In 1993 or so, I had dinner with a Pakistani friend of mine. He had recently moved to India and was trying to understand our politics and journalism. “Tell me,” he said, “when you write these articles in which you attack politicians and make fun of them, don’t you ever fear for your own safety?”
I gave him the standard answer. India had one of the free-est presses in the world. So I could write what I liked without worrying about censorship or official retribution.
<b1>But it wasn’t censorship he meant, he explained. Despite periodic clamp-downs, the Pakistani press was also largely free. The problem was that the targets of journalistic attack and ridicule sometimes took the law into their hands. Did that ever happen here?
Oh no, I said smugly. We are too civilised for that.
I was exaggerating, of course, perhaps out of some sense of patriotism. The Shiv Sena has a long history of attacking critics in the press (the trashing of the Mahanagar office by Sena goondas became a national cause celebre in the 1990s) and there have been instances of intimidation elsewhere in India as well. On the whole, though, my position was accurate: none of us worries about violent retribution when we write our articles.
My conversation with my Pakistani friend came back to me when I read about the attack on the home of Kumar Ketkar, Editor of Loksatta and one of India’s most insightful commentators — in any language. (He writes in both Marathi and English).
What made the attack unusual was that it was not provoked by an attack on an individual or even, a political party. The ostensible provocation was an editorial in Loksatta about the Maharashtra government’s plans to install a huge statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea. I read the English translation of the editorial and could not see what was so objectionable. The editorial made the point that the building of statues and the renaming of airports will not solve Maharashtra’s problems. The state government, it implied, should focus on the real issues and not resort to gimmicks.
Who could possibly object to that? The state government, perhaps?
Maybe. But the response did not come from there. It was activists of Shiv Sangram, described as a pro-Marathi socio-religious organisation, who tried to break into Ketkar’s home. They threw stones, broke windows and would have done more damage if the police had not arrived.
The founder of Shiv Sangram, a former MLC from Sharad Pawar’s NCP, Vinayak Methe, went on TV to take credit for the attack: “He has used derogatory language against Chhatrapati Shivaji… So our workers attacked his residence in protest.”
Methe is not the architect of the statue proposal. Nor did the article say anything at all that was remotely critical of Shivaji. So why then did he send his thugs to attack Ketkar’s home?
Simple: you now know who Methe is.
The sad truth about today’s media-savvy India is that any two-bit organisation led by any third-rate politician can get itself on TV — and written about in the papers — if it engages in an act of mindless violence. Few of us had heard of Methe before. Now, he is on every channel and national papers (like this one) are devoting space to condemning him. Methe doesn’t care about our condemnation. Not as long as we spell his name right.
By some coincidence, on the same day that Methe sent goons to Ketkar’s house, somebody claiming to represent Al- Qaeda went on the internet to take credit for the recent attack on the Danish embassy in Pakistan. The attack, the web posting said, was retribution for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper a few years ago.
What neither my Pakistani friend nor I realised in 1993 when we had our conversation was that the world was on the verge of a global media explosion. Satellite TV and the internet would transform the way in which we received news, and therefore, transform the ways in which news was made.
Fifteen years ago, things were simpler. You recognised that if you attacked a thug in your article, you risked violent retaliation. However, because such a response was still relatively rare in India, most journos did not worry too much about it.
But now, there’s something else to worry about. It’s not retaliation that concerns us. It’s the lust for publicity.
<b2>Take the attack on Ketkar. Not only had he not said anything derogatory about Shivaji, he probably hadn’t even thought of Methe when he wrote the editorial.
Why then did Shiv Sangram thugs launch their attack?
The answer is clear enough. The attack had nothing to do with retaliation. It was no more than an attempt to get on to TV, to get written about, to introduce Shiv Sangram to a larger audience.
That’s why Methe made no attempt to disown the attack. Rather, he wanted the credit for it.
The Danish embassy bombing is a more extreme example of the same syndrome. Most Muslims will find the Danish cartoons offensive. Here’s the thing, though: to be offended, they have to first see them.
But hardly anybody in our part of the world has ever seen these cartoons. Muslims are being asked to take offence at an insult that occurred many months ago and many miles away, far from their eyes.
The only reason that the Danish cartoons are an international cause celebre is because attention-seekers have exploited the issue. They have drawn attention to cartoons that would otherwise have been ignored only so that they can earn publicity for themselves.
The bombing follows the same logic. By targeting the Danish embassy, the extremists are keeping the issue alive. They are posing as protectors of Islam, avenging insults that nobody would otherwise have noticed. It does not bother them that in their hunger for news coverage, they have killed innocent Pakistanis who lost their lives in the explosion.
What neither my Pakistani friend nor I realised was that in the 21st century, the threat to freedom of speech would not come from those who wanted to shut down newspapers or TV channels. The biggest threat would be posed by those who wanted to use the media.
How does a liberal society cope with those who use violence to earn publicity for themselves?
One answer would be to deny coverage to obvious publicity-seekers. But this solution has its limits. If an embassy is bombed or a journalist’s house is attacked then we can’t black out the news. We have no choice but to cover it.
The only effective way of countering this threat is law enforcement. We must hunt down and arrest anybody who engages in publicity-seeking violence. The police should bring such cases swiftly to trial and judges should hand down the maximum sentences. Even bail applications should be carefully scrutinised before any bail is granted.
It is instructive that in cities where the police brook no nonsense — Delhi, for instance — such incidents are relatively rare. In cities where the government has a ‘chalta-hai’ attitude, publicity-seeking violence is growing. The worst example is Bombay where anybody can hit the headlines by engaging in minor violence, confident that no action will be taken. A year-and-a-half ago, the Star News office was attacked by a small-time Marathi chauvinist organisation; more recently Uddhav Thackeray turned his fading fortunes around by getting his followers to slap a few taxi drivers; and now, there’s this.
The Maharashtra police should go after Methe and his thugs with everything they’ve got. They should send out a clear signal that this kind of violence will not be tolerated. And the courts should react with the utmost severity.
Because otherwise, any punk with an agenda will resort to violence, confident that he will soon become headline news and suffer no retribution at all.