How Free is our voice? Ashraf’s book club picks Ravish Kumar’s latest

The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by Ravish Kumar

Consider this: the world’s largest democracy, noisy and argumentative, is ranked 138 in the World Press Freedom Index. It is also among the most dangerous for journalists.

This is a time we have rarely witnessed before. Neo-nationalism – the snarling, frothing-at-the-mouth kind – is running amok. The very act of criticising the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi can invite not just abuse via social media but threats against the journalist and his/her family. At a time when gau rakshaks can kill impudently and then be felicitated by ministers, these threats to media persons must be taken seriously.

Often, the justification for these threats is to preserve the honour and security of the nation.

It is in this context that Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation is not just a reminder of what our democracy used to be till just a few years ago and what we stand to lose today, but also an act of immense bravery.

I can tell you from experience that pressure on journalists is nothing new. Neither are threats. But when they come from an actively supported, resourced and programmed army of trolls and on-ground “activists”, we have transformed into a state in which faceless soldiers wage war on behalf of a government, leader or political party. They work as a team, coordinating their attacks and silencing dissenters by labelling them “anti-national”. No wonder Kumar feels compelled to remind us of Hitler and the propaganda machinery that transformed ordinary Germans into enthusiastic collaborators against an imagined threat.

Pointing to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s infamous IT cell, he writes: “Every day I’m stalked by a new lie. Every day I fight a new lie. It would be exhausting, but for the occasional sign that the fight is not in vain.”

It’s worth recalling here what Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s Presidency, said. He said that for the “first time in history the weird and the stupid and the vulgar are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.” This is being done by pitching “all messages to the lowest level of mental capacity”. Look around you. Seems familiar?

Even many leading journalists and media houses have chosen to become part of this herd rather than oppose it.

Kumar’s book, by putting under the microscope our fast-shrinking freedom of speech, turns into a dissertation on India’s democracy itself. We lose one, we lose the other.

Many reviewers have called for the ‘The Free Voice…’ to become mandatory reading for all Indians. I’ve done that. Time for you to do so too.

The book is available on Amazon.

Author of 'Bricks of Blood', Ashraf Engineer is a book reader and coffee drinker by profession. When he isn't doing that, he is a principal consultant at Pitchfork Partners, counselling brands on their communication needs.

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