Speech delivered on National Press Day of Press Council of India, November 16, 2021 at the Kohima Press Club.
I have to start by saying that after repeated attempts I have failed to come to a satisfactory understanding of the meaning of the theme.
“Who is not afraid of Media?” leads me nowhere. Either my failure to understand something very obvious simply shows I do not know what’s going on OR, the Press Council of India has given a theme for today that simply raises confusing questions. I am expecting to learn from the discussions today what the theme means.
The two lady journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, detained by Tripura Police some days back because they investigated and reported on the outbreak of communal violence as journalists should, is an instance of Who is Afraid of the Media! The Tripura Government wanted only their faked version of what had happened to be published, not the facts of the tragic incident which caused bloodshed and deepened fear and distrust in the State, long known for the sensitive relationships between the different communities.
I know I am speaking to people who know better than I the increasingly brazen manner in which freedom of the press, guaranteed in the Constitution, is now being subjected to crippling manipulations with impunity in different parts of India. What is happening reveals fear and wilful determination to put what I want first before what is right for all and the world.
The Nobel Prize for Peace for 2021 went to Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia for “their courageous fight for freedom of expression”, as the citation stated.
Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters without Borders (RSF) called the Prize, “An extraordinary tribute to journalism and a mobilisation appeal, because this decade will be absolutely decisive for journalism”. He also said the Prize is “a powerful message at a time when democracies are being undermined by the spread of fake news and hate speech”. The sense of urgency is clear in his emotion-charged words.
In the World Press Freedom Index of this year, 2021, Philippines is ranked 138 of 180 nations. India comes 142, lower than Dutertes’ Philippines and Myanmar! Russia ranked 150. So we get the picture of where things stand in India and the direction it is taking. And we are seeing narcissistic autocrats of the Left and of the Right are rejecting government by the free will of the people and for the people, based on the rule of law, no longer concealing their iron fists. This trend is spreading menacingly across the globe.
We are meeting at a time when with all others across the world, we are confronting challenges that unrelenting changes have brought to us. And we are finding our responses to the challenges are producing more problems than solutions, because response to challenge is the most difficult, complicated thing to do for human beings and societies.
Osip Mandelstam was a Polish-Russian Jew, who with his wife was a Marxist revolutionary. But he was of the radical humanist type. Josef Stalin did not like what Mandelstam the poet and writer said about Stalin’s horrific purges and maniacal consolidation of power for himself. Mandelstam and his wife were packed off to a concentration camp in the Gulag Archipelago of frozen Siberia. Like so many others at the time they never returned.
Mandelstam said, “We live without sensing the country beneath us”. He saw that the great revolution was doomed to destroy itself with all the consequences that will follow, if the silent sufferings of the poor, the masses, the wretched of the earth “beneath the country” that the revolution claimed it represented, were exploited for the success of the cause, and their humanity was disrespected and desecrated. This is where radical humanism of the Marxists and Gandhian humanism intriguingly converge because both see that unless the process is kept clean, the outcome is never right for anyone. The quality of the process decides the quality of the outcome. This is clearly one unchangeable lesson from history.
Kim Beazley, Labor Party MP for 32 years and who came to be called “Father of the Australian Parliament”, said, the idea he had chosen to guide him and his politics was this – “If your motive is truth you will be fit for power. But if your motive is power, you will distort the truth.” Beazley the politician never lost his seat representing a constituency in Western Australia. His commitment to the truth made him a statesman, Australians, especially the Aboriginal people, remember with gratitude and respect.
I am saying the obvious when I say that for most journalists their sensing of the existential realities “beneath the country” is their motivation for turning to journalism. With this in mind, I am going to make 2 suggestions.
The geopolitical and racial location of our homeland is going to be found by us to be our curse or our near-unique exciting opportunity, depending on the purpose of life each one will choose to live by. We are stuck ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ between India and China, two of the world’s oldest, praiseworthy civilizations. The hard-set prejudices of culture, caste, race and religion at their bases, unchallenged for centuries, are the natural mind-set of the majority. Without democratic and liberal values and doctrines for exercise of power their massive nations cannot succeed. We are on the fringes of these super powers, and the dynamics for their own growth in the modern world will shape us in ways we will find extremely difficult to correctly cope with. But our crisis will not impinge on them, except on the morally and ethically sensitive humanists among them. (This is the size and nature of our crisis of danger and opportunity).
So, fragile but fiercely self-conscious ethnic minorities like us will have to learn to work out how we will survive and grow properly instead of destroy ourselves by our panicky, opportunistic responses to the challenges that will come.
We will have to learn what mindfulness means from the Zen thinkers of the Orient like Japan and China. This comes down to knowing ourselves, as Socrates taught.
I have come to see that this will mean we decide as a people to reduce our selfishness, ego and pride, fear and hate, and just keep on reducing it as the one imperative for our survival and growth. I believe this educative process is something the journalists and writers are best equipped by temperament and calling to take on for our people. There must be a way of doing this, and we just have to find how by daring experiments by individuals that will show that it is doable!!
We should realize if our Christianity will not help in solving our mounting socio-economic problems like primary school education for the poor families in villages and towns, basic health, road connectivity, so on, the children of the poor and the coming generation in general, will conclude that Christianity is of no use for the needs of life on earth, and opt for something else that may simply result in our problems becoming more complicated?
My 2nd suggestion has to do with the CAG report that comes out regularly. It reveals all the anomalies, irregularities and failures that are preventing proper functioning of governance and massive misuse of funds for development. The front page treatment I saw being given in The Morung Express by the General Secretary of KPC caught my attention. I am sure it is coming out in all the other papers also. Given the accumulated public frustration and resentment coming from what the CAG accounts reveal, and the absence of any remedial actions taken by the government; can the media fraternity create an open process which brings in concerned individuals from the public that will enable the fight to be taken forward to some solutions? Too few are making decisions without public scrutiny of their concealed misdeeds. Such a group should pursue only one or two items of mismanagement and corruption well-known to the public so that they concentrate on something manageable and succeed in righting some wrongs. If such a group is trusted by the public I believe they will achieve unexpected results that inspire and give some hope to our people. This suggestion is likely to provoke derision in those who are knowledgeable because of its naivety?
Yesterday I was talking to a young friend about our crisis. I am concluding what I have tried to say this morning with what she said:
“We Nagas should be like hills that grow into mountains that support us and all life forms of the eco system. We have become more like volcanoes instead – unpredictable, shaky, angry and dangerously grumbling. When volcanoes explode they bring the worst out. After the explosion only destruction is left behind which will take generations to restore life again.”
The writer is a respected Naga elder and statesman, deeply engaged in peace building