Ravish Kumar’s “The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation”, Review by Anjana Basu

Review – Anjana Basu
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The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation
Ravish Kumar
Speaking Tiger

This is the New India, a world where it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction in news broadcasts and newspaper headlines and where trending updates flash up and down on Whatsapp inciting a kind of rabid excitement through their spectacular content. Last year journalist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down outside her front door and the truth of who was behind that has yet to be brought out, not to mention the death of Justice Loya which may or may not have been natural.

According to Ravish Kumar this is a world where fear predominates. Fear of suffering the same fate as Gauri Lankesh and others, fear of the consequences of speaking out and being heard. Arun Shourie has said it often enough, speak out, do not be silent because the silence is even more dangerous, allowing a situation that is already bad to fester till it reaches exploding point. Ravish Kumar says the same thing though he compares the effort involved to Usain Bolt’s breasting the tape and breaking another record – though in the case of the journalist, a concrete wall lies in wait instead of a tape.  In this New India where the marginalized proliferate and are on the receiving end of violence there is nothing more difficult than for a journalist to do his job with honesty and sincerity.

In the present dispensation honesty is very often branded fake and there is always a kind of looking over one’s shoulder expecting lightning to strike out of a cloudless sky.  India was ranked 138th in the World Press Freedom Index released a while ago. Reporter Sans Frontières reported that Narendra Modi’s army of trolls was always on the alert to strike down journalists with the skill of graduates from what Kumar calls the Whatsapp University of fake news forwards.

Kumar points out that if things have to change then the silence and the nexus have to be challenged. A free press is vital for the welfare of any democracy however the press is currently involved in a struggle for survival. Kumar evokes the scenario of Nazi Germany with its hordes of nameless thugs in hot pursuit of the innocent and doomed – a scenario mirrored in the everyday headlines. This is a country in which history is rewritten with a purpose – not all history but certain aspects with characters’ contributions twisted, as for example when Subhas Bose was set up against Nehru. But then even a fictional queen has been granted the power to arouse mob violence in the name of women’s honour. And the result of this is utter confusion especially when few people stop to check the information that pours into their smart phones.

The solution Kumar says is to ensure that whatever the journalist writes is the truth and nothing but and whatever is spoken is clean without a trace of double edgedness. It seems a simple solution – do what you signed up to do in the first place. But this is a country where the enemy shrugs off identification and where dissent is not entertained. You can either celebrate every move the Government makes or have your reputation and life shredded. Kumar is very clear about where he stands and he has no magic mantra to explain his courage – perhaps a sip of Bournvita or an incantation to Hanuman. He is scared and he knows people are scared for him – but in a time like this he says, there is no option but to speak out.

“May you live in interesting times” is the Chinese curse – this book speaks out for times more sensible and the survival of democracy. Despite the occasional irregularities in the translation, Kumar’s message sounds a clarion call.