On 2 November 2016, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi presides over the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards—instituted by the Indian Express in honour of its founder—at least one recipient is conspicuous by his absence. Akshaya Mukul, a senior journalist from the Times of India, has boycotted the ceremony. Instead, Krishan Chopra, the publisher and chief editor at HarperCollins India, the publishers of his book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, received the award on his behalf.
Mukul, a veteran who has worked as a reporter for close to 20 years, has been conferred the RNG award in the category of Books (non-fiction) for this book, which sheds light on the ideological moorings of Hindutva—ironically, the lynchpin of the prime minister’s politics. Since its release in August 2015, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India has elicited rave reviews and won literary awards such as the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award, and the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for the best non-fiction work in English.
Mukul had no bone to pick with the RNG awards. He told me that it was an “honour” to have won one. His problem lay in receiving the award from the prime minister. “I cannot live with the idea of Modi and me in the same frame, smiling at the camera even as he hands over the award to me,” Mukul said. He invoked an incident that had taken place at Patiala House Courtin February, during which a number of journalists and students were assaulted by a group of men in lawyer’s robes. The attackers were accompanied by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s OP Sharma. Noting that the episode had led to unprecedented protests by media persons, Mukul said, “Imagine, there were journalists who defended the BJP and opposed us.”
The management’s decision to invite Modi to the ceremony has reportedly irked some of the senior editors of the Indian Express as well. A journalist from the publication told me that these editors have raised questions over whether “journalism awards should be given by the prime minister at all, especially somebody as polarising as Modi.” When I asked Raj Kamal Jha, the chief editor of the paper, about the matter, he responded with a cryptic text message that appeared to disassociate the editorial department from the invitation that was extended to Modi: “Please send your query to Vaidehi Thakar of The Ramnath Goenka Foundation, which administers the award.” Subsequently, I sent a mail to Thakar, specifically asking her to explain the rationale behind inviting Modi, who, I wrote, has a consistent anti-media policy and uses every forum to run down the media. Thakar side-stepped my question. Instead, she reassured me that the Indian Express would always remain “free and fair.” “Your query,” she continued, “seems to suggest that the prime minister’s presence might have some bearing on the Indian Express’s coverage of the government or its politics. Such is not and will never be the case.”
Thakar’s response also included a long list of the politicians who have previously graced the award ceremony, starting with Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India, in 2006.