Mark Tully: Censorship more covert, structural now

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Mark Tully.

Interview with Sir Mark Tully, veteran journalist.

Sir William Mark Tully, KBE (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is the former Bureau Chief of British Broadcasting Corporation in New Delhi. He worked with the BBC for 30 years before resigning in July 1994. He headed the Delhi bureau for 20 years. He has won the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Shri and the Richard Dimbleby Award of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for his contributions to the field of journalism.

Sir Mark Tully, who has been in India for close to 50 years, has stressed the importance of India’s track record as a multi-religious and plural society. He believes that the accommodative and pluralistic culture of the Indian subcontinent, along with firm constitutional protections for minorities, has contributed to the success of its democracy. He is concerned about the condition of media freedom in the country and proposes that a sense of autonomy needs to be instilled in institutions.

At a time when the minorities in the country feel increasingly insecure, he says the very soul of India is under challenge. Prannv Dhawan spoke to Sir Mark Tully in New Delhi on October 23. Excerpts from the 45-minute interview:

You have been living in India for over 50 years now. What are the main changes you have seen in the last three decades?

Well, I have seen major changes, but one in particular is that when I wrote Non-stop India, some 10 years ago, I said that the Congress was cynically trying to sell the politics of secularism versus Hindutva even when the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] had set itself on the road to being a centrist party with a mild tinge of Hindutva. At that time, even L.K. Advani told me that the BJP’s agenda was to become a moderate and centrist party and that the Congress was raising the bogey of insecurity vis-a-vis secularism in order to hide its own failures. The perception and record of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government was also that of a centrist party with a tinge of Hindutva. However, the BJP’s ideological agenda totally changed in 2014, coinciding with the collapse of the Congress party. Since 2014, under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah leadership, the element of centrism has been abandoned and Hindutva has become the central ideological and political agenda of the current political dispensation. The Congress, of course, is divided internally and confused at this juncture. So I would say this is the big change.

Do you think that the country’s political landscape has become further polarised along the lines of the Right and the Left?

Yes, if you look at it in terms of Left and Right. Although I would argue that the terms Left and Right are not necessarily very good descriptions of it. This is because I think the BJP has realised very quickly since Rahul Gandhi’s famous “suit-boot ki sarkar” [suited and booted government] remark that actually in this country, you cannot be too far Right or capitalist. You cannot ignore the mass of voters who are poor. And because of that, there has to be an element of Left-style welfarism in your policy and politics.

Indian media

As a veteran journalist, how do you see the changes in the Indian media landscape in the context of the criticism that India suffers from multiple institutional weaknesses?

Well, I think that despite its weaknesses, India is better off because of its media. I think there are a lot of valid criticisms about the way the media is functioning. I think the electronic media has for the most part ridiculously supported the government. I won’t call it propaganda, but they are extremely pro-government. I would say that except for NDTV, which tries to maintain balance and a critical perspective, the quality of the electronic media has gone down very badly. I think this is largely because people are economising and doing it on the cheap. The cheap way to do it is to just do interviews and not bother about the people on the ground. Moreover, nobody cares to consistently follow up on stories; they just forget it after one or two reports. This is not desirable.

As far as the print medium is concerned, it has a much brighter picture. There are papers which regularly publish voices of dissent. Every day I read a lot of critical stories and opinions in Indian Express and Business Standard. There are a few supporting the government, but that is fine.

What you don’t have in this country, which you do have in Britain, are newspapers which have a stated political stance, one way or the other. So, there are those ones which are more pro-government and there are those which don’t align with the government and keep challenging its story.

Surely, there are people who say that there is an undeclared Emergency for the media. During the Emergency, it was straightforward censorship; even I was sent back to London.

Those were dark days of severe restrictions and retribution for journalists; those who wrote against the government were put in jail. These days, the means of government control and censorship have become more covert and structural. I know about stories where the management or owners pressured editors and journalists to not report anything against the government. There is this famous case, for instance, of the Anandabazar Patrika group where the channel was under so much pressure that it took Punya Prasun Bajpai’s entire show off air.

In the case of the Internet, I think it is very vibrant with websites such as The Wire which put out articles. Even the stuff on YouTube has brilliant satirical and critical commentary. I know about Vinod Dua, who puts out these critical views, but he told me the last time I spoke to him that he’d never felt any pressure from the government.

Social media

I don’t do social media myself. I haven’t heard of any stories of government control but of trolling of independent professionals.

About the abuse of social media, even I had complained to the government because I had a problem with some reports that attributed a dispatch to me which was offensively critical of the Congress. I was totally shocked and brought this to the attention of the erstwhile Information and Broadcasting Minister (the current Vice President). His remark to me was that even the government was having trouble with social media. So I think most of what is going on is pro-government and hostile to those who are critical of the government. But even then, the government is somewhat concerned about what’s happening.

The BBC is cited as an example of how a public broadcaster could actually be functioning independently in the public interest. However, Indian public broadcasters do not have a reputation for autonomy. What can be done to have a truly independent media?

Well, you know, the ideal media does not really exist in any country in the world. But independent media is a media run by journalists who are committed to the press and who have no pressure from owners or anyone else. For example, in a country like Britain, which has a reputation for press freedom, the importance of a public service broadcaster is recognised by the public. The BBC is free from government interference in the sense that the BBC is financially autonomous as it is run on the basis of a licence fee agreed upon periodically. Once the fee is decided, the BBC can be absolutely free from the government’s influence. In other words, everyone in Britain pays a fee for TV sets which goes to the main corpus. So it is not dependent on the government’s largesse, and the government has absolutely no right to tell it what to do. This model of public broadcasting is probably the nearest you can get to a truly independent media unimpressed by extraneous considerations. Probably, this is the reason for widespread popular confidence in the BBC even when there are flourishing private sector broadcasters in the market.

I’ll give you a good example of the BBC’s credibility. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the BBC broadcast the news sometime in the morning while All India Radio (AIR) did so well into the afternoon because they had not got permission from the government. And incidentally, when Rajiv Gandhi wanted to confirm any piece of news, he listened to the BBC and not AIR.

Another interesting alternative is public-funded platforms like The Wire in India and like The Guardian in the United Kingdom. They directly appeal to readers for funding, which is going one step further. They really depend on just subscriptions because if you have the advertising model, there is a danger that you become influenced by the advertisers. And, after all, what could be a freer medium? It is freely accessible to those who can’t pay but appeals for public contributions. So, I do think the public sector is very important and must be made truly independent.

You mentioned the Emergency. An important aspect of what happened then was that the independence of institutions such as the judiciary and the media was compromised. What do you think about the independence and vitality of institutions today?

Institutions in the country have been in a state of decline for some time, particularly the police and the civil service. About the courts, I can only say that there is great reason to worry about the delay in delivering justice in crucial cases. But the civil service and the police have been in a state of decline in a way. I think that the government misuses the police and the investigative agencies. There’s no shadow of doubt about that. We tend to ignore certain issues, particularly, for instance, the dispute between the head of the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] and his deputy. We still don’t know what happened. We get excited about the story and then, six months later, no one knows what’s happening. That’s one of the reasons why things have come to this pass. But, basically, it’s a matter of not standing up for autonomy. Something that has not been properly realised in this country is that in a democracy, institutions must have autonomy. I have to be free of interference to a certain extent, and this means political interference in the police and civil services is not desirable.

As someone who was born in India and has been a proponent of India’s pluralistic ethos, how do you think we can reclaim the Gandhian idea of inter-community peace and brotherhood?

Well, I think that if there was an opposition party that strongly stood by pluralism, the situation would be better. I think getting back to the Gandhian model of pluralistic, accommodative Hinduism is the way ahead. They [the opposition] need to stand for the culturally rooted liberal belief to keep the house open to winds from all parts of the world. They must say that they stand for the religious pluralistic side of it (Hinduism) and for its great spiritual traditions. I see that a lot of people will be very attracted to that. I personally believe that is fundamental of India.

I believe secularism has been distorted by politicians. You see, India is a highly religious country where people take their religious identity very seriously. If India wants to call itself a Hindu country, it should be allowed because the majority of people are Hindus. The question then is, what do you mean by a “Hindu”? It is about reinterpreting that in an inclusive sense. In Britain, you know, we call ourselves a Christian country, but we’re not a Roman Catholic or an extreme Protestant country. So in the same way, you can call yourself a Hindu country.

However, you do have a large minority population in this country, and you have people of all other faiths. As a Christian, I’m taught to believe that St. Thomas came to India just after the death of Jesus. Islamic traders brought Islam to India in the medieval period. About the existing divisive atmosphere in the country, I think some political changes are required. Media only channels the existing political hostilities.

I believe that the Congress party has taken this message on board. And I believe that during the last election, Rahul Gandhi acted on it. In fact, he said to me that he believes there are two types of Hinduism, one Mahatma Gandhi’s and the other the RSS’ [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], and that he believes in Gandhi’s Hinduism. It’s a hugely difficult yet crucial task. And it’s really for politicians to take this on board because it is dangerous for a diverse country to have one divisive ideology dumped on it unquestioningly.

What are your hopes and expectations for the future of “Non-stop India”?

My hope for India is that ultimately it will develop into a great economy in which the benefits of economic development accrue to everyone. Basically, a socialist economy without excessive state intervention. I would also hope that India readopts its ancient pluralist culture and sets an example for the world.

When people ask me if India will become a great country, I tell them it is a great country with its diverse culture and tradition. However, I think a great nation need not necessarily be a great power. I think that we should look at Mahatma Gandhi. He would be horrified if you asked if he thought India was pursuing the road to becoming a superpower. So, I think we must inspire the world with our spiritual facets.

You were the South Asia correspondent of the BBC for decades. How do you look at India’s diplomatic foreign relations in the region and the stability of the South Asian subcontinent, especially in the context of India-Pakistan tensions?

First of all, I think it’s tragic that SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] is actually still not functional. When, several years ago, I wrote an article about regional cooperation, I realised that regional economic cooperation in South Asia was the lowest in the world. Let me just take one example, that of Bangladesh and north-eastern India. We should attempt to integrate north-eastern India by connecting it to the mainland of India through Bangladesh so as to ensure that people have easy access to communication and electricity facilities.

One reason, of course, for things failing, is the India-Pakistan dispute. India should do everything it can, as it has done under Manmohan Singh and under Vajpayee, to try and resolve the issue with Pakistan. And in trying to resolve that issue, it should remember that, in a way, the burden of generosity lies on its shoulders because after 70 years Pakistan has lost three wars, has far less population and has not been as economically successful as India.

Only by some element of generosity, India has to try and find ways to resolve the dispute. What has happened in Kashmir and the present atmosphere with Pakistan is a step backwards. And it cannot be entirely blamed on Pakistan. I would go so far as to say that it demeans India to go on blaming everything on Pakistan and treating Pakistan as a hostile element. I know there’s a problem of terrorism in Kashmir. We all accept that. But I still believe if the problem is approached in a generous and proper manner and with willingness, in some way, to give on Kashmir, there can be peace. I’m not saying give away Kashmir, but go some way towards what Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee had proposed. Ultimately, it is in India’s national interest to resolve this dispute.

How do you think the India-Pakistan dispute plays into the inter-community relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India?

Well, of course the India-Pakistan rivalry feeds into the distrust between communities in India because it is all about the Muslim part of the country (undivided India). It has at least two impacts: one, the demands for azaadi (freedom) and incidents like stone-throwing feed into the anti-Muslim agenda because the government can say look at the Muslims, look what they’re doing, they can’t be loyal Indians.

So, in that way, it does play into it. But the reverse way the rivalry could play is that if there is a peaceful settlement it could be an example of Indian pluralism. We have an all-Muslim State and [if it is] is living happily as part of India, then that will play into the other agenda of pluralism. But what is happening now in Kashmir is being used by the government as an electoral issue. And in doing that, there must be a Muslim element which enters into what they’re saying.

Prannv Dhawan is a student at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, where he leads the Law and Society Committee.

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