Brutal shackles on the media is a measure of the decay of faith in democratic values

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Very often, people forget there is a very vital caveat that must predicate the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword – democracy, and a respect for the values of democracy. In the absence of this understanding, the presumed wisdom in this bit of near universal slogan of the democratic world would fall flat on its face. Unfortunate to say this, but it just did in Manipur last week when the supposed might of the pen was made a pathetic farce, and all media organisations had to resort to a complete shutdown for two days in protest against threats to free discharge of their bounden duty of news vetting and dissemination. The fact also is, this is not the first time the state media has had to shut down under similar extreme duress of threats of extreme violence from militants.

All these are indications that democracy does not exist in Manipur in spirit, and in such a scenario, where the power of symbols have been rubbished so certainly and tragically, the pen is reduced to nothing more than a cheap writing implement, an everyday technology used and disposed like so many  other mass produced commodities of the modern market economy. Power, under the circumstance, would flow from the barrel of the gun, and the handles of hegemony would naturally pass on to those with the biggest guns. No prizes for guessing the biggest guns are with the government.

It is precisely the possible emergence of this logic as preeminent which believers in the goodness of democracy, and democratic values, the media included, have been battling against. Indeed, it is an indispensible democratic creed to believe in, and therefore help establish the primacy and predominance of civil authority over the military. If power were to simply flow out of the barrel of the gun, then the military would be rulers everywhere in the world. While military dictatorship is a stark reality in countries where democracy has not set roots, the idea remains abhorrent in places where the democratic ethos have become internalised. India is a democracy not because it holds regular elections to decide who should run the state for a term, but because of its civil society’s uncompromising belief in democratic values.

True the Indian state has gone wrong in upholding democratic norms on many occasions and still probably is and can go wrong. But the strength of India’s democracy is vested in the liberal and progressive sections of its civil society, which has made it its credo not to trust any wielder of power totally, not the least the Indian State itself, and has made it its responsibility to be vigilant and provide the checks and balances to make sure this State power is not misused or misinterpreted by those wielding it. One has only to scan through writings of activists like Arundhati Roy and Harsh Mander and many more leaders of the civil society to realise this. The media, both of the state and elsewhere, have also by and large live by this principle, though with varying degrees of convictions. The wide support and empathetic reportage for the agitations against the custodial killings of Manorama and that of Sanjit in what then came to be referred in the media as the BT Road murder case, are just some examples of this spirit.

Indeed, and quite ironically, it is this belief in democracy and its values which have been a major moderator levelling out the playing fields in the asymmetric war of insurrection in Manipur between the establishment and its many radical challengers. In one stroke, the current militant diktat on the media, and indirectly even on newspaper hawkers who are still refusing to lift newspapers, is leaving this liberal will for democratic moderation toothless in the state, and probably disillusioned everywhere else too, opening the field for more brutality in this already increasingly dehumanised bush war.

One is reminded of the days of insurgency in Punjab and how the stage was set for what must in Indian history be one of the most savage State repercussions, nudged though it may be by the increasing acts of blatant breaches of humanitarian norms by the militants themselves. The war there, then, was spilling over the fight between combatants alone, and the targets were on an incremental basis, families of combatants too. In the current militant diktat to the Manipur media similarly, the threat is not just to media practitioners, but to their families as well. With this, history will stand alibi the dangerous crossroads militancy in the state has reached. Before things reach a point of no return and Manipur sinks further into tragedy, all actors in this sordid drama should return to their senses.

Left on the wrong foot by these developments of the past fortnight must also be human right workers in the state. Their tireless campaigns to check the State from stirring away from the international understandings of the noble notions of human rights in the discharge of its awesome powers, must have been left somewhat deflated and resigned. Their arguments against the draconian and atrocious Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, would have also suffered a major blow, not just in terms of expected official ridicules, but also in terms of public sympathy. It is extremely unfortunate that a righteous campaign is being rendered flat and listless in this way.

There ought to be a lesson drawn in the swing in public opinion on the question of military intervention in Syria by the US, against what has been portrayed as the Syrian government’s atrocities against rebels in the country, in particular by the alleged use of banned chemical weapons by the government. Even amongst those who genuinely believed intervention as a humanitarian responsibility in situations of extreme State repression, especially after the Ruanda experience where the silence and non-intervention of the international community left millions of innocents crushed mercilessly by the State and State sponsored militias, opinions took a drastic turn when it came to light that the Syrian rebels were responsible for equal if not more atrocious breaches of humanitarian norms.

A situation like this is emerging in Manipur. The choices before the masses are no longer clear. The touted exalted vision of an alternative revolutionary social order, liberated from the corruption, ennui and hegemonic class interests of the established order of the day, is no longer attractive, not just in economic and political terms, but ethical considerations as well. For many, in this sorry predicament of having to choose between the devil and the deep sea, their leanings would have tipped towards a status quo, however bad this status quo may be.

As for instance, in the face of such crises as the current one, it was not uncommon for people once upon a time to seek the help of bigger underground organisations who they believed would be more judicious and quick in justice delivery, rather than wade through the maze of corruption of the government and end up with no justice. Today the trend is reversing and people would rather seek government intervention in such cases, just as the media this time were also compelled to appraise the chief minister on the state of affairs, not because they believe the establishment has had a change of heart and has abandoned its corrupt ways, but because it now appears the lesser of the two evils. By default, the corruption of the establishment would have thus been given a measure of legitimacy. In all fairness, it must however be said, it is the State which has indeed been more accommodative of individual freedom. Write against the troops of the establishment and the most that can be expected is a rebuttal in written and a request for publication in the next issue of the newspaper. Write against the challengers of the State and the rebuttal could come in the shape of a grenade as gift.

But any blank cheque of legitimacy for the establishment, even if comes by default, is bad, for it would invariably mean the removal of the wind from the sails of the forces of change and progress. It would take generations before a new momentum seeking change is built up again. In the words of literature Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, any place which has murdered its own initiatives for renewal and reinvention of the self so brutally, would have also condemned itself to another ‘one hundred years of solitude’. Surely none of us would want Manipur condemned to such a fate. It is perfectly legitimate for citizens to place their trust in the establishment, but this must not mean they must drop their vigilance against the dysfunctional attributes of the establishment.

In the current crisis, the state media has stood its ground. It resisted extreme pressure even when it meant going off the stands for two days. But its troubles are not over yet. Though the newspaper offices have resumed work, hawkers are apparently still under threat and have not been lifting newspapers. The most readers have managed under the circumstance is to read the internet editions of their newspapers. However, it is anybody’s guess this cannot carry on for too long, for newspaper production is costly and if there is no reciprocal and proportionate inflow of funds, the business would collapse.

This time the tussle became visible because the threats were extreme, but it would also not be difficult for anybody to presume the state media would have made a lot of silent compromises to its freedom when the demands were not as extreme as in the current case. Evident from this then is, media freedom is in many ways a myth in Manipur. The institution has been, like all others, exposed to prolonged and bitter conflict situations, thereby coerced into making too many sacrifices of its independence. These compromises would not always necessarily come overtly. They can also come as automatic reflexive conditioning whereby journalists come to treat direct commentaries, investigations or reportages on certain organisations as taboo.

True, it is not just journalists who suffer this, and this taboo may even be stronger for so many others who claim to be independent thinkers, but this is no consolation. The fact is, freedom of expression has very serious limitations in Manipur and it is most strongly felt by those whose professions demand that they have this freedom. While other so called “free thinkers” can simply shut up or speak up as per conveniences, when those in the media go silent, it becomes not just conspicuous, but also an issue.

Without not many realising it, what is also a fact is that the silence of the media, especially when it results out of overt coercion, speaks loudly. Every time the media goes off the stands, the absence paints a picture which is exactly the opposite of the intent of the censorship placed on them by any one of the parties in the conflict. It tells the world how prone the place has become to mindless, fascistic, intolerant ideologies.

It also nonetheless discredits the image of the media, for a media which is seen as shackled to the whims of forces outside itself, in the eyes of the rest of the world, becomes a proxy propaganda apparatus. What harm can be greater to the spirit of the media than this. The harm is also to the image of the entire state.

It is indeed an absurd Catch-22 situation for the state media. Those of us who remember Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, set against the backdrop of the World War II in which the protagonist, a fighter pilot in the US Air Force wanted to escape the insanity of the war, but discovered to his dismay that the service rules, although seeming to provide a method by which he could do this, actually turned out was closed ended.

Briefly, a fighter pilot could be dropped from fighting duty only if he could prove he is insane. To prove he is insane however, he has to make an application to the relevant authorities and the authorities would consider his case. But another set of rules pertaining to medical health said a person who can assess his own mental status is perfectly sane.

This meant that if he pleaded insanity, his application would have been rejected for then he would be considered not insane. If he did not apply, that too would have meant he is fighting fit. But the suffocating reality was, if he continued fighting, the madness of the war would ultimately have driven him truly insane.

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