06/06/2017 10:53 AM IST | Updated 06/06/2017 11:18 AM IST

Many Things Might Be True At Once In The NDTV Episode, But One Concerns Us All

In a time of cow politics, is it now the media's turn to be cowed?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prannoy Roy, Co-founder and Executive Co-Chairperson of New Delhi Television (NDTV), poses for a profile shoot during an interview at his office on March 14, 2014 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)

In polarized times everything that is not white is black and everything that is not black is white. When battle lines are being drawn that divide those who are with us from those who are against us, there's no room for grey.

Thus the reaction to the CBI raid on NDTV has crystallized along familiar lines.

Those who support the channel see the raid as a witch hunt. Those who oppose it see a biased channel being forced to eat humble pie. They see #IStandWithNDTV as a liberal double standard, covering up alleged financial malfeasance among its own.

Most of us have not seen NDTV's books and most of us do not have the financial training to decipher them even if we were to see them. NDTV has issued a statement with a letter from ICICI Bank saying the loan it's accused of not paying back has in fact been paid back in full. Financial experts can determine the veracity of that. But as Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Telegraph, "The pursuit of a private complaint with alacrity by the overburdened CBI is not unlawful but it is uncommon", especially when the alleged victim, ICICI Bank, has itself not filed a complaint. Neither have the watchdogs like RBI or SEBI been known to have initiated any probes.

Thus the reaction to the CBI raid on NDTV has crystallized along familiar lines.

Yet here's the simple truth that we refuse to countenance. Why is it not possible that even if there is anything wrong, anything shady, anything questionable about NDTV's finances, it is also simultaneously possible that the government is going after it with extra zeal because it does not like its editorial stance?

These two things are not mutually exclusive at all but we pretend as if they are.

The government says there is no political interference, that this is just the law taking its course. It comes days after NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan's on-air spat with BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra about her channel's "agenda". We do not have to give Patra that much importance and the timing of the raid can be mere coincidence. But the perception here is an uppity channel being shown its place. This cannot be a perception that makes the government unhappy. It's a perception that suits it just fine.

The authorities insist the raid has everything to do with a complaint of financial impropriety and nothing to do with NDTV's editorial line. But a cursory scroll through social media makes it clear that for the channel's vociferous opponents, this is a moment of sweet revenge, a gadfly of a channel getting its comeuppance. The gangster Al Capone was finally tripped by income tax evasion. In the end it was about getting him, not necessarily about how they got him. And the same lesson could hold true for NDTV.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A team of Central Bureau of Investigation leaves NDTV co-founder Prannoy Roy's home in Greater Kailash after it was raided by the agency and a case was registered against Roy and his wife for allegedly defaulting on a bank loan, on June 5, 2017 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

To a layperson this all feels familiar. Several years ago a leaked report from the Intelligence Bureau suggested that NGOs were reducing India's GDP by 2-3% per annum by campaigning against projects the government considered vital for economic growth. Greenpeace, Amnesty, Cordaid were accused of being "tools for foreign policy interests of western governments" trying to keep India down. Soon not surprisingly, NGOs found their FCRA or Foreign Contributions Regulation Act compliance under the scanner.

These two things are not mutually exclusive at all but we pretend as if they are.

Of course every NGO must comply with the financial laws of the country they are in. Who could argue with that? But as Biraj Patnaik, a human rights activist tells The Guardian, "It's not that the current regime is against all NGOs. But their actions clearly show that they are opposed to all NGOs working on human rights."

In 2015, the government suspended Greenpeace's licence under FCRA for 180 days and froze its accounts alleging the group was working against the country's economic progress. In 2015, it placed Ford Foundation and the Catholic charity Caritas on a watchlist. Former additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising's NGO Lawyers Collective got a notice suspending its FCRA registration for six months in June 2016. Jaising pointed out she had protested the court decision discharging Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin murder case.

This does not mean these NGOs do not have FCRA problems. The Modi government has cancelled the licenses of some 10,000 NGOs. Some were surely sham NGOs. Some surely had shady finances. But it seems the problematic NGOs are most often that have problems with the government and the FCRA is a handy stick to beat them with. (By the way it's not as if the Congress was that NGO-friendly. The UPA government went after anti-nuclear NGOs as well during the Kudankulam protest).

But the bigger issue, writes Bharat Bhushan for Catch News, is that the government, "wants the only representative voice to be its own, not that of NGOs which claim to fight for the voiceless." And the country's biggest NGO, the RSS, feels the same.

Likewise all governments would always like a media that acts as the government's amplifier. Today a Mamata Banerjee can tweet that she is "shocked at the raids" but her government once hauled a man to jail for forwarding a cartoon. Just the other day a reporter asking her a question about journalists being beaten up by police in Kolkata was shot down by the CM who dubbed him as part of the Communist paper Ganashakti.

It's likely that if a government wants to unleash the CBI on any big business in India, and that includes the media, it will always find something questionable, something out of order. But it seems those that question the government are first in line for its special attention.

It's foolish to reduce this to good guys vs bad guys based on our personal politics. It's not about where NDTV is a channel without sins. But when a government goes after a media house it does not like, it is also sending a chilling message to the others, even those who toe the government's line right now. The Telegraph reports that towards the end of the UP campaign a select group of journalists, including NDTV's Prannoy Roy, met Amit Shah in Varanasi. Shah on being asked why he was so "dismissive and aggressive" towards media apparently held out a "barely veiled warning" to media houses critical of the government--"beware, you are under watch."

The BJP's Sambit Patra accused NDTV of having an anti-government agenda and got a tongue-lashing from the anchor Nidhi Razdan. Today the question can be flipped. Does the government have an anti-NDTV agenda? The government will say that the real question is does NDTV have a financial problem?

The fact is even if the answer to the latter is yes, it does not mean the answer to the former is no.

In a time of cow politics, is it now the media's turn to be cowed?

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