultural symbolism be given pride of place, that mosques should be knocked down and temples built in their stead, militates against the spirit of Indian democracy. It is in this perspective that some of us in the media have felt troubled by the implictions of the Hindutva campaign, seeing this as an attempt to alter the character of India'snational culture and its democratic project.
The media has also been equally critical of Islamic fundamentalism and equally disapproving of any such attempts at cultural chauvinism, because like Hindutva, any expression of such cultural belligerence would threaten the inter-communal harmony and the secular basis of India'sexistence as a nation. To say the media is ?anti-Hindu? merely because it is resisting the Sangh Parivar'scampaign to turn India into a Hindu-oriented nation, is again a complete falsification of fact. The media is not and cannot be ?anti? or ?pro? any group, if it is sincere to its own calling. The job of media practitioners is to record the truth. Some might ask?What is that truth? Who is to decide which is the truth? And from whose perspective? These are legitimate questions because truth is indeed a tricky proposition. But given the role of the media as a watchdog of democracy, it has to report the facts as it sees it happening?including incidents of communal violence on the ground, being honest about who started it and why. The ?why? cannot be confined to just asking about the immediate background of the conflagration. The reporter has to dig further into the reasons and circumstances that caused the particular incident to explode.
At this particular political moment in Indian life, the Sangh Parivar'smovement to revive ?Hindu cultural nationalism? represents a serious challenge to the basic tenets of Indian democracy and the Constitution. The media is not doing its duty if it does not remind the country that such majoritarian movements run counter to the spirit of the national framework as conceived of when India was born as an independent nation. Of course vigilance is called for on the media'spart with respect to other challenges as well?to the rule of law, and as regards corruption in high places. When the media does a good job in exposing aberrations or lapses on these fronts, there is much less consternation. But when it comes to the media trying to do its job, pointing out the untenability and the lack of legitimacy of the Hindu majoritarian project, there is a backlash with the media and its practitioners immediately being branded as ?anti-Hindu?. This backlash against the media is to miss the point. The media is doing its job as a whistle-blower when it finds the original postulates of the democratic project coming under pressure.
Keeping India a secular nation is not doing the minorities any favour. Secularism is a governing doctrine of practical utility as is federalism. India'sheterogeneous base in terms of religions, languages and regions cannot hold together in any other framework. Without federalism, linguistic and regional aspirations could not have been managed as successfully as they have been in our remarkable historical experience. Likewise, without secularism, the different cultural aspirations would have got out of hand and manifested as serious challenges to national unity. By ensuring that the governance of India would not be reduced to conflict management between different groups and identities, we have secured enormous political space to move ahead with development and economic progress. Therefore the media, sensing that the historic destiny of India is not to be tied down by identity conflicts or cultural battles, has been at the forefront of the project to keep India'sdemocracy the way it was meant to be, pluralist and secular in orientation, so that every Indian could feel a sense of ownership of this nation and give it his or her best. This is why India is a remarkable success story today. So please give the media its due?it has been a defender of democratic values?of federalism, of secularism, the rule of law and the freedom of expression?all necessary ingredients for a vibrant public culture that can empower a great nation!
(The writer is director, The Hindu and can be contacted at [email protected])