Recently, several reports were published highlighting the rift between Prasar Bharati and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, now helmed by Smriti Irani. While the debates surrounding the issue have, largely, focussed on the legality of the move, it is important to understand the vision with which Prasar Bharati was set up, which was, in fact, to find a framework that would make broadcasting autonomous.
In the years following the independence, All India Radio and Doordarshan had complete control over communication in India. Following a landmark Supreme Court judgement that declared airwaves as public property, several committees were put in place, from the 1960s to the 1990s, to draft a framework for an autonomus broadcasting service. Since the 1990s, the control that Doordarshan had, diminished, and several private players entered the market. Although the legal and technical loopholes in the frameworks still remain, we must remember the vision behind these “autonomous” institutions.
Prasar Bharati, a “statutory autonomous body established under the Prasar Bharati Act,” is “the Public Service Broadcaster of the country,” its website reads. According to Shanti Kumar, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, “the growing competition between Doordarshan and private television channels…forced the government to rethink its national policies, and create an autonomous corporation called Prasar Bharati, to oversee public broadcasting in India.”
Perhaps Smriti Irani should go back in time to a speech broadcast in 2001. On 12 November 2001, those who were watching Doordarshan or listening to the All India Radio, were privy to a rare speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi on the same date, 54 years ago.
Gandhi chose to speak about the partition, and the rcommunal riots that had followed. The speech was meant to reach the farthest corners of the nation. An excerpt of that recording – the only time Gandhi visted the Broadcasting House in Delhi – is now available on YouTube. He used the occasion to address refugees camping in Kurukshetra in Haryana because he could not personally visit them. Listen to excerpts here:
While it is true that Prasar Bharati has never been completely autonomous, it is important to remember what its job is, i.e., to stand up for the values that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution. On the one hand, we had Gandhi, who used the media to promote communal harmony; on the other, we have Narendra Modi and his regime, who see media as yet another means of fuelling communal sentiment.