The big stick is a boomerang

Print edition : September 15, 2001

NDA leaders are again pushing authoritarian proposals to gag the media and repress popular dissent through a reborn TADA and by means of granting amnesty for human rights violations. These will produce a horrible backlash.

AS someone has said, nothing succeeds like excess. Take Tehelka and the reaction to the disclosure of the use of sex workers in its investigation of defence scandals. All those who value journalistic ethics and respect freedom will find it hard to justify this. Indeed, no one has done so. For one, the use of sex workers was unrelated to any public purpose, in particular to the unearthing of information pertinent to shady arms purchase transactions. Tehelka's sleuths procured all the facts they needed without sexually abusing women. Secondly, it is ludicrous to argue that the ends justified the means. They don't, and didn't. Even if one contends that extraordinary circumstances warrant extraordinary methods, the methods cannot be arbitrary, wildly violative of ethical norms, or disproportionate to the ends they are meant to serve.

And thirdly, Tehelka was not merely "playing along" in pandering to the sexual demands of the defence officers concerned. Rather, it offered them paid sex, and then filmed them. This suggests a devious calculus, which violates elementary norms of good journalism. Tehelka itself has since admitted to its "transgression".

However, none of this can justify the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) wholly disproportionate response to the disclosures, leave alone reduce the gravity of the malfeasance involved in defence deals. Tehelka's original videotapes incontrovertibly documented extensive corruption and subversion of rational decision-making in our gigantic Rs. 40,000 crores-a-year arms procurement business. Tehelka's case may not be watertight on all counts, but it remains highly persuasive, indeed damning, on many. That is alarming enough.

Predictably, the Samata Party, eager to get back the Defence portfolio, and to an extent the Bharatiya Janata Party, have demanded "legal action" against Tehelka's "violations". But violations of journalistic ethics do not constitute violations of the law. The prostitutes concerned were "willing" participants or accomplices. Therefore, it would be as absurd to invoke dubious provisions of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act against Tehelka as to cite the outmoded, colonial, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to punish homosexuality.

Although the Samata has abandoned its ludicrous demand that all of the "discredited" Tehelka's work be thrown out of the window, there is a real danger that overreaction to Tehelka's excesses will itself lead to official excesses. These could be far worse. One already hears demands for "disciplining" and censoring the "irresponsible" and "immoral" media, curtailing freedom of expression, and prescribing what journalists may or may not do. Journalistic freedom cannot be absolute or unrelated to the public interest and requirements of truthfulness and fairness. Journalists too are accountable for the consequences of their work. But that is a far cry from demanding their prior compliance with dubious norms of "responsibility" prescribed by the powerful who have much to fear from honest reporting. Such ideas are part of the growing Authoritarian Impulse of our ruling classes.

This Impulse manifests itself variously, time and again: in demands for restrictions on legitimate journalistic reporting and comment, strident calls for tough measures like preventive detention, harsh legal pronouncements that punish dissidents and protestors (as in the case of Arundhati Roy), growing street-level censorship, and the latest - proposals for amnesty for the perpetrators of gross human rights abuses, in the name of "national security".

The Impulse comes from an intolerant, militarist, wield-the-big-stick, "national-security"-obsessed mindset. This mindset has contempt for genuine human security. It sees all dissent and even social discontent in law-and-order terms alone. This mindset is, socially, deeply conservative, and driven by a totalitarian temptation. It instinctively rationalises extreme centralisation of power and advocates a "benign" dictatorship to infuse a "limited dose" of order in this chaotic, backward, "undisciplined" society. It maintains that democracy is a "luxury", which we cannot "afford" at this "stage of development", and in today's "crisis" circumstances, just when the nation's "security" is jeopardised. This view has many adherents both inside and outside government - from L.K. Advani to Nani Palkhivala.

Thus, we have the imminent extension of the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to the Jammu region - after they have abjectly failed to achieve their stated objectives in the Kashmir Valley for a decade. This move replaces effective, targeted, focussed action against militants, with unguided, sweeping, repression of civilians. It means suspending the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution in respect of non-combatants. In effect, the security forces would get a licence to harass, detain, maim and even "disappear" anyone vaguely suspected of being sympathetic to militants. Literally thousands of civilians - 6,379, according to the government's latest figures - have been killed, and lakhs tormented in the Valley, mainly under these draconian laws.

You could be picked up and tortured at notorious centres like Srinagar's Papa-2 for days - just because you happen to know a distant relative of a suspected militant. As any honest army or police officer will tell you, the militancy has grown because of these laws: the more the state harasses innocent people, the more its forces are seen as an occupying army and the wider the militancy's catchment area becomes. Civil liberties activists have long pointed out that the new spurt of militancy in the Jammu region, especially Doda and Poonch, is itself a knee-jerk reaction to the state's communalisation by the Sangh Parivar. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP now want to trifurcate Jammu and Kashmir. The advocacy of a "pro-active" policy or "big-stick" repression in Jammu and Kashmir is part of that agenda.

Regrettably, the call for draconian laws is not confined to Jammu and Kashmir, or even the northeastern region. The Centre too is re-drafting its Terrorism (Prevention) Bill. Clauses 3 and 14 of the Bill seek to punish those who possess information or material relevant to "terrorist acts", and compel their disclosure. This has direct consequences for the freedom of the public, and also of that of journalists.

The Centre has also "advised" the States to enact "their own" draconian laws against terrorism, insurgency and "organised crime" (The Times of India, August 27). Tamil Nadu already has such a law in place. So does Maharashtra, where it has been badly abused. A number of other States are enacting some version of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities 'Prevention' Act though it got thoroughly discredited and was finally junked in 1995. It has been said that over 80 per cent of TADA cases were fraudulent or frivolous. For instance, it was widely used in many States against student activists, trade unionists and even municipal workers. The rate of conviction was well under 2 per cent. The degree of abuse of TADA was nevertheless horrifying, especially for the minority communities, which included nomadic tribes. It paved the way for the communalisation of the administration - for example in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Many States now abuse the ruthless provisions of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which all but reverses the onus of proof and prescribes a minimum imprisonment of 10 years. All that the police need to do is plant a small quantity of widely available charas or "smack" on you, and you can be ruined for life. Laws like this are particularly open to abuse against political opponents, social activists, anyone the ruling dispensation does not like.

Only slightly less pernicious are the various moves to censor the media. One of the worst of these is the Gujarat government's latest proposal to gag the press by bringing it under the Consumer Protection Act. This measure, according to Minister of State Liladhar Vaghela, is to "protect" the interests of readers who feel "mentally tortured" on reading "distorted versions" of events. Now, anyone can complain of "mental torture" - for instance, a communal person on reading about a secular seminar, or vice versa. To treat that as a ground for prosecution is totally illogical. Besides, a newspaper is not just a commodity like soap or toothpaste; nor is the reader's relationship with it akin to that of a mere consumer.

This measure will permit district consumer courts to censor the media with powers that even the Supreme Court will shudder at. (Regrettably, former Press Council chairperson P.B. Sawant is reported to have supported the move "in principle". One can only hope he has been misquoted.) However, the Centre too is moving legislation, like the Convergence Bill, to give itself untrammelled powers to impose restrictions upon TV channels and to wiretap telephones. It has already misused this power extensively in respect of cellular telephones. The cellular companies have fallen in line without even a murmur of protest.

IT is in this larger context that the Supreme Court's second contempt notice to Arundhati Roy must be placed. The impression it conveys is not just that of extreme displeasure with Roy's principled stand as reflected in her affidavit, but of not countenancing any dissent when it comes to the court's authority and wisdom - by attributing the divergent opinions to an interrogation of its own "motives". However, at issue here are not the court's "motives", but the public's rational and undeniable right to criticise judicial verdicts and their reasoning. Such criticism is valid especially in the Narmada case, where the court's judgment altogether skirted the issue of the displaced people's human rights - the subject of the original petition.

More generally, the present climate is turning poisonous. A party obsessed with a narrow, chauvinist conception of "national security" rules at the Centre. And Hindu communalism is being assiduously promoted at all levels, from law to textbooks and from culture to astrology. This is especially conducive to witch-hunts against all manner of groups on mere suspicion. An example is the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), identified as a "dreaded" terrorist group largely through various charges recently levelled against it - not one of which has been proved in a court of law.

In the absence of enough evidence, it would be irresponsible to declare SIMI innocent, leave alone "normal" or secular-pluralist. (It is certainly not the latter, but then, nor are the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Bajrang Dal.) However, it would be equally irresponsible - and even more dangerous - to brand it "terrorist" without evidence, and then victimise it. That is precisely what Minister I.D. Swamy did the other day while explicitly exonerating the "extremism" of the RSS-Bajrang Dal on the ground that they want to revive our "ancient" glory.

The most serious allegations laid against SIMI have never been substantiated. And yet, hundreds of students have been harassed on fabricated charges related to their SIMI membership - at Aligarh and at Jamia Millia, where police excesses have been well documented. Advani, by his own statements, is all set to ban SIMI, as are seven State governments, some with an unflattering communal record. This is a recipe for creating sullen disaffection, alienation and bitterness where none should exist. This same dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy earlier created havoc in Kashmir, Nagaland, Punjab, Mizoram and Assam.

Equally repugnant is Advani's patently illegal proposal to grant amnesty or "special relief" to perpetrators of human rights violations, for "national security" reasons. No one can possibly claim immunity on those grounds. Nuremberg jurisprudence has firmly established that individual functionaries of the state are morally responsible for their crimes, whatever their superiors' orders. Even the Attorney-General and the Law Ministry have given their opinions against granting any blanket amnesty. There is no case for limited immunity either - not unless the crimes and culpability are established and the victims or their relatives drop charges. This has not happened anywhere.

This makes the whole idea of immunity doubly obnoxious. Immunity will legitimise state brutality, contempt for human life, and sadism. That is not the road to a minimally civilised society. But then, this is not the NDA's agenda. After the divisiveness and bitterness that the Vajpayee dispensation has injected into national life, citizens who stand for public decency and sanity must oppose it resolutely. "They shall not pass".

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