Stop press

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta, at his Thane home after the attack by Shiv Sangram activists.-COURTESY: THE TIMES OF INDIA

Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta, at his Thane home after the attack by Shiv Sangram activists.-COURTESY: THE TIMES OF INDIA

There is an alarming trend of political parties trying to prevent journalists from coming out with inconvenient truths and the state standing by.

KUMAR KETKAR was getting ready to leave for work when he heard what sounded like a war cry in the distance. Within seconds, there was a crazed mob pounding at his door. His wife Sharda immediately bolted it and ran to close the windows. By then, the 70-strong gang had surrounded his home. They thumped on the door with sticks, splashed buckets of tar, and hurled stones to break the windows.

Luckily, we were saved by the iron grills on the windows, or our lives would have been in danger, says Ketkar, the editor of Loksatta, the largest and most influential Marathi newspaper, part of the Indian Express group of publications.

The mob that proudly proclaimed its allegiance to the Shiv Sangram, a chauvinistic Marathi group, attacked Ketkar for an editorial he wrote mocking the State governments plan to build a 309-foot statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea off Mumbais Marine Drive at a cost of more than Rs.100 crore. The article, titled All the problems have been solved, now lets build a statue, is filled with sarcastic barbs about the state of affairs in Maharashtra.

Not surprisingly, the leader of the Shiv Sangram is Vinayak Mete, State vice-president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a partner in the ruling coalition. Soon after the attack, he told Indian Express: Ketkar used derogatory language against Chhatrapati Shivaji to oppose the move to build a statue. So, our workers attacked his house in protest. It was a physical reaction to atrocious writing.

The next day, the NCP issued a show-cause notice against Mete, known to be close to party chief Sharad Pawar and State Home Minister R.R. Patil. But he was not arrested, despite his public statements. Only 12 of his followers were hauled up by the police.

When contacted by Frontline, Mete said he was a founding member of the Shiv Sangram. The attack was wrong, but people should ponder why only two journalists in Maharashtra are attacked often Kumar Ketkar and Nikhil Wagle. They should think before they write. When they write against Shivaji, who is like a god in Maharashtra, it angers our activists. They are not as knowledgeable as Mr. Ketkar, so this was their reaction, Mete said.

The Shiv Sangram has links with the NCP, which is competing with the Shiv Sena to project itself as the upholder of the Maratha tradition. Marathas, who are Kshatriyas by caste, form a powerful group in Maharashtra and occupy top political posts. Many NCP politicians, including Sharad Pawar and Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh are Marathas.

In January 2004, the Sambhaji Brigade ransacked the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) for helping the American author James Laine, who they felt made objectionable remarks about Shivaji in his book Shivaji: A Hindu king in Islamic India. Instead of cracking down on the culprits, the Congress-NCP government filed a case against the author. The Shiv Sangram attacked the Loksatta office in Ahmednagar in 2006 because it did not publish a picture of Shivaji on the front page to commemorate Shiv Jayanti, the birthday of Shivaji.

With elections due next year, political parties are competing with one another in their pursuit of identity politics. First, Raj Thackeray managed to rescue himself from a descent into political oblivion by inciting attacks against North Indian outsiders by his party workers. Now, the ruling Congress-NCP is trying to cash in on the sentiment. Its because they are playing identity politics and not talking about the real issues that they dont want the press to be free. They dont want any criticism. Actually, it is a kind of terrorism, says Ketkar.

The attack on Ketkar is no longer considered unusual in Maharashtra. There are frequent attacks on the media by gangs belonging to groups like the Shiv Sangram. Rarely is any action taken. There is lawlessness. Every day we hear of new attacks by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena [Raj Thackerays party], not only on journalists but also on ordinary people. But the government does nothing, says Jatin Desai from the Peoples Media Initiative.

Meanwhile, in Gujarat, press freedom was threatened by the police. The resident editor of The Times of India in Ahmedabad, Bharat Desai, and a correspondent, Prashant Dayal, were charged with sedition and conspiracy against the state. The newspaper had published a series of articles exposing the misdeeds of the newly appointed Police Commissioner of Ahmedabad, O.P. Mathur. In retaliation, Mathur filed five cases against them. The matter is yet to be investigated. Meanwhile, the journalists applied for anticipatory bail. During the communal violence of 2002, Gujarati newspapers published reports that incited communal hatred. But they were never punished. However, the Gujarat government is quick to clamp down on journalists who are critical of its officials.

These outdated laws are used to intimidate journalists, says Digant Oza, renowned Gujarati writer. In the past few years, a few journalists have been jailed under this section. The authorities gang up to prevent the media from writing. Sedition can carry a sentence of life imprisonment, so it can scare journalists. Particularly in small towns, many have not had the resources to fight the government and had to apologise before they could be released from jail.

In 2006, the police arrested the editor of Surat Samna, Manoj Shinde, its circulation manager and a computer operator on charges of sedition because the newspaper had criticised the government for mishandling the release of water from the Ukai dam, which resulted in the flooding of Surat city. Shinde did not have the financial resources to fight the case and had to apologise after 39 days in jail. After that, he was released.

A hundred years ago, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested on sedition charges for writing against the callous British administration. He was jailed for six years. In the land of Gandhi, the state is still trying to gag the press. And many journalists are still sending e-mail messages quoting Gandhi, If sedition means disaffection towards the present system of government, it is a virtue and a duty....We cannot paint the system blacker than it appears to the average audience today.

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