The bigger surprise is the fact that India Today actually announced that it was taking Madison Mawali, Rajdeep Sardesai off the air and cutting his salary for a month. Indeed, the one glaring change in the media landscape since 2014 is also a noticeable void: a complete absence of blaring headlines announcing a new scandal, scam, terror attack or political skullduggery. If you think about it deeply, it counts for and is a brilliant reflection of decisive political leadership. A corrupt regime naturally produces a corrupt media. This is at the heart of the Lutyens media’s enduring complaint against the Narendra Modi government: no longer can a Barkha Dutt act as a political fixer or a Rajdeep Sardesai run riot like he did with the cash-for-votes saga, or a Vir Sanghvi moonlight as a stenographer for Niira Radia. More epochal is the fact that the last six years have broken that mafia-like omerta that existed in the media: no matter how corrupt or venal your colleague is, thou shalt cover up their corruption by remaining silent. What we’re now witnessing is the phenomenon where the legacy Congress media is eating its own. The thickness of thieves comes unglued when there is no opportunity to loot.
Lal Krishna Advani’s memorable phrase about the media crawling when it was merely asked to bend alluded to their cowardice in face of Congress tyranny. However, much to their delight, the Congress media later discovered that crawling was actually lucrative.
However, more than Advani, it was a goonish Congressman and former Haryana Chief Minister who gave us perhaps the most accurate description of this media. When Bansi Lal was later elevated as Defence Minister, he said the following in a press conference at Lucknow: “we have brought newspapermen down to the level where they ought to be—the drain level.” Bansi Lal was crude but he was essentially drawing from the same fount of wisdom that Pattabhi Sitaramayya had left behind when he said way back in the 1950s that “the press is now a unit of the Government.”
Yet, one of the marvels of creation is the human spirit of independence from which springs all the virtues of courage, endurance, determination and grit in face of soul-crushing odds.
This is one such story.
For over two decades, Bansi Lal ran Haryana like his fiefdom of which he was the unchallengeable Nawab. He was unchallengeable because he had the direct blessings of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself. The reign of terror he unleashed in the state is comparable to the regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Indeed, the India of today is a vastly blessed place when we read these horrific stories of recent history.
Among other things, Bansi Lal hated the non-crawling journalists and didn’t blink before inflicting the worst sort of persecution against them. His hometown and citadel Bhiwani, was also home to some of the worst excesses under his watch. Yet, not everybody was scared.
A small but independent-minded Hindi newspaper Chetna had the guts to criticize and stand up to his bullying. It was run by Rabindranath Vasisht and his son, Devabrata Vasisht. In July 1974, a year before the Emergency, Bansi Lal decided that he had enough of the paper. One evening, a municipality officer arrived at the Chetna office accompanied by workers wielding crowbars, axes and spades, and began smashing the front portion of the building. The pretext: this was an unauthorized extra construction. Rabindranath promptly showed the government documents that had sanctioned the construction. After much argument, the municipal officer said, “look, we’re helpless. We’re only following the orders coming from the top. Here’s my friendly suggestion: if you want this to stop, stop writing against the Chief Minister. Tell your son and editor to give a written undertaking that he will not write against the Chief Minister henceforth.”
Both Rabindranath and Devabrata Vasisht shot back immediately: “We’re running an independent newspaper, not a Bania shop.”
Matters quickly escalated. Rabindranath was arrested on fake charges and later released on bail.
However, this was just the calm before the real storm. In the wee hours of 26 June 1975, the day the Emergency was imposed, a contingent of policemen descended on their home and arrested both father and son. A whopping thirteen false cases were thrust on them. This only steeled their resolve. Rabindranath and Devabrata decided to fight back with all they had. Devabrata’s wife stepped into the editor’s shoes and resumed the publication with greater fervour.
Retaliation was swift. Demolition squads pounded the newspaper’s building with maniacal frenzy and Bansi Lal’s goons began pelting stones every night on the Vasishts’ residence. When even this failed to scare them, they barged into the home and began vandalizing the property, instilling terror among the womenfolk and children.
Three days later, on 29 June, Devabrata’s 17-year-old son was summoned by the district administration. A direct warning: “Give us in writing that you and your mother will cease publishing anything against Bansi Lal and his men. We will release your father and grandfather immediately. Else…” The courageous boy refused.
An even worse fate awaited him. On the evening of 20 February 1976, as the boy returned home, he found that the streetlights had been smashed. The next thing he knew, Bansi Lal’s rowdies emerged from the darkness and assaulted him with wanton savagery. He was thrashed with iron rods and lathis, beaten with metal chains, and mercilessly whipped with belts. He lost consciousness and lay bleeding on the roadside for six hours. No help came. Finally, when his family and friends approached the local doctors, none of them were willing to visit the Vasisht residence. The dread of Bansi Lal overpowered their sense of duty. Likewise, the police too, refused to file a FIR. After much persuasion, a courageous doctor visited their home in a car with thickly curtained windows. By now, Devabrata’s teenaged son was knocking on the doors of death. He was transported to the Rohtak Medical College and after a marathon treatment lasting thirty-one hours, regained consciousness.
It was revealed much later that the entire assault had been masterminded by Bansi Lal’s second son, Surinder Singh.
This then is the brief story of an oasis of courage amid the vast desert of cowardice, fear and subservience that made “mighty” and “fearless” and “eminent” editors and journalists lose their spine. It is precisely because of such resplendent oases, and in spite of these eminent cowards that the nation triumphed over the Emergency. If you want to understand the full extent of these media cowards, hear it from Bansi Lal’s own mouth:
I don’t approve of journalists. Once I gave a hard slap to…what’s his-name? He calls himself a special correspondent. Special, my foot. There was a woman there in Chandigarh, some deputy director of something… Both this special correspondent and another chap from the Tribune used to fuck this woman. They went and wrote an editorial against me. I told the Thana [police station] not to let the newspaper pass that way. Just burn them I ordered. This journalist had been a friend of mine at one time. I had done many favours for him. So many orders on files. Do you know what I did? I just went to Chandigarh and passed just the opposite orders on all the files. [Emphasis added]
These “journalists” were socialist India’s forerunners of the Rajdeeps and Barkhas and Vir Sanghvis of the liberalized India of today. The descent has been swift and the conclusion, logical: they deserve every bit of public outrage and shaming and some more.
Bansi Lal remained unpunished till the end. Rajdeep Sardesai has merely been taken off the air. That is the bigger travesty and tragedy.
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