(My column in Mint Lounge, November 12 2016)
I must admit I feel a mischievous delight in being able to compare our “hon’ble minister” for information and broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, in his spotless white shirt and mundu, to Chairman Mao of China, who must have been somewhat less spotless after not bothering to shower for 27 years (he preferred sponge-baths). But it is not lightly that I make this observation, for the substance of the pious wisdom that has emerged from the minister in recent times is to me, as a historian, reminiscent of a number of ominous statements an unwashed Mao made some years before his rise to titanic tyranny in China—a China where people were buried alive so Mao could prevail.
It is not my intention to suggest that Naidu has anything else in common with a bona-fide dictator like Mao—his duties in information and broadcasting can hardly be compared to the terror of a man whose regime invented hundreds of ways of torture, with names like “sitting in a pleasure chair” and “monkeys holding a rope”. However, the similarity of tone in a number of recent utterances is difficult to miss, and favours intellectual positions that empower illiberalism and the centralization of power at the cost of freedom. Take, for instance, Mao’s “ideals are important, but reality is even more important”. To this, Naidu’s own “art has no boundaries, but countries (do) have boundaries” sounds like an affirmation that the mind must work within frontiers. And gatekeepers of these frontiers become the policemen of thought.
But this too is not a particularly original line of regressive thinking—any urban, middle-aged, middle- class, upper-caste male “outraged” by the “appeasement” of minorities, by reservations for “lazy” Dalits, by “sickulars” on Twitter, and by women in trousers could arguably have said all this without being suspected of wanting to follow in Mao’s bloody footsteps. So what really lends itself to comparison (after this lengthy preamble to try and ensure I am not sued) are the remarks our minister reportedly made about his view of an ideal press environment in India—that is, ideal for rulers and quite the opposite for those of us at the other end of the arrangement—and certain infamous, corresponding declarations Mao issued in 1942 at Yan’an, setting terms for freedom in the China he went on to scar forever.
Naidu’s latest recommendation, in defence of the suspension for a day of NDTV India for “compromising national security”, is that news broadcasters must “keep in mind interests of society and nation first”, and that “news should not cause harm to the nation’s interests”. A party colleague added that “we are a democracy and we believe in the freedom of the press, but the nation comes first”. The problem here is not even that the government has installed itself as the competent authority to define “the nation” but that to its spokespersons, freedom can be divorced from nationalism. The ruling dispensation, and not the Constitution, is the custodian of such nationalism.
The risk, behind smokescreens of patriotism, of surrendering such prerogatives to the government, is that the Constitution is reduced to a lovely work of calligraphy that everyone formally venerates while cordially violating in spirit. This has happened in the past too, which is why we have today little Maos who invade kitchens and bedrooms to protect “the nation”. Big Mao didn’t brook challengers, which meant he didn’t like people who could think. In his vindictive quest for authority, anybody who questioned him was branded “anti-people” or “anti-socialism”. “If our writers and artists …want their works to be well-received by the masses,” he announced, “they must change and remould their thinking and their feelings.” Or else they were welcome in the pleasure chair referred to above.
That was in 1942, and soon Mao went on to preside over human tragedy of colossal proportions and the wholesale massacre of everything that freedom entails. Today, we live in times when “anti-nationalism” is the hysteria of choice on this side of the Himalayas to cast people in black and white (and five paragraphs down, I imagine this column is firmly in the black). And when the argument is made that freedom is all good but that “the nation” must come first, the subtext is that the government acts in our best interests, and we must not be petulant by asking questions. “Media plays an important role in empowering people with information necessary to benefit from the government’s schemes and policies,” Naidu said. But when it does not exercise its freedom “judiciously” (i.e. when the press refuses to serve as a mouthpiece for the state), “necessary interventions” are justified.
Mercifully, the minister added that he is “not thinking of any new restrictions” on the press, which may be due to the fact that many in that business are already profitably kowtowing to power. Perhaps this should be no surprise—Mao may have sinned, but the China he left behind is booming (at least for its authoritarian masters) in that impersonal language of economic numbers. Since India has plans to rival China this century, perhaps patriots are willing to excuse a little authoritarianism. And if one suggests that they might be misguided in acquiescing in a path paved for tyrants, one must be among those who, as Naidu said, “are critical of whatever the government does in the best interests of the country”. Anti-national, like Mao’s anti-people challengers.