A colonel dispels BJP's smokescreen
Amid the darkness in Indian journalism, there's one beacon named Ajai Shukla, Business Standard's consulting editor on strategic affairs, who has called out the Modi govt on its handling of the Chinese intrusion
Ajai Shukla, the consulting editor on strategic affairs for the Business Standard newspaper, has emerged as a beacon in the darkness enveloping Indian journalism. His reportage on the Chinese intrusion into Ladakh has exposed the flaws in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's China policy as well as his spin to conceal its failure. Shukla has, as a corollary, done a service to our democracy.
Shukla was the sole journalist who did not parrot the government's claims that China had agreed to disengage and withdraw troops from India's territory. He, in fact, mapped the Line of Actual Control to show it had shifted westward, into our territory, by about 12-15 km in Depsang; by 1 km at Patrolling Point-14 in the Galwan Valley; by 2-4 km at three other patrolling points; and by 8 km at the Pangong Tso Lake. He said China was refusing to restore the status quo as had existed before its troops walked into Ladakh.
He then told journalist Karan Thapar that the media had merely regurgitated the government's line on the Chinese intrusion. He said, by contrast, he had verified from multiple sources the details regarding the Chinese intrusion, which had not been officially denied. The government, in other words, was spinning a web of lies to obviate the need to explain to people its neglect of national security.
Shukla's work is a reminder that the journalist's duty is to peel away the layers of ambiguities and versions an event invariably gets encrusted in, to convey to readers the approximate reality and its consequences. When popular perceptions are only to be manipulated through subterfuge, democracy turns irrational and governance is reduced to a charade. Stories such as Shukla's deepen the meaning of democracy, although they are to the discomfort of those in power, often even leading to their ouster, as had happened, in 2014, with the United Progressive Alliance government.
Yet the same media is circumspect in auditing the Modi government, which has a propensity to dub any narrative contrary to its own as anti-national. Already, Union Minister and former Army chief VK Singh has, in an interview, accused Shukla of treason, political partisanship, and ignorance, which, come to think of it, is rarely an obstacle to deciphering the truth.
Singh's pique reflects the government's discomfort over Shukla's stories, largely because of their implications for national security, of which Modi has been projected as the best guarantor. Shukla's stories, therefore, raise the question: Did Modi refuse to admit to the Chinese intrusion because he feared his image of a hyper-nationalist leader would unravel?
There is, however, a view that Modi's admission would have roiled domestic sentiments and mounted pressure on him to militarily eject the Chinese from Ladakh. Such a response could cost India dearly, as China is not a Pakistan. Proponents of this view, therefore, argue that Shukla's factually correct narrative has imperilled India's national security.
But then, who decides what constitutes national security — a gaggle of ministers and bureaucrats? USA's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), in 2006-07, asked editors, policy wonks and whistleblowers whether they always accepted the American government's definition of national security or interest. The late Ben Bradlee, the much-admired editor of The Washington Post, said, "As soon as you say national security, everybody goes, 'Oh, my God, he's a traitor'." He irreverently added, "Well, just because some guy who sold cars in Kansas City last year comes to town as an assistant secretary…and says, 'Well, we can't tell you that; it's national security,' I say, 'Excuse me?'"
Dean Baquet, speaking of his tenure as the editor of the Los Angeles Times, thought it was his job to take a call on whether a story was in national interest. His reason: "Because it is not my job to believe everything the government tells me." Baquet admitted he had held back "stuff" when the government offered "compelling proof" that those stories were not in national interest. "I put the emphasis on 'compelling proof,' because history shows that the government doesn't always tell the truth when it offers a reason not to publish," he said.
Or take the response of Steven Aftergood, who seeks to promote public access to government information: "When the nation faces urgent decisions of whether to persist in military activity [and such like]…we need not just two sides of an issue; we need a dozen sides of each issue. The only way we get that is by going beyond the official storyline to enrich it with multiple perspectives from multiple sources."
Shukla's stories have enriched our understanding of national security, which we now know is not bolstered just because two leaders sit together on a swing, as Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping did in Ahmedabad in 2014. Even Baquet's yardstick of compelling proof does not apply to Shukla, whose disclosure of the Chinese intrusion was anyway captured in satellite images that The Guardian published. Shukla retired as a colonel before he took to journalism — even the diehard nationalist will credit him to have some sense of national security.
The writer is a senior journalist
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