by Gautam Navlakha

An independent media and alert citizenry should not be suppressed, abused or slighted.

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin West in Delhi in March has emerged as the biggest viral spreader of Covid-19 and highlights the failure of the central government and the Delhi government. That the organisers of the congregation went ahead with their planned programme at a time when the threat of pandemic was well known was wrong, because it cannot be said that they were unaware of Covid-19 and the threat it posed. But they were given the go-ahead by the government, which granted visas to foreigners to attend the congregation and the local administration, especially the Delhi Police, which is controlled by the central government. By the time everyone woke up to the threat, rail passenger, air and road transport had been suspended and the delegates who attended the congregation remained stuck inside the Tabligh’s dormitories, thus creating a perfect ‘hotspot’ for the virus to flourish.

Blaming the lower officials for being slow in addressing this issue would be wrong, when contradictory signals emanated from the top, with no clarity as to what lower officials were to do under the circumstances. If the steps now being taken had been implemented earlier things could have been better.

However, since “Markaz Nizamuddin” is being used by the electronic media, barring honourable exceptions, to fan a communal divide—even when the country faces the threat of a devastating pandemic—one would have thought that the government of India, which only a few days back had moved the Supreme Court to allow pre-censorship of media using the excuse of clamping down on “fake news”, would have made sure that anti-Muslim hysteria was not allowed to be whipped up.

Yet, social media is replete with venomous blood-curdling comments. The BJP government has no issue with such incendiary messages on social media, but the government was paranoid over the independent media’s criticism of their lack of planning and preparation before announcing the lockdown.

Going by what the Union Home Minister has said regarding some constructive criticism by the Congress party and the Communist parties, it seems that the innate tendency of the ruling party is to divert attention from its bungling, which majorly contributed to the chaos which reigned for the first few days.

The judiciary has kept giving in to the government’s demands, be it in the name of “national security” or the ongoing pandemic, to curtail constitutional freedoms. Admittedly, this has not happened whole-heartedly but bit-by-bit, while leaving space open for divisive communal propaganda by pro-government media. The latter remain free to say anything they please. So those who actually need chastising get away with everything, while those who are performing their professional duties are sought to be censored and contained.

At the best of times the working class of India finds that their woes, anxieties, struggle goes unheard are largely unrepresented. It is only the independent media which provides some hope that their complaints would get noticed and addressed. What they have had to endure for decades was one thing, but if even this independent media is blocked they would lose their one major source of getting their voices heard. Because the government-controlled media or the pliable media both could not care less about the working classes.

Besides, the independent media never stooped to fan divisive communalism and did not pander to bigots and zealots as the pliable media has been doing all along. If the authorities are happy with shrill pro-government media but get outraged by criticism by the independent media, then it indicates their incapacity to face criticism and, far worse, it raises doubts over their capacity to correct their mistakes.

Besides, the media was placed by the government in the list of “essential services” and the Prime Minister even exhorted the press to provide “feedback” from the ground, so that the government could access independent voices and inputs. This entails truthfully reporting from the ground. Asking questions which affect people, enquiring why there are delays in providing PPEs, such as gloves, N-95 masks and other facilities for medical, health and police personnel, who are the first-responders in this crisis. While announcing a halt to passenger transportation, no thought was spared for the migrant labour and their families—although foreigners are still being flown out of India and flights are being organised for thousands of Indians stuck abroad. Not just that, those being flown in and out were also screened to ensure that they are not carriers of the virus. Then why was there no plan, either at the central or the state level, for the over 182 million migrant workers?

Is it wrong to report how the police have lathi-charged migrants who were desperate to get home because no government bothered about them or their welfare? How can these migrants trust the same governments to come to their aid now, when they see that coercive measures are being employed to get them to fall in line, including locking them up?

Is it wrong to ask why those who are the first line of defence to fight the pandemic have to work in circumstances which threaten their own lives? Consider that at a time when Indian jails are over-crowded in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which are much worse off than the national average in overcrowding of prison, yet, the Union Home Ministry has unmindfully asked states to arrest and jail anyone who violates the lockdown? Do they care about the jail inmates, the jail and police staff? Should concerns over these serious issues and opposition to draconian measures to make people obey the lockdown not be reported and criticised?

Does the government believe that questions ought not to be asked at all? Does it believe that the full weight of the erroneous policies it has followed all along can just be wished away and that these incorrect policies would not come to bite us now, when we face the pandemic? Does it believe that the steps that are being taken now are not ad hoc measures to ward off the virus threat? Does it want to leave everything in the country just as it was, and therefore wants to earn no opprobrium for either its continuing missteps or its long-term mismanagement?

Are we not supposed to ask why the Uttar Pradesh government is using the cover of this pandemic to strike against citizen-protesters who were lawfully and legitimately opposed to the trinity of CAA-NRC-NPR?

If the government’s conduct is so above-board, then why has it surreptitiously announced its new domicile policy for Jammu and Kashmir? Why has the government made it much easier for outsiders to acquire a domicile certificate—and made it worse for residents of Jammu and Kashmir to get government jobs? Or, why is it that despite the Prime Minister telling a delegation of the newly-formed Apni Party that there is no move afoot to change the demographic profile of Jammu and Kashmir, while its new domicile policy does precisely that? Do we citizens keep our mouths shut while the BJP-ruled government can do as it pleases and carry on unrolling its diabolical plans?

Remember, it is only the independent media which is displaying a conscience and concern in these times, and demanding that the government take ameliorative steps in the wake of the growing spread of Covid-19. This is strongly in contrast to the controlled media, whether print, electronic or online, which has begun to brush aside the sordid details of the conditions of the people on the ground in the wake of the lockdown, the shortage of facilities and lack of planning. I believe that the controlled media is doing a grave disservice to the public by painting a picture of “sab changa si”—all is well, now that the Prime Minister has spoken to owners and editors of select media and taken charge.

The heroic efforts of the medical and health workers, lower government officials and police personnel as well as the independent media must be appreciated. At a time like this, false equivalence or ‘balancing’ bad stories with good will not do. We have to report situations as we find them to be in reality if we are to truly help authorities know where the fault-lines are. However, the larger concerns remain, and these cannot be dismissed in the name of the pandemic. If a crisis is also an opportunity to set things right, then all the more reason for independent media to focus on the missteps and shortfalls and keep reminding the government of its responsibility. To leave everything to the government of control freaks has, time and again, proved to be wrong. The government needs to be nudged, pushed and pressured to deliver.

The point is that a strong government would have welcomed criticism and truthful reporting from the ground. They would have found much of use in critical reporting to introduce correctives where needed. However, a weak government only thinks in terms of its ratings and popularity and not of the welfare and well-being of all Indian citizens. Therefore, it is for the BJP-led central government to realise that they can gag independent voices and suppress all criticism of its mishandling of the unplanned lockdown, but ideas formed at the initial stage leave a deep impact. The rich-poor divide is too deep and too wide to be bridged with make-believe and requires concrete manifestation of corrective steps on the ground.

Until that happens, an independent media and an alert citizenry ought not be suppressed, abused or slighted.

The author is a human rights activist. The views are personal.

The original article can be found here