Whipping the Indian media into obedience has been an important project of Narendra Modi’s government. Inconvenient journalists have lost jobs, been threatened by tax inspectors, charged with ‘anti-national’ activities and silenced in all sorts of other ways. But, the Income Tax raids on the offices of Dainik Bhaskar last week sets a scary new bar. If one of India’s two most powerful Hindi newspapers can have this happen to it, what chance is there for lesser publications and digital platforms to speak the truth?
Speaking the truth is all that Dainik Bhaskar tried to do during Covid’s devastating second wave. It published on its front page stories of the terrible suffering of ordinary people. Its journalists risked their own lives to bring to the world images of those pyres burning day and night in our crematoriums and those bodies buried in shallow graves on the banks of the Ganga. It printed stories of the unforgivable shortages of oxygen in hospitals and of the people who died because of these shortages. In a truly free country this newspaper would have been given an award for its courage to tell the truth. Instead, it has been punished.
Using Income Tax raids as a weapon is not an idea that has been invented in Modi’s ‘new India’. The ruthlessness with which all criticism of the government is being suppressed is new. Small digital platforms have been raided. Journalists who have been critical of the Modi government have lost their jobs. Foreign correspondents have been put on short leashes by being denied long visas. And, in states like Uttar Pradesh, journalists have been jailed for trying to tell the truth. The result of this relentless assault on the media is that international watchdogs have started putting us in the category of ‘illiberal democracies’ and describing India as only partially free. The consequence of these tactics has been that most news channels and newspapers have accepted that in the ‘new’ India they can survive by docility and not by trying to tell the truth.
In Covid’s first wave, when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were forced to walk home because the national lockdown rendered them jobless and homeless and without means of transport, the story of their suffering was minimised. When the Prime Minister declared ‘victory’ over Covid and exported vaccines that India continues to be desperately short of, this story was again so seriously minimised that except the Minister of Health no official has lost his job. Last week, a study by the US-based Center for Global Development said that India’s official death toll was closer to four million than 400,000 and this story got less attention than the shenanigans in Parliament.
With the media in a state of such docility, the Modi government appears to believe it can now get away with lying about everything. So, the Home Minister told Parliament last week that Pegasus was nothing but yet another attempt to malign India. Look at the timing of this expose, he said, it came on the eve of this session of Parliament. What does that tell you? It tells us Minister that you have not noticed that questions about Pegasus are being asked in many countries in which it has been used to hack into the phones of private citizens. There was no Monsoon Session in those countries.
The Prime Minister has personally taken leadership of his government’s campaign to prove that everything said about its mismanagement of Covid and its strong-arm tactics to silence the media is a lie. He ordered his MPs last week to go forth and tell ‘the people’ that they must not believe the ‘false narrative’ being spread by the Opposition parties. Has he not noticed yet that the Opposition parties are too weak and disorganised to create narratives of any relevance? Has he not noticed that most journalists have got the message that the truth is only what his government says it is? Has he not noticed yet that the reason why the international media sees him as a despot and not a democrat is because of the methods he has used to suppress the truth?
If he believes that anybody thinks the Income Tax raids on Dainik Bhaskar will be seen as just an attempt to get the owners of this newspaper for tax evasion, he is deluded. It is being seen by everyone for what it really is, which is yet another sign that Indian democracy is becoming more illiberal by the day. Using tax raids to silence the media is not new. This newspaper was the victim of more than a hundred tax raids in Rajiv Gandhi’s time when it tried to tell the truth about Bofors. It was a bad idea and did little to suppress the truth about the Bofors bribes from coming out. Using tax raids to suppress the truth did more damage to Rajiv Gandhi personally than if he had been caught red-handed. And, there will be serious personal damage to the Prime Minister from this attack on Dainik Bhaskar.
The only question left is whether this concerted campaign to silence all criticism will fool the people. The answer will come when that most important of all state elections comes around in the early months of next year. If the BJP wins Uttar Pradesh, it will tell us that the people still love Modi enough to forgive him all his mistakes.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2021 under the title ‘Raiding newspapers never works’.