Government and RSS branding dissenters as public enemies: The Caravan’s executive editor writes to UK and Canada

Vinod K Jose (extreme left), the executive editor of The Caravan, at the Global Conference on Media Freedom. COURTESY SHAHIDUL ALAM/DRIK/MAJORITY WORLD
16 July, 2019

On 10 and 11 July, the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada hosted a global conference on media freedom, in London. Over 1,500 ministers, diplomats, politicians, jurists, academics and journalists from over 100 countries gathered to avow the world’s commitment to promoting media freedom. Vinod Jose, the executive editor of The Caravan, was invited to speak on a panel discussing religion and media. In his presentation on India, Jose discussed how a long history of religious intolerance has fuelled violence against India’s minorities—as most recently evidenced by the rising number of lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. He noted that hatred for these minorities owed in good part to the teachings of Hindutva ideologues, including the founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

After Jose’s presentation, Surya Prakash, the head of the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati, accused him of spreading misinformation. Speaking from the audience, Prakash claimed that Jose had shown India in a bad light, and insisted that the presentation was inaccurate—although he did not point out any errors. Several Indian news outlets carried distorted reports on Prakash’s remarks, claiming he had “slammed” Jose. None disclosed that Prakash is affiliated to the RSS, or contacted Jose for comment.

Jose wrote a letter to the conference organisers to highlight what this incident and other recent developments say of the state of media freedom and the right to dissent in India today. The letter is reproduced in full below.


Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary
Government of the United Kingdom

Chrystia Freeland
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Government of Canada

and the organisers and delegates of the Global Conference for Media Freedom 2019


The Global Conference for Media Freedom in London last week was truly one of a kind, and immensely important at the present juncture for so many of the world’s countries. I cannot state the societal value of a bold, free and principled media any better than the organisers of the conference did in their invitation to me as a speaker: “It [media freedom] is an essential component of economic prosperity, social development and resilient democracies. It is a right to which all governments have committed as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

On the second day of the conference, as part of a panel on “Religion and the Media: Telling the Untold Story,” I spoke gladly and frankly about major impediments to the freedoms of thought, speech and belief in India today. The panel included the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief; representatives of World Watch Monitor and the Media Diversity Institute; as well as a journalist each from Pakistan and the Holy See.

Irony of ironies, my act of speaking truly and freely at a conference on media freedom was met, at the conference itself, by an attempt to discredit and intimidate me by representatives of the Indian government. The attempt was clumsy and ineffective, and the matter should have been forgotten there, except that the Indian government officials chose to pursue it further on home soil. Even then, the government official’s conduct in my case is hardly the most egregious attack on free expression in the country—as was made clear by my presentation at the conference, which focused on a rise in lynchings and targeted killings. But since it stems from an incident at the conference that you organised, I feel I should inform you of what has happened, as an example of how dissent is received and treated in India. More importantly, I wish to highlight that this is but a minor instance of an alarming trend: India’s government, as well as the parent organisation of the country’s Hindu-nationalist ruling party, is straining to brand prominent dissenters as public enemies, as a means of legitimising their harassment and even possible violence against them.

While telling the India story at the conference, I started by playing some video clips of lynchings in progress, shot on cell phones by members of the lynch mobs themselves. The latest of these came from just a few weeks ago, when a mob lynched a young Muslim man in the central Indian state of Jharkhand. From there, I went from incident to incident in reverse chronology from 2016 to 1984: four Dalit men whipped with their hands tied to a jeep; the targeted killings of Christians in Kandhamal (nearly a hundred Christians killed); the burning to death, with his two young sons, of the Australian missionary Graham Staines, who had run a leprosy home for over three decades; the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat (nearly 2,000 Muslims killed); anti-Sikh violence in Delhi (nearly 2,700 Sikhs killed). I showed that such acts of violence were not spontaneous, but came out of a hatred and intolerance of religious minorities systematically cultivated over a long period of time.

To show the deep historical roots of this hatred, I presented the glowing views on Fascism and Nazism of VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar. Savarkar and Golwalkar are considered founding fathers of Hindutva—the guiding ideology of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which today is the mothership for a long list of affiliated Hindutva organisation, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Golwalkar, who steered the RSS for thirty-three years and trained two future prime ministers, said that how the Nazis went about “purging the country of the Semitic races—the Jews” was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.” The RSS’s founders modelled it on the Balilla and Avanguardisti organisations of Mussolini, as explained in one of its earlier patron’s diaries, still available in the national archives.

With that done, I talked about how, with the rise of the Hindu right, there is increasingly little investigative or critical work in India’s mainstream press on the ideological and organisational powers behind the attacks on religious minorities and oppressed castes. I concluded by saying that the severe underrepresentation of these very groups in Indian newsrooms is one of the reasons for this state of affairs. (Members from the top 10-15 percent of the superior castes occupy 85 percent of India’s media jobs, whereas the rest of the population gets only 15 percent of the jobs in media.)

As soon as my presentation was done, Surya Prakash, the chairman of India’s national broadcasting corporation, Prasar Bharati, spoke up from the last row of the hall. He said he was accompanied by a parliamentarian and an eminent journalist. “All of us take strong exception to this presentation on India,” he said. “India is the largest democracy in the world, and the most vibrant democracy in the world.” Mr Prakash accused me of portraying India in a bad light, and added that some people are using forums like this to push their own political agenda. He also said there were factual inaccuracies in my presentation, but did not point out a single one.

After seeing Mr Prakash’s outburst, the conference organisers insisted on providing me with security for the duration of my stay in London. A senior UN official told me that such conduct at an international forum by the chairman of India’s public broadcast corporation was a practical demonstration of the growing intolerance and hatred I had highlighted. He told me that if I needed asylum, I should not hesitate to ask. I laughed, and replied that there was no need—one is born here, and must die here too.

Mr Prakash failed to disclose while introducing himself that he is a senior advisor to the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank affiliated to the RSS. What he was defending was not India, but his parent organisation. In trying to shield the affinity of the RSS’s founders to fascism, he acted as a spokesperson for the hatreds that the international community is committed to eradicate. His companions were Kanchan Gupta and Swapan Dasgupta. Mr Prakash also failed to say that Gupta is a BJP loyalist, who stepped away from journalism at the turn of the millennium to serve as speechwriter to the first BJP prime minister. Dasgupta, a fellow traveler of the BJP, was nominated to the upper house of parliament after the current BJP government took power.

I assumed that the matter was laid to rest. But when I arrived back in India on Saturday, I learnt that there had been vicious and distorted reports against me in the national media, which simultaneously served as PR plugs for Mr Prakash. A local news service had issued a report titled “Prasar Bharati chief slams Indian magazine editor for ‘blatant’ anti-India presentation at global meet.” This was published in the Indian Express, The Hindu, Deccan Herald, The Tribune and Outlook—all prominent national publications—as well as many regional-language newspapers. The report falsely claimed that I had said that the RSS was behind the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984; what I had actually said in London, with a firm grounding in fact, was that members of the Congress party and also members of the RSS played their roles in the killings of Sikhs. The intention was to tar me, falsely, as an agent of the Congress, which is now a party of the opposition. The writers of the report did not bother to contact me for comment, or even to check their version of events against publicly available recordings of the event in London. The state-owned news broadcaster, which Mr Prakash himself heads, aired a two-episode programme in the same vein attacking what I highlighted in London.

I was not overly concerned with these efforts, though I was disappointed by the lack of journalistic rigour and fairness shown by the organisations involved, and made this clear in letters to them. What gave me greater pause was the news that, while I was in London, the civil-rights activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey sent around a note about their discovery that they had been listed as “urban Naxals”—a term synonymous with “anti-Indian” and “anti-national” in the Hindu nationalist vocabulary—in a booklet circulated by RSS affiliates, and launched last year by the top leader of the organisation. Roy and Dey are tireless campaigners for government transparency and accountability, and Roy has been honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. As they wrote, the booklet

has sweeping derogatory references to activists, journalists, educationists, and a whole gamut of people who have contributed to and continue to raise their voice for justice. … the booklet has sought to include within its warped definition of nationalism and anti-nationals, anything and anyone who might create platforms for questioning authority, arbitrariness and corruption. … This booklet which is deliberately inaccurate and incorrect in most part, uses the typical language and mix of fact with slanderous images and labels created to misinform people.

To add to the concern, also while I was at the conference, the government conducted raids on the offices and home of the prominent feminist and human-rights lawyer Indira Jaising. This was all part of a larger emerging pattern. Since last year, when Hindutva groups instigated violence against a demonstration by anti-caste activists in the town of Bhima Koregaon, the government has arrested numerous of its opponents on charges that they were responsible, and labeled them “urban Naxals” too.

The intent of such actions is clear to anyone who has studied oppressive regimes. Targeted vilification—the designation of public enemies—provides ideological justification for further harassment and possible future violence against the opponents of a group, and also lets all members of that group know which figures may now be legitimately singled out for attack. This is clear from the history of the Fascist and Nazi regimes that the founders of the RSS idolised, and also of many others. Often, the vilification of individuals is a precursor for the increasingly open vilification of entire religious, political or ethnic groups, with the same ends in mind.

Only one claim in Mr Prakash’s outburst in London stands up as fact: that India is the world’s largest democracy. But while it is true that India is home to the largest population governed under a democratic system, beyond that number the state of the country’s democracy is cause for concern. India has fallen to the 140th rank in the World Press Freedom Index. The Thomson Reuters Foundation has ranked India as the single most dangerous country for women—ahead even of Syria and Afghanistan, both in the midst of war. The Global Hunger Index, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, has India’s rank falling to 103. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index gives India a score below even the average for all of South Asia. The country places 81st in Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perception Index, and 142nd, out of 149 countires, in the Global Gender Gap Report, all consistently slipping. In the Global Environment Performance Index too, India has fallen from 141st to 177th among 180 countries. Last month, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom reported that India had slipped dangerously downward in its respect for the rights of religious minorities and oppressed castes. The Indian government rejected that assessment by saying that no foreign entity has the right to pronounce such a verdict.

One speaker at the conference said that India is one of numerous deteriorating democracies that are in denial. That is why telling India’s story, and telling it truthfully, is more important than ever. India today is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation, with all the diversities in taste and conduct that can be imagined. To keep it so—to protect the freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a country that is home to 1.3 billion people—attacks against the freedoms of speech, thought and religions must be protested by all. I echo a line from the literature of the London conference: “We must work together to stop the alarming increase in attacks. No journalist should fear for their life because of their job.”

Sadly, for too many in India, that fear is all too real. Near the end of my presentation in London, I spoke of one of my good friends, Gauri Lankesh. The editor of a Kannada-language paper that reported unflinchingly on social injustice and the excesses of Hindu nationalism, Gauri was shot dead outside her home in 2017. In the past, she and I had travelled together to report on the targeted killing of Muslims. Gauri’s killers came from an organisation suspected to be behind a series of assassinations of anti-Hindutva intellectuals. They told interrogators that their gun was a talisman that would help them eliminate anti-Hindutva forces, and likened it to the weapon of a Hindu god. Though I wish it were not so, I fear more journalists’ and intellectuals’ lives will be ended as Gauri’s was.

In keeping with the spirit of the Global Conference for Media Freedom, I hope you and your office will take up these grave matters at all appropriate forums, and will let your vigilance be known to the government of India. The government is likely to ignore or dismiss the concerns of this letter, but still, those who value universal values of freedom and human rights must, as stated in the aims of the conference, “shine a spotlight on media freedom everywhere, increasing costs to those violating it.” India is already home to a sixth of humanity, and in less than a decade will be the most populous nation on earth. The people of India deserve every effort to keep the world’s largest democracy democratic.

Sincerely yours,

Dr Vinod K Jose
Executive Editor
The Caravan magazine
New Delhi