How new Left media are building opposition to South Asia's right-wing regimes

Unlike the complicit South Asian mainstream media, independent outlets like PI member Jamhoor are speaking truth to corporate and state power.
Independent journalists and editors have been facing increasing persecution and inhumane treatment in South Asia in recent years.While it’s necessary to defend the independence of traditional media, we also need to go further and offer ideological opposition to right-wing regimes.
Independent journalists and editors have been facing increasing persecution and inhumane treatment in South Asia in recent years.While it’s necessary to defend the independence of traditional media, we also need to go further and offer ideological opposition to right-wing regimes.

Editorial Note: In one year's time, the Wire pillar of the Progressive International has built a coalition of over 40 left-wing publications spanning 6 continents, and published over 200 articles in an average of 5 languages each. Our aim is clear: to take on the corporate media by publishing grassroots, critical stories from struggles around the world. In this piece, Wire partner Jamhoor examines the current stakes of right-wing media domination in South Asia, and why it is incumbent on the Left to build an alternative. Its lessons apply not only in South Asia, but the whole world round.

In recent years, the complicit relationship between the leading media organisations and state and corporate interests has been laid bare across South Asia. Instead of adopting an adversarial role, the mainstream media often engages in persecution of those who dare to question the government in power while spreading misinformation and lies. The Indian television networks are a case in point.

It is no coincidence that right-wing political forces and big corporate money — often the same source of funding for both neoliberal parties and pro-market media — form an enduring coalition. This reinforces the popular practice of manufacturing consent, wherein legacy media maintains a wilful silence about popular movements in order to downplay the level of dissent against neoliberal authoritarian regimes. We have seen this combination manifest in recent protests against the farm laws in India, and in various labour and student struggles in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and across the region.

In contrast to the sorry state of South Asian corporate media, we have also seen the emergence of independent media groups across the region. Journalists and editors from these independent outlets have openly resisted pressure from the government to muzzle their voices. They have done so by citing freedom of the press as a noble idea worth defending in the face of repression.

Jamhoor, formed in 2018, is one such independent outlet. And it stands in solidarity with those who have literally risked their lives to be able to practice journalism. It is important to not lose sight of the inhumane treatment that activists, scholars, and journalists have faced in recent years. But it is also necessary to go further: to not only defend the independence of traditional media, but to offer an ideological opposition to the right-wing regimes. The seeds of the current crisis were sowed by the unabashed embrace of neoliberal economics and big corporate money by parties that ostensibly belong to a social democratic fabric. Its defeat will only come from cultivating an alternative.

Jamhoor firmly believes that voting in less strident defenders of the neoliberal consensus cannot be the way forward. Instead, it is imperative to resist right-wing forces by formulating a left-wing platform. Recent political breakthroughs by the workers and farmers in India (and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests the previous winter), not to mention those led by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement and others in Pakistan, suggest possibilities for recalibration of the existing ideological terms.

Media organisations that are partisan in nature and that offer explicitly Leftist perspectives are key to this path forward. It is worth stating what we mean by a critical Left media collective. To begin, we see ourselves as a media organisation or collective that is free of the pro-market consensus that dominates the newstream. The mere absence of advertisements by corporate money is insufficient; what is required instead is an actively political resistance to the many forms of control that media organisations face. Jamhoor aims to contribute to this resistance through a Left perspective on politics in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora at large.

Two summers ago, Jamhoor helped organize a workshop, Left Politics in South Asia, at the University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Civilisations. Two major questions guided the conversations on the day: neoliberal economics and right-wing nationalism.

A response from the perspective of the Left at large was required to understand, in the words of participants, the “casteist, communalist, misogynist, far-right regimes and majoritarian movements” that have made serious breakthroughs in recent years, concerns that seem to animate the region as a whole. The participants also considered possibilities for “old and new forms of political organization, alliances between subaltern groups, and regional left solidarity.”

These contributions went on to be published in the inaugural issue of Jamhoor, with the keynote address by Progressive International Council member Vijay Prashad identifying an agenda for the Left in the current political moment. In his presentation, Prashad listed four key concerns for India, but that carried a wider resonance too. Taking political organising beyond the workplace, creating new socialist aspirations, formulating a new social welfare project, and making demands about leisure — Prashad offered an imaginative four-fold programme for Left politics to present itself as a ‘life-giving force’. Capitalism, as the theorist Tithi Bhattacharya recently remarked, is death-making. The contrast between the two visions could not be any starker.

Since the 2018 workshop, Jamhoor’s annual issue has been the bedrock of our political efforts. After the inaugural edition, we turned our attention to right-wing authoritarianism in South Asia for an issue that emphasised “a common thread across South Asia: the reassertion of authoritarian rule and with it, an active stifling of dissent.” This was followed by a focus on politics in the South Asian diaspora, where we emphasised a shift in the lens towards a range of political mobilisations in a time that anti-immigrant rhetoric was on the rise. Most recently, the climate crisis was the defining theme of our 2020 issue as we interrogated why there has been little progress toward climate action on the ground, while deals with global capital for big “development” continue unabated.

With the ideological stakes of debate in the public sphere as grave as they have ever been, it becomes necessary to articulate a vision of Left politics that looks to the future. We see Jamhoor as a broad left, non-sectarian platform that seeks to articulate and advance the people’s perspective on emerging issues in South Asia, from a socialist, anti-imperialist lens.

We will feature not just scholarly critiques, but also support and active engagement with emerging people’s movements. In our attempt to craft a multimedia platform of radical potential, Jamhoor also excavates the revolutionary histories of a variety of mediums, such as art, film, poetry, and radio. We aspire for this effort to be backed by a pan-South Asian solidarity that is not plagued by a chauvinistic nationalism.

As we live through a pandemic that has exposed the flimsy certainties which underline our world, not to mention the colliding crises of climate change, ethnic chauvinism, unbridled neoliberalism, and horrific militarism which threatens to commodify and annihilate the very fabric of our society, it’s imperative to assert in ideological terms a simple fact: life does not have to be like it is. Nor can we afford to reach into the past to merely recreate it.

Instead, we must take inspiration from the political breakthroughs of late by Leftist formations, within and beyond South Asia, that are committed to struggling for a world built on a different set of values and ideas. Jamhoor is committed in its desire to offer the ideological opposition that our times demand.

Photo: Jamhoor

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