It may no longer be an exaggeration to state that media professionals are probably some of the most vulnerable citizens in contemporary India. Or, to be precise, a certain school of journalists, who throw themselves into the field recklessly, valuing truth over their lives and justice over those brownie points that must befall their colleagues who pander to the establishment.
In the last three weeks, at least three journalists were attacked in cold blood in public in different parts of the country. That statement alone should give pause to the leaders of a democratic republic, though last heard, the ruling dispensation is yet to condemn these incidents.
September began with the killing of Gauri Lankesh, editor of the influential Kannada news magazine Gauri Lankesh Patrike, who was unabashedly critical of right-wing ideology and the caste system, among several social evils. At first, fingers were pointed at Naxals as possible suspects. Lankesh, who helped rehabilitate a number of lapsed ultra-right revolutionaries into the mainstream, had incurred the ire of the Naxals. But further police investigation has linked her death to the killing of three eminent rationalists — MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare — between 2013 and 2015 in Karnataka and Maharashtra. A report in The Indian Express said that Lankesh was killed with a gun of the same make that was used to shoot Kalburgi to death.
Before the chorus of protest against Lankesh's assassination had died down, Pankaj Mishra, a journalist with a Hindi daily in Bihar, was shot at by two men on a motorbike. Mishra, whose life was saved thanks to quick medical intervention, said the attackers belonged to the Janata Dal (United), who bore grudges against him for his work. Santanu Bhowmik, who was lynched by an enraged mob on Wednesday, wasn't as lucky.
The 28-year-old journalist with a television channel in Tripura was caught in the middle of a public scuffle between political rivals, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) allegedly backed by the right-wing and the Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad (TRUGP), which was supported by the ruling Left in the state.
According to a report in The Hoot, a media-watcher web portal, Bhowmik's family is seen as supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which runs Tripura. The tribal outfit, on the other hand, has been lobbying for separate statehood, like several areas in India's Northeast, and was reportedly backed by the Right in a bid to get a toe-hold in the state. Tripura remains one of the few states where the BJP is yet to make a foray, though the party denies supporting the secessionist demands of IPFT.
The exact facts of the case are for the police to find, although it is unlikely much will be revealed soon. As The Hoot report says, in spite of being a witness to Bhowmik being attacked, the police did not act with any degree of urgency until it was too late. Only after an outcry from the national media, the custodians of law and order have woken up, after being mute spectators to the journalist being dragged away by a mob, who beat him up with sticks and hacked him to death.
Bhowmik paid the price for his fearless nature with his life. An intrepid reporter with a nose for news, he was always the first to jump into the field, as his colleagues recalled. In his last reporting assignment, too, he demonstrated exemplary courage, trying to capture the eruption of public anger at the rally first with the camera crew and later, after being chased away by the protestors, with his mobile phone. This second attempt to get close to the scene proved to be the turning point, setting the already angry public on him.
Soon after Lankesh's death, HuffPost India examined the data related to the killing of journalists in India and uncovered a deadly pattern: among the 40-odd journalists killed in India in targeted assassinations or in violence while on the job between 1992 and 2017 for confirmed motives, none of them worked with an English-language media organisations. While the majority worked for Hindi newspapers, there were others who reported in Assamese, Urdu, Telugu, Gujarati and Punjabi, and mostly from small towns and cities.
The overall picture, including journalists working in all languages across India, looks just as grim.
Over the last year or so, at least 54 media personnel have been attacked, 25 journalists were intimidated, and seven killed by a combination of state and non-state actors, according to The Hoot. In the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India occupies the 136th position, three notches down from 2016, among 180 nations. But statistics can hardly make a dent on the conscience of a nation where much of the public's and political outrage is reserved for consumers of "contraband" meat, non-adherents of Bharatiya sanskar and those who fail to toe a hyper-nationalist line. Sentiments are inflamed, often leading to mounting abuse, if the army's excesses are criticised in the slightest, while trolls on social media networks celebrate the assassination of a journalist, forcing a Union minister of the ruling party to intervene in the relentless hate-mongering.
Bhowmik joins that shrinking army of unsung heroes who fought — some of whom are still fighting — the good fight at a time fake news, that ultimate affront to the profession of a true-blue journalist, is being churned out by the rumour mills.
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