Early in the morning on 20 May 2017, I set out to attend a yagna at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, in Delhi. The yagna was scheduled to bring up the curtain on a day-long seminar at the institute. The seminar, titled “Vartaman Pariprekshya Mein Rashtriya Patrakarita”—National Journalism in Current Scenario—had been organised by a little-known publication named Media Scan. The event had received significant publicity over the previous few days—citing the yagna as an example, former and current students accused the institute’s director-general KG Suresh of “saffronising” the institute since his appointment. Many criticised the event’s organisers for only including people whose views align with those of the current dispensation—Hitesh Shankar, the publisher of Panchajanya, a mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was reportedly slated to moderate the inaugural session. SRP Kalluri, the former inspector-general of Bastar against whom an inquiry is pending at the National Human Rights Commission, had been invited to participate in a session titled “The Questions of the Deprived Classes.” (Shankar did not eventually make an appearance, but Kalluri did.)
I arrived at the venue at 7 am, when the yagna was scheduled to begin. Both the security guards at the entrance and Ashish Anshu, one of the founding members of Media Scan, who came to the gate, asked me the name of the publication I worked for. “The yagna is for organisers only,” Anshu told me, and asked me to return at 9.30 am. When I returned, I saw that Delhi Police officers had joined the security guards at the gates. (Each person entering the venue was asked to stand with their identity cards in their hands, as the organisers took photographs of them.)
The first session launched a book after which the seminar was titled—a treatise on the current state of journalism. It began at close to 11 am. By this time, a crowd of protestors had begun to gather outside the IIMC gates. Four persons were on stage to speak during the session: Suresh, the IIMC director general; Yogesh Singh, the vice chancellor of the Delhi Technological University; Ashok Bhagat, the secretary of Vikas Bharti, an NGO affiliated with the RSS; and Ashish Gautam, the founder of the Divya Prem Sewa Mission, a charitable trust. Vidya Nath Jha, a news anchor with Zee News, moderated the discussion. Inside the auditorium, close to 50 people had gathered.
“Why do certain sections of the media look at an event like a yagna and react the way that they do?” Jha began, setting the tone for the discussion that was to follow. “There are some people outside the gate also who are raising a big hue and cry,” he continued, “but if you can hold a namaz on any road, what is the problem with a yagna?” The only people who had a problem with yagnas, Jha added, were “designer patrakars.” He then introduced the panellists and presented them with a copy of the book. Singh, who took the podium next, said that it was necessary to acknowledge that India’s education system has failed to inculcate the value of nationalism in students across the country. He proceeded to relay several anecdotes that emphasised the importance of loyalty—to family, to teachers and to the country—before handing the microphone over to Suresh.
Suresh, too, insisted that yagna was harmless. “It is meant to ward off rakshasas”—demons—he said. “Yagna agar Bharat mein nahin hoga, toh kahan hoga? Pados mein? (Where else would a yagna be conducted except India? In our neighbourhood?).” Only fools would think that secularism is under a threat in the country because of the event that was organised, he continued.