December 10, 2022
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
One of the last true journalists still standing in the Indian news television space resigned a few days ago. Ravish Kumar, a Magsaysay Award winner for his courage, left NDTV after its takeover by the Adani Group. Here’s a translated excerpt of what he said in his goodbye speech published on his YouTube channel: “There was never a golden age in Indian journalism. But it was never as bad as it is today. Every good aspect of journalism is being destroyed rapidly. This was expected. But what we have today is truly the ‘dark age’ of journalism. There are numerous news channels in India but all of them have compromised on their ethics. Our media ecosystem has been gutted and destroyed. Everyone claims to be a journalist today. Especially those who are close to and even aligned with the powerful. These faces and establishments ironically are the very reason journalism is being trampled upon in this country. They claim to do good journalism. I implore you to be sceptical of them. These unquestioning journalists and even the government want to shove their definition of journalism down your throat.” Ravish Kumar is an institution and his exit was to be expected after a conglomerate close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party took over the channel. What does this mean for Ravish’s brand of journalism? What did Ravish teach us about a skill – in fact, a duty – that is rapidly being suppressed? And why does his voice still matter, even though it’s shifted elsewhere?
Reams are being written about Ravish and his show, Prime Time, which aired on NDTV’s Hindi channel. He set the standard – unafraid to speak the truth, challenging power and its penchant for division, misinformation and deflection. His show was a stark contrast to the cacophony of other channels, the ranting against those who oppose the government and so-called panels on which everyone yells at each other and nothing of consequence is said.
He showed us that it was possible to go beyond the shrill to the insightful and beyond the air-conditioned comfort of studios to the real India and to meet with people most in need of being heard. Ravish showed it is possible to speak truth to power despite the hate and threats.
I suppose there is some level of fear involved in the effort, and it takes a toll no matter how brave a front you put up. In his book, ‘The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation’, Ravish alludes to times he felt afraid – for example, an episode on the death of Judge BH Loya, who had presided over the Sohrabuddin Shaikh encounter case. Ravish wrote: “I had found release from the fear that had held me in its suffocating grip for two days. Through the duration of the show, I’d felt that every single word was holding me back, as if to warn me: ‘Enough, don’t go any further. You cannot put yours and yourself in danger just to overcome your fear. Fear does not end after you’ve spoken out. Even after you’ve spoken, fear lies in wait for you with its nets and snares.’ But I had spoken, and I was free.”
I don’t think Ravish is the kind of guy who can be silenced. He’s already announced that YouTube will be the home of his journalism and maybe in time he will find space in another media house. But whether any of them, cowering and submissive as they are, will have the guts to have him on board is doubtful – for the moment at least. However, we cannot deny that his exit from a leading TV channel is yet another nail in the coffin of coherent, relevant and brave journalism that has been under siege for the past eight years.
Incidentally, Ravish isn’t just brave. I think he is an excellent writer and is articulate. He manages to suck into the narrative even those who don’t speak Hindi well – people like me. There is powerful commentary and terrific wordsmith-ing. He can alternate between the earthiness of village street language and the sophistication of modern newsrooms.
And he keeps his audience at the forefront and respects it, as every journalist should. Here’s what he said about it in his farewell monologue; again, it’s translated: “When democratic institutions were weak and courts appeared weak, you stood strong. In these times, you are the biggest institution of journalism. Journalism today lives among enlightened audiences, not in lofty institutions. Your biggest contribution to our times is that you stand by those journalists who ask tough questions.
“There might be forces who muzzle the voice of the people, cover it with religious hatred and kill democracy. But some of you give me hope. Because even if democracy dies, the desire for a functioning democracy survives. All thanks to you, responsible audiences.”
It’s this focus on the audience that has led to him to report ground-breaking stories and to get to the heart of each issue he takes up. For instance, when demonetisation wreaked havoc with our lives, Ravish spoke about how it had destroyed the savings women secretly stash away from the sticky fingers of their menfolk. It is these savings that are used for crucial things like their children’s school fees and health emergencies. “These savings represented economic independence in a patriarchal society. No economist can understand their pain,” Ravish said.
It’s because of stories like these that people continue to believe that journalism can still survive in India. It’s work like his that makes you believe that truth still matters and that it can still make a difference.
Ravish is proof of the superiority of substance over form. When he says that “ek dara hua patrakaar ek mara hua naagrik paida karta hai”, which translates as “fearful journalists create dead citizenry”, he is underscoring that a democracy can survive only when the news media are free. Here’s some perspective of what he’s talking about: India ranks 150 among 180 nations on the Press Freedom Index. This is a fall of eight positions from its rank in 2021.
Ravish will strive on, never mind the circumstances. As he said: “Not all battles are fought for victory; some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”
I’ll end with another passage from his farewell monologue, translated from Hindi: “Journalists are meant to be the medium that takes your voice to the highest levels. I always tried to see the nation through your eyes. Your activism keeps Indian democracy alive. Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protests strengthened my belief in you. I saw you transform into responsible citizens. You people will make better societies in the future.
“Today some believe that they control all major aspects of our society. They believe citizens are dispensable. The media is dead and political opposition is struggling. All of that is true. But such a state is not eternal. One day people will overcome their hatred. They will look for a new society to build and they will think of journalism then.”
I couldn’t agree more. However, I do wonder: does the quest for truth have to be so lonely?
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.