In an interview to Time magazine in May 2015, the prime minister of India had said: “So, in so far as freedom of speech is concerned, there is absolutely not an iota of doubt in terms of our commitment and our belief in that.’’ He has also repeatedly spoken about democracy in India: “Our strength is democracy,’’ he said in Mann Ki Baat, June this year.
Freedom of speech allows people to express their opinions. And democracy gives us all equal rights to express opinions — in our case, over one billion opinions and possibly more since many of us hold more than one, often contrary, opinion at the same time.
Shyam Benegal, one of our most respected film directors, and Om Puri, one of our most respected actors, were asked by certain TV news channels, for their opinions on demands that Pakistani artistes must condemn the Uri terrorist attack or be banned from India and Indian cultural productions. Each, in his own way, said that Pakistani artistes are individuals who do not necessarily represent their government, and that it is not for them — Benegal or Puri — but the Indian government which granted them visas, to decide their fate.
Puri suggested that they may be “scared” to condemn the Uri attacks for fear of reprisals (CNN News), Benegal wondered how it was possible for them to condemn their own government — held responsible by India for harbouring and aiding the terrorists (Times Now).
TV anchors on Times Now, CNN News and News X went after them for their opinions. They badgered them, attacked them, demanded to know why that they did not condemn the Pakistani artistes for not condemning the Uri attack.
On News X, Puri was mocked by Rahul Shivshankar for being “sensitive”: You are a very “sensitive” person, why don’t you ask them to “sensitively” denounce this attack, asked Shivshankar. Puri’s patriotism was questioned: As an Indian have you no role? If people, such as you, “sir”, won’t take a stand. On and on, it went.
At CNN News, Bhupendra Chaubey said Bollywood was seemingly “polarised” on the issue. When Om Puri suggested that Pakistani artistes were silent on Uri because they could be scared — referring to Sikhs during terrorism in Punjab as an analogy — Chaubey, sarcastically, interjected, “Oh sir.”
He said that all “we”, this “entire country” wants is for them (the Pakistani artistes) is to simply condemn the Uri attack — is it unfair on “our” part to demand that? Logically, all these questions should have been put to the Pakistani artistes but leave that aside.
It has become commonplace for some English TV news anchors to claim that they speak for the nation (the nation wants to know. remember?).
Who conferred this right on them? No one knows: Yes, English news TV does reach approximately 16 million people a week cumulatively (please refer to BARC to understand the complexities of viewership measurement) but that does that mean TV anchors represent the nation and the diversity of its people’s views?
Nevertheless, they have taken it upon themselves to demand, in its name, answers from guests, and the right to badger, berate, judge often highly respected citizens like a Benegal or a Puri who do not agree, entirely, with their opinion.
And since they speak for the nation in this “for and against” binary narrative, if you disagree with the news anchor’s point of view (that’s all it is), you are anti-national.
Another thought: Here are two, among other Indian artistes, who expressed an opinion, took a stand. They have been hauled over coals for it. Perhaps that is why artistes, sometimes, choose to remain silent?
On the day of the Uri attack, channels like News X, telecast photographs of political leaders like CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and questioned their “dove”-like stance on Kashmir, mocking their view that the government should talk to all stakeholders in the Valley to resolve issues there. What happened to freedom of speech in a democracy, ideals championed by the PM himself?