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Rights and wrongs

Print edition : Feb 21, 1998 T+T-

Ashok Kumar Jain has left the country after a medical board cleared his case to seek medical aid abroad. This development was preceded by a strident campaign against the Enforcement Directorate.

MEDIA baron Ashok Kumar Jain, under scrutiny by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) for alleged foreign exchange violations, left the country on the night of February 7 for medical treatment abroad. He boarded his flight in Mumbai hours after a medical board constituted by the E.D. certified that he needed to have a third cardiac bypass surgery for which facilities did not exist in India. Jain had appealed to the E.D. on January 27 to allow him to go abroad for treatment; he produced medical records and certification and stated that his ischaemic heart condition could not be treated in India and that he needed to go to Cleveland, United States, for urgent treatment. The E.D., which had wanted Jain to testify on the charges against him after the Supreme Court rejected his plea for anticipatory bail, constituted a medical board to assess his claims. When the medical board, comprising three doctors including the heads of the cardiology departments of the J.J. Hospital and the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, gave the opinion that facilities to treat Jain's condition did not exist in India, the E.D. allowed Jain to leave the country.

However, the E.D. stipulated that Jain should keep the Directorate informed of his whereabouts and that he should not attend to any other business abroad. He has to come back within a reasonable period of time, in any case before the expiry of the six-month deadline stipulated by the Supreme Court for the conclusion of investigation.

Soon after the apex Court rejected his plea for anticipatory bail, Jain had launched an all-out offensive against the investigative agency through large-size advertisements in major newspapers in the country in the first week of February. Jain claimed that he was "continuously harassed, hounded and humiliated" by the E.D. over the last one year and went on to seek to dispel 'myths' spread by the E.D. with 'facts' as perceived by him. The advertisement described instances of "abuse of power, harassment, violation of human rights, absence of checks and balances and lack of accountability" on the part of the E.D.. Meanwhile, The Times of India and The Economic Times, the flagship publications of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited of which Jain is the promoter, devoted several columns every day on their front pages and inside pages to pillory and condemn the E.D. for, among other things, "violating basic human rights".

The Times of India started a front-page column, 'Human Rights Watch', in which what were claimed to be accounts of torture and indignity perpetrated by E.D. officials on other alleged FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act) offenders interrogated by it and published. E.D. sources deny having tortured or harassed any of the offenders investigated by them. They also find it intriguing that the victims of their so-called maltreatment should have borne their plight stoically all these days until The Times of India came along and offered them a forum to voice their protest. The Times of India threw open its columns to the public to narrate accounts of perceived injustice done to them by state agencies like the E.D. It offered "the protection of public opinion" to those who wanted to talk freely and frankly about such experiences.

The accounts of the E.D.'s alleged misdeeds were buttressed by reports condemning the E.D. for its 'high-handed' and 'hectorian' behaviour, sourced to such assorted quarters as the 'Tamil community' in Mumbai to the Digambar Jain Committee, corporate chieftains, legal experts and chambers of trade and industry at the national, State and regional levels. The reports also suggested that the E.D. had selectively targeted the Jain and Tamil communities, giving the probe a communal and regional colour.

It was also reported that Jain had petitioned the National Human Rights Commission regarding alleged violation of his basic rights by the E.D.

Although the FERA probe against Jain was hogging the headlines in the two newspapers, there was hardly any news report or editorial comment on the subject in most other mainline publications.

The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) issued a statement condemning "the use of journalists and newspapers to whip up frenzy on caste and regional lines on behalf of their managements facing charges of financial skulduggery." In a joint statement issued on January 30, the DUJ said that journalists' dignity and authority were being eroded as a consequence of their being reduced to public relations officers of managements in their personal wars. Referring to The Times of India, the DUJ noted that journalists were being virtually railroaded into writing motivated stories. The DUJ appealed to the Press Council of India to look into the orchestrated campaign by the management of The Times of India in this matter.

Prashant Bhushan, the lawyer representing the People's Union for Civil Liberties, told Frontline that the PUCL would appeal to the Press Council of India against what he referred to as the misuse of a public forum such as a newspaper to carry on a one-sided campaign against a government agency doing its job.

Ajit Bhattacharjea, Director of the Press Institute of India, told Frontline that it was unusual for newspapers to go to town on an issue in which a media baron is involved. "This entire campaign seems orchestrated. The Times of India has never shown such concern for human rights in the past. The coverage of the issue certainly appears one-sided, but if the allegations against the E.D. are true, then it is a very serious matter. It is important that there should be an independent inquiry into the charges against the E.D. to clear its reputation."

THE media blitz put the E.D. in a position of disadvantage since under an order passed by the Delhi High Court last year in a case filed by Ashok Jain, it had been restrained from disclosing anything on the matter to the media. Jain's petition for the investigations by the E.D. on grounds of mala fide is yet to be disposed of by the court, but the interim restraint is extant.

Thus, while Jain had virtually unrestricted access to public forums to air his grievances, the E.D. was unable to state its side of the case. At a meeting with senior E.D. officials, N.K. Singh, Union Revenue Secretary, is reported to have expressed concern over the adverse publicity. He also told officials to respect public opinion while conducting their investigations.

Referring to the restraint order, Bhattacharjea said: "It is most unfortunate that the E.D. is unable to speak up for itself to clear its reputation. This fact is unknown to the general public, which thinks that the E.D. has no answer to the charges. This predicament of the E.D. should be highlighted." The E.D. may appeal to the court for vacation of the order restraining it from disclosing aspects of the case to the media, but whether it can undo the damage done to its reputation even if it manages to obtain such vacation is doubtful, considering the time lost already.

While some E.D. officials appear to have been demoralised by the adverse media publicity, others remain unfazed. One official said: "We're doing our duty and we're strictly going by the rule book. The media campaign should be seen as a reflection of the extent of desperation of the accused and his clout, rather than our culpability."

THE adverse media reports on the E.D. began appearing soon after it raided The Times of India's offices in Mumbai, Calcutta and New Delhi in the third week of January. It was reported that the E.D. recovered during the raids documents which, apart from indicating the possibility of further FERA violations by Ashok Jain, helped decode documents regarding certain transactions detected during a raid on Jain's premises in the national capital in January 1997. The E.D. also searched and seized documents from Jain's cabin in Bombay Hospital where he was admitted soon after the Supreme Court denied him anticipatory bail against possible arrest by the E.D.

The raids in Mumbai were accompanied by the interrogation of top officials of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Among those questioned were senior executives C.R. Balasubramanian and P.R. Krishnamoor-thy, who later stated that the E.D. had obtained their statements under duress.

In Delhi, the E.D. questioned Som Chand Jain, said to be a close associate of Ashok Jain. Certain documents were reported to have been recovered from Som Chand Jain's premises also during a raid. In Calcutta, Thakur Das Dujari, said to be a key figure in the alleged money-laundering operations, and V.K. Jain, Company Secretary, were interrogated and their premises raided.

The E.D., which has been directed by the Supreme Court to conclude its investigations against Ashok Jain by June 1998, was seeking to interrogate him. It served two summons on him since January 8, 1998. However, Jain did not appear before the Directorate.

Arun Kumar Bajoria, a jute baron from Calcutta, another key witness in the Ashok Jain case and allegedly a conduit for the latter's alleged hawala transactions, went underground after his bail petition was dismissed by a Delhi court. The DRI issued a red alert for Bajoria, and the E.D. requested the assistance of the Calcutta Police to arrest him. Bajoria is now in the intensive coronary care unit of a nursing home in Calcutta where he was reported to have been admitted for "acute depression and a rise in blood sugar levels."

IN another development, Shashai Hoon, a Toronto-based businessman who, in a statement to the E.D. last year, confirmed that he had accompanied Alok Kumar Jain, brother of Ashok Jain (of Bennett, Coleman & Co.), and Congress president Sitaram Kesri in 1967 to open an account in Barclays Bank, London, in the name of Kesri, was reported to have been found dead 'under mysterious circumstances' in Toronto. The E.D. had been corresponding with Hoon for the past several months seeking further details and documents relating to the account. According to reports, Hoon was to have given a statement before E.D. officials on January 25, but was found dead on January 22, a day before he was to have boarded the plane to India. E.D. sources, however, said that no firm date had been fixed for his meeting with its officials and that Hoon was to visit India on a private mission. However, it is learnt that they may write to the Indian High Commission in Canada seeking details of the circumstances under which Hoon died. It is also reported that the E.D. will seek a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the matter.