Sanjay's plight mirrors unfreedom

Updated: 10 August, 2020 07:15 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

The removal of the Test cricketer, and of Harsha Bhogle in 2016, as commentators and journalist Karan Thapar's boycott by the ruling party offer pertinent clues on how we suppress criticism in India

Sanjay Manjrekar. File pic
Sanjay Manjrekar. File pic

Ajaz AshrafDays before we celebrate Independence Day, it is depressing to think the Indian Cricket Board removed Test cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar, in March, from its panel of commentators because he would express his views freely. It is frightening because he seems willing to curb his right to free speech to get reinstated in the panel. Manjrekar's plight is proof that the contagion of suppressing criticism has spread from the political realm to our popular culture.

Manjrekar's plight has its origin in his description of Indian cricketer Ravindra Jadeja as "a bits-and-pieces player" during the 2019 World Cup. Taking umbrage, Jadeja tweeted, "Still, I have played twice the number of matches you have played and I am still playing. Learn to respect ppl [people] who have achieved. I have heard enough of your verbal diarrhea @sanjaymanjrekar." Jadeja's tweet went viral, courtesy the support of nearly three million Twitter followers he has.

Jadeja presumably thinks a person must be superior to a public personality whom he or she critically appraises. Such a yardstick would only qualify Manmohan Singh to criticise Narendra Modi because they are the only two Indians alive who have become Prime Minister twice! It would disqualify most journalists from writing on any subject, whether cinema or cricket or diplomacy.

Yet Manjrekar swept aside the inanity of Jadeja's remark to make amends, even though "bits-and-pieces player" is a label applied to those who are not a specialist batsman or bowler. It is not an insult. After Jadeja's swashbuckling knock in the World Cup semi-final, Manjrekar tweeted, "By bits 'n' pieces of sheer brilliance, he's ripped me apart on all fronts."

It was not only Jadeja whom Manjrekar's comments had miffed: He statistically showed that MS Dhoni was mentally constrained at last year's World Cup, unwilling to take risks to score briskly. Towering personalities with a mass following, in any field, have big egos — they expect their failures to be condoned; their followers too blinded by hero-worship to accept their blemishes. All criticisms are viewed as either prejudiced or tendentious or ill-informed.

Manjrekar, in his autobiography, Imperfect, says he has made a conscious effort to maintain a certain distance from players so that he remains "clinical" in his assessment of them. "[But] in our culture, disagreement has come to be equated with disrespect, unfortunately." A player stopped talking to Manjrekar because of the critical piece he wrote on him. "What can a commentator do in such cases?" he asks. "You take a deep breath and move on."

But moving on is no longer an option, as is evident from Manjrekar's explanatory email to the Board after he was dropped from its commentary panel. He said a commentator's criticism of iconic players is interpreted by their followers as flowing out of antagonism towards them, although his opinions always came from a "very pure place." He offered to apologise in case he had offended anyone. Manjrekar wrote yet another mail requesting the Board to reinstate him in the commentary panel for the forthcoming Indian Premier League, sounding every bit a man brought to his knees.

Cynics would say Manjrekar should have drawn a lesson from the treatment meted out to Harsha Bhogle, who too was dropped from the IPL commentary panel in 2016 for an absurd reason. In a match that year, actor Amitabh Bachchan had tweeted, "With all due respect, it would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time." This was retweeted by Dhoni with a message, "Nothing to add."

That commentator was deemed to be Bhogle, against whom players had reportedly complained to the Board. He was reinstated in the panel after a year, long enough for anyone to consider the price of adopting a critical tone. The Board controls commentators through a system devised in 2011, by which its panel alone can give commentary in the tournaments it owns. In that year, according to the Outlook magazine, Sunil Gavaskar was contracted for an annual fee of R3.6 crore. This amount, we can say, is the cost of candour.

In much the same way, media-owners will censor the most profound critic rather than risk the wrath of the government, which can deny them its advertisements, or pressure the private sector to do the same, or organise tax raids to mute them, or simply boycott them.

Take journalist Karan Thapar, from whose programme, Devil's Advocate, Modi had famously walked out rather than speak on the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Within two years of Modi becoming Prime Minister, ruling party leaders took to boycotting his show. Thapar became a pariah for TV channels, where he had been among the big draws. Yet he has kept the flag of free speech flying, hosting interviews for The Wire, a news portal.

From the experience of Manjrekar to Bhogle to Thapar, it is clear the idea of freedom excludes the right to criticise the Indian Prime Minister, the Indian cricketer, the Indian …. Our regime of unfreedom grows.

The writer is a senior journalist

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 10 August, 2020 05:55 IST

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