Hero-worship is a sure road to eventual dictatorship: Ambedkar’s warning for the Indian media

Historically, the Indian media has often adopted a lenient approach to those in power. This approach contradicts the journalistic values that the architect of the Indian constitution BR Ambedkar espoused and promoted.
02 June, 2019

In June 2016, during an interview on the news channel Times Now, the journalist Arnab Goswami asked the prime minister Narendra Modi: “How are you keeping your schedule nowadays? I mean, you keep a terrifying pace. The number of meetings you hold ... people say your officers find it hard to keep up.” The tone of Goswami’s enquiry was emulated in almost every subsequent interview Modi gave; very few journalists chose to ask Modi tough questions on his government’s policies and governance. Even during the 2019 Lok Sabha election season, the journalists who interviewed Modi—from the news organisations Zee News, Times Now, ABP News, News 18, News Nation and The Indian Express, among others—barely cross-questioned him. Many of them did not probe him on national controversies surrounding the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, such as corruption allegations related to the government’s deal with the French company Dassault Aviation to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft.

Historically, the Indian media has often adopted a lenient approach to those in power. This approach contradicts the journalistic values that the architect of the Indian constitution BR Ambedkar espoused and promoted. Even before independence, Ambedkar, who launched publications such as the Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat and Janata, had condemned the media’s bhakti—devotion—towards political leaders. In 1943, he said that Indian journalism “is written by drum-boys to glorify their heroes.” In his last speech to the constituent assembly in November 1949, Ambedkar said, “Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

But over the next decades, it seems that the Indian media failed to pay heed to his words and often exalted those in power. During the Emergency, between the June 1975 and March 1977, all publications that did not toe the Indira Gandhi-led government’s line were forced to shut down. While publications such as The Indian Express and The Statesman, tried to fight the crackdown, the newspapers Hindustan Times, Times of India and Ananda Bazar Patrika reportedly fell in line and published stories that seemed to portray Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, as a strong leader.

Even years after the Emergency was lifted, the press chose to lionise influential figures. Many publications often touted the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who served as the prime minister from 1999 till 2004 from the BJP, as a great “statesman.” In comparison to the praise he received, he was seldom called out for making communal statements. Similarly, the press often described the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, from the Congress, as one of the only clean and honest politicians in the country, though his government was charged with multiple allegations of corruption.

The media has also ensured that some political leaders always occupy centre stage. The Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been under the spotlight since his foray into politics in 2004 with minimal experience in the field. In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Goswami interrogated Gandhi in an interview on Times Now. The conversation showed Gandhi as a weak prime ministerial candidate. But the subsequent barrage of press criticism against him, and of the interview, ensured that he remained in the limelight. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, many journalists lauded Gandhi for merely giving live and unscripted interviews.

The reportage on political leaders also comprises focus on their personal lives and making them appear as larger than life figures. Over the course of his 15-year-long political career, many reports on Gandhi’s hobbies and friends have surfaced. In June 2018, the digital news platform The Print published a story on how Amit Shah, the BJP president, lost 20 kilograms of weight, according to the publication’s sources. In Modi’s election interview with News Nation, the journalists inquired about his eating habits and the prime minister replied by highlighting his preference for “simple” food.

At times, the Indian fourth estate is also guilty of creating a messiah-like image of public figures. In 2011, the social activist Anna Hazare and his lieutenant at the time Arvind Kejriwal, who is currently the chief minister of Delhi, were credited with helming a large-scale movement to enact a strong anti-graft bill in consultation with civil society. During the movement, the press hailed both of them as crusaders against corruption. Next year, Kejriwal abandoned the movement to form the Aam Aadmi Party, before an anti-corruption bill was enacted. The media then played a role in propelling him as a virtuous leader, which contributed to Kejriwal’s appointment as the Delhi chief minister in 2015. Later, his close associates in the party, Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, levelled allegations of corruption against the AAP and accused Kejriwal of having a dictatorial attitude. The party then dismissed Yadav and Bhushan.

The press strengthens the feeling of “supremacy and infallibility” in such idols, Ambedkar said presciently in 1943, during a lecture on the occasion of the birth anniversary of the social reformer MG Ranade, in Pune. “To give the news uncoloured by any motive, to present a certain view of public policy which it believes to be for the good of the community, to correct and chastise without fear all those, no matter how high, who have chosen a wrong or a barren path, is not regarded by journalism in India its first or foremost duty,” he said. “To accept a hero and worship him has become its principal duty.”

His speech addressed the press’s heroic treatment of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, but is also applicable to the current context.“Entrenched behind the plaudits of the Press, the spirit of domination exhibited by these two Great Men has transgressed all limits,” he said. “By their domination they have made half their followers fools and the other half hypocrites.”

With those in power dominating our media landscape, the downtrodden are often neglected. According to various activists, the media’s coverage of atrocities against Dalits is far less in proportion to the crimes against the community. Ambedkar had reportedly said, “Throughout India, each day our people are suffering under authoritarianism with no consideration and discrimination, those are not covered in the newspapers.” This ignorance can also be attributed to the lack of representation of people from marginalised communities, especially Dalits, in newsrooms across the country. In stark contrast, Ambedkar’s weekly Marathi newspaper Janata primarily covered issues related to the Dalit community. However, its editorial board also had upper caste representatives. A powerful statement by him often appeared in the newspaper: “Tell the slave he is slave and he will revolt.”

Calling Indian journalism a “trade” during his speech in Poona, Ambedkar said, “It has no more moral function than the manufacture of soap. It does not regard itself as the responsible adviser of the Public.” The moral function of the media does not seem to have changed. But the crisis has exacerbated as the reach of the media is more widespread than it was before independence. “Never has the interest of country been sacrificed so senselessly for the propagation of hero-worship,” he said. “Never has hero-worship become so blind as we see it in India today. There are, I am glad to say, honourable exceptions. But they are too few, and their voice is never heard.”