Pranab Mukherjee: ‘Democracy to lose if we cease to hear voices other than ours’

Stressing the significance of diversity, he said, “We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own”.

In the backdrop of the debate around the new citizenship law, with protesters contending that it can affect the country’s minority population, former President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday said that the question that faces all of us, including the media, is whether we will choose to define ourselves as a nation enriched by diversity of views or allow partisan views to dominate our national narrative.

Stressing the significance of diversity, he said, “We ought to remember that democracy will be the loser when and if we cease to hear voices other than our own”.

Delivering the Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture, organised annually by the Editors Guild of India, Mukherjee pointed out that India’s population of 13 billion people practices seven major religions and uses 122 languages and 1,600 dialects, and yet lives “under one Constitution, one system and with one identity, that is India, that is Bharat”. That identity, he said, “can never be lost, can never be allowed to be destroyed; and if we destroy it, there will be nothing left of what is known as India”.

India, he said, has for centuries “witnessed an interplay, synthesis and adoption of civilisations and philosophies” and emerged through it to “grow into the world’s largest functioning democracy”. Going forward, he said, “as a nation we face contradictory forces (of) immense potential for growth and prosperity” and a “growing sense of unequal distribution of resources and opportunities”.

He said the media should reflect both in equal measure, and can do that only if it truthfully reflects the ground reality.

He said such a reality is a “contested space, where different points of view jostle to be heard”, and questioned whether the media will continue to be a forum where people debate, disagree, dissent and decide. “If the media believes in freedom of expression, a free and a fearless independent media, it must choose to reflect a plurality of opinions, for that is what breathes life into our democracy and has defined us as Indians,” Mukherjee said.

He said the media must remember that its fundamental task it to “stand up and ask questions with honesty and fairness”. He said journalism should never have the character of “selective, orchestrated, one-sided, out of context, or motivated reporting and display, aimed at pushing the partisan agendas of one group or the other”.

Mukherjee also said that the media will be failing in its duty if it does not pose questions to the powers that be —- “it will have to simultaneously judge the frivolous from the factual, and publicity from reportage.”

While media organisations cannot criticise just for the sake of criticising, they should not also become a “mouthpiece of the government or a corporate house”, he said.

Cautioning against paid news and dumbing down of news, he said there is a need for self-correcting mechanisms to check such irregularities. India, he said, faces “critical challenges that go well beyond the pressure of breaking news and immediate headlines in a discourse alternatively dominated by social media”.

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