The Lost Battle

19 02 2009

Source: Outlookindia

Why was the arrest and release on bail of The Statesman editor and publisher largely ignored by media? The governments may have electoral compulsions, but has the media totally given up the battle for free speech?
…… Rajinder Puri

Early February, The Statesman in Kolkata reproduced an article titled “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?” by Johann Hari reproduced from London’s The Independent. The article described how the hypersensitivity of religious fundamentalists was gradually curtailing free speech and rational discourse to make a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted 60 years ago. In the article there were sceptical allusions to matters of faith ignoring scientific evidence that prevailed in many religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Some Muslims in Kolkata objected to certain references to Islam in that article. They agitated outside the newspaper office for several days. The newspaper wrote that it had reproduced the article in good faith. It apologized for inadvertently hurting feelings. But the government smelling political advantage on the eve of a general election prosecuted the newspaper for spreading disaffection in violation of law. The editor and the publisher were arrested and later released on bail.

Let’s recall that only last year, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who had made Kolkata her home, was forced to flee the state. It is not one’s intention here to justify the article. Possibly the criticism contained in it could have been worded differently — but that is a separate debate. Here, one would like to question the government for its over reaction and prompt arrest of the editor and publisher. By no stretch of imagination was the newspaper article as offensive as, to cite a recent example, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi’s remarks about Lord Ram made in the context of the Ram Setu agitation. Among other contemptuous allusions to Lord Ram that he made the CM described him as a drunkard. Predictably there were protests and rioting. One person was killed during the protest in Karnataka. Yet, no legal action was taken against the CM.

Then there was the violence unleashed by Maharashtra’s Raj Thackeray against North Indians working in Mumbai. Thackeray objected to people he described as outsiders speaking or putting up signboards in languages other than Marathi. He objected to so-called outsiders seeking employment in Mumbai. He made contemptuous remarks against people from Bihar and provoked a counter agitation in that state. Yet Raj Thackeray walks free. Was he not spreading disaffection among people apart from committing and instigating other crimes such as intimidation and violence against them? You may argue that at least in Thackeray’s case, as in the Statesman case, some police and legal action was undertaken. You may argue that the police in the three states may have different yardsticks. But the basic point is not only one of free speech but of the different yardsticks applied to political leaders and ordinary citizens. The Statesman offered regrets for the article even if arguably that was not warranted. Raj Thackeray remained defiant to the end.

Innumerable cases can be summoned of politicians brazenly violating laws and remaining unpunished. Innumerable cases can be summoned of ordinary citizens being harassed though innocent, or being punished for perceived minor technical offences. The system of justice in India is pure garbage. The tragedy is that even media remains a mute witness to the rape of justice.