Two days ago, while speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function, Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that the Emergency should be repeatedly analysed and talked about, lest we forget.
"Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same paap [sin]," Modi said.
The PM needn't worry. Around the time he was talking about the Emergency, the government's inter-ministerial committee on information and broadcasting was suggesting a decision the BJP may have derided as paap during the Emergency: A one-day ban on NDTV India for "broadcasting sensitive information" during the attack on the Pathankot air base.
The committee's decision, obviously, violates the basic principle of natural justice. With its unilateral decision to punish the channel, the government is trying to unequivocally convey that when it comes to the media, it can act as the judge, jury and the executioner. The message is simple: If the government does not agree or approve, you better shut up and pay a price.
A few days ago, Indians were gloating over their democratic values and freedoms guaranteed to the media, while criticising the restrictions imposed on Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, who was put on the exit control list for breaking a story on the tiff between his country's civil and military leadership.
With its harsh, punitive action against NDTV, the government has unfortunately reminded us of how we have started imbibing the undemocratic, tyrannical practices of the neighbour we so love to despise and ridicule.
As the Editors Guild of India has argued: "The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India, and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency. This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage."
The very premise of the ban — that the channel's broadcast compromised national security — is bogus. On the night of 31 December, at least six terrorists crossed the border, held the Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh at gun point and then sneaked into the high-security air base without any restrictions.
Their unrestricted movement in the high-security zone was a massive intelligence failure. That an important air base on the India-Pakistan border is so porous that anybody can merrily walk in and hide there for several hours without being noticed is a damning indictment of our security apparatus.
Even a year after the attack, we do not know how the terrorists crossed the border, walked into the airbase and launched an attack that lasted at least 48 hours. Since the security agencies failed to capture even one of the infiltrators alive, nobody knows who helped them enter a high-security defence installation. Nobody has been punished so far, nobody has been held accountable. No wonder, since the right lessons were not learnt from Pathankot, similar incidents happened in military camps in Jammu and Kashmir barely a few months later.
Ironically, while the big questions remain unanswered, the committee has already identified the fall guy: A TV channel reporting on the incident. Coincidentally, the only channel identified for punishment has always been perceived to be among the few independent voices in the country that is being increasingly dominated by media houses that kowtow to the government, crawl when asked to bend. And its anchors have always been high on the hit list of cheerleaders of the government and right-wing trolls.
How is a TV channel to be blamed for reporting a terror attack? Soon after the 26/11 terror strikes on Mumbai, Firstpost Editor-in-Chief BV Rao had debunked this TV-helped-terrorists theory. "It presumes that the terrorists left the crucial job of intelligence gathering at ground zero to India’s news channels! Which in turn presumes the terrorists were cocksure the Indian security establishment would goof up its most elementary job of securing the war zone and keeping the media at bay," he argued.
Similar questions can be raised about the Pathankot attack. Did the terrorists leave their base in Pakistan relying on the Indian media for inputs? Were they relying on the happenstance of a TV reporter informing them on the exact number of planes and nature and amount of ammo at the base? If that be the case, did they bring GPS sets, maps and other communication devices to play Pokemon during the 48-hour encounter?
As Rao had argued then, by accusing the media of helping the terrorists, the government manages to deftly deflect the debate from uncomfortable questions about the quality of our response. By pinning the media down with absurd charges of complicity with the enemy, it ensures the media was on the defensive and did not raise any questions about the efficiency of the 60-hour operation.
I see some gaps, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had admitted after the lapses that allowed terrorists a walk in the Pathankot base. News reports had pointed at a lot of confusion within the government ranks over the response to the attack and its handling by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Writing on the incident, defence expert Ajai Shukla had argued that India was lucky to get away with limited losses in spite of inept handling of the attack. He pointed out that the security agencies were warned 24 hours in advance about the attack and yet, "when the NSA met the army chief on Friday, he asked for only two columns of soldiers (some 50 troops). Intent on directly controlling what he anticipated would be a walk in the park, and without anticipating that there might be more than one group of terrorists, Mr Doval led with his trump card — he ordered 150-160 National Security Guard (NSG) troopers to be flown down immediately from New Delhi. The army was placed on the sidelines".
Even a year after the attack, we do not know how the terrorists crossed the border, walked into the airbase and launched an attack that lasted at least 48 hours
Clearly, diverting the blame to a TV channel helps everyone in the government. It takes the debate in a different direction, taking the attention away from the real flaws and problems, finds a convenient scapegoat, and gives its cheerleaders an opportunity to applaud punitive action against a TV channel and anchors they want tamed.
The only problem with the decision is this: By embracing the Emergency's code of punishment, how will the BJP help us forget the paap committed by Indira Gandhi?
PS: A few weeks ago, NDTV decided to drop former home minister P Chidambaram's interview after running its promos the entire day. The government's decision to ban it for a day would perhaps remind it of the essence of Martin Niemoller's immortal words: When they came for Chidambaram, I didn't speak up. One day when they came for me, I cried but everyone said my complaint was just 'drivel'.