Close to the 40th anniversary of India's state of emergency, the country is going through an undeclared censorship. Ever since the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to power with brute majority in May, there has been a series of attacks on free expression.
Emergency rule and media censorship was imposed by the Congress government under Indira Gandhi back in 1975 in India, which is known as the world’s largest democracy.
Ironically, the BJP had steadfastly opposed it and many of its supporters were detained for defying it. In order to avoid being arrested, Modi himself went underground during that period.
Four decades later, the assault on the free expression has increased under the BJP government. One of the most horrific examples is the recent arrests of 13 students in Kerala. They were held for mocking Modi in their college magazines.
The students of one college were arrested for including him in the list of “negative faces”, such as Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and George W. Bush. If this was not enough, a Marxist youth activist was arrested in August for allegedly defaming Modi on Facebook.
A comedy play named after the BJP’s election slogan “Ache Din Aane Wale Hain ” (Happy days are coming) was banned in Chandigarh under pressure from BJP supporters. The play mocks the policies of the BJP government. Interestingly, Chandigarh is represented by a film actor turned BJP MP Kiron Kher—who remained silent on the issue.
Obviously, a sense of fear and intimidation prevails among the members of civil society in India due to these incidents. There is also a feeling that this may spill over to Canada and the U.S., especially in areas with sizable South Asian communities.
As the pro-Modi lobby grows stronger, the muzzling of independent media voices within the South Asian diaspora cannot be ruled out, especially when Modi is planning to visit the U.S. shortly.
Modi was earlier denied entry by the U.S. because of his government’s complicity in the anti-Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat in 2002. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat when police allowed thousands of Muslims to be murdered by mobs led by Hindu fundamentalist leaders. Following the change of guard in India after the last election, the U.S. is now inviting Modi without caring for concerns raised by human-rights groups.
That the Modi lobby may start exerting its pressure on the local South Asian media became evident on August 5, which was my last day as news broadcaster and talk-show host with Radio India. I was told by my former employer that we should start endorsing Modi’s proposed visit to the U.S. instead of giving voice to anyone who opposes it.
The provocation was my live interview with the spokesman of Sikhs For Justice, which has launched a petition asking the U.S. government to cancel Modi’s visit.
I was told that Sikhs For Justice supports a theocratic Sikh state and under no circumstances such groups should be given any kind of legitimacy.
I do not agree with the agenda of Sikhs For Justice and being a secularist myself, I can never support any kind of theocracy. But being a journalist, I was only trying to give voice to a group that has launched an initiative on a very pressing issue.
I had to explain that Modi’s proposed visit is not just being opposed by Sikhs For Justice but other non-Sikh activists too. But all my arguments fell on deaf ears.
I was rather told that if I cannot do this, the nature of my duties can be changed. I therefore adamantly decided to quit rather than continue working there.
I initially thought that this may be an excuse to reprimand me for some internal conflicts and misunderstandings and asked my former employer to terminate me and let me go. But he insisted that he wouldn’t fire me and if I want to leave on my own, I could.
Following brief arguments, I announced my decision to quit. Although it was a difficult decision to leave an organization I served for the last 13 years, I have no regrets for saying no to Modi.
After giving much thought to what I have done, I decided to go public and make people aware of the threat of an undeclared censorship in India and its impact overseas.
Because it’s not just my story, I decided that people should know. We all need to find what’s going on behind the curtains and how big powers continue to exert their pressure on media outlets even outside India, possibly through diplomatic and other non-official channels.
I have no animosity against my former employer, who has always helped me in the past, first by hiring me and allowing me freedom on many occasions. But how he has succumbed to such pressure now can only be explained by him.
For me the bigger issue is a challenge coming from fascist forces that are blatantly attacking free expression under a right-wing government. All we need is a strong initiative against fascism and the sophisticated ways it can muzzle independent voices.
With an idea of starting such an initiative, Radical Desi held an emergency meeting in Surreyon August 9 where representatives from various progressive groups showed up. Those belonging to other media outlets also came.
Among them was Tejinder Kaur, who said that she was fired by a Punjabi radio station under similar circumstances. Harpreet Singh of Radio Red FM came to show his support as well.
I want to thank all of the speakers who not only came to show solidarity with me but promised to strengthen any initiative against fascist attacks on free expression.
Others who spoke were Shahzad Nazir Khan from the Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians, Lakhbir Khun Khun and Harbhajan Cheema from the East Indian Defence Committee, Parminder Swaich from the Progressive Cultural Center, veteran communists Nazir Rizvi and Harjeet Daudhria, Hardev Amritsar from the Fraser Valley Peace Council, Sadhu Binning on behalf of Watan Magzine, Atar Gill from the Indian Rationalist Society, Sukhdev Mann from the Aam Aadmi Party, Jai Birdi from Chetna Association, Bhupinder Malhi from the South Asian Review, and one of my former listeners, Devinder Takhar.
Those present on the occasion included Ross Street Sikh temple vice president Major Singh Sidhu, Marxist Communist Party of India (Pasla group) representatives Harmel Sunnar and Jasvir Dosanjh, Aam Aadmi Party activists Lakhi Chahal and Narinder Sandhu, prominent power lifter Sammy Toor, prominent poets Amrit Deewana and Nadeem Parmar, and author Jarnail Singh Sekha.