Last week, we were told by no less a person than the foreign office spokesperson that the summoning of Time magazine's Alex Perry by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office had "nothing to do" with his authorship of an irreverent but perfectly legitimate piece on Atal Bihari Vajpayee's poor health and even poorer attention-span.
What this conveyed to the public was the opposite: the government was rattled to the point of peevish, paranoid, puerile over-reaction and vindictiveness towards a vulnerable journalist; that it thought nothing of reducing the foreign ministry to a crude damage-control operation for a particular individual; and that it would have victimised Perry even more egregiously had he not had a sound legal explanation of why he possesses three passport booklets instead of one.
Now, we are told by the CBI spokesperson - with an equally deadpan face - that Wednesday's raid on Tehelka had "nothing to do" with the portal's outstanding exposť of a gigantic defence scam with ramifications into party-political apparatuses, nor with its editor's scheduled appearance before the official inquiry commission on that issue that very day.
What this tells us is that this government is brazen enough to deny the stark truth of corruption in defence deals, irrefutably recorded on Tehelka's video, and to reappoint George Fernandes as defence minister although he has not been cleared by the inquiry. It cares two hoots about democratic norms like 'constructive responsibility'. Worse, it has fashioned blatant intimidation and targeted victimisation of journalists into a conscious policy.
The government not only arrested Iftikhar Geelani, the Kashmir Times bureau chief accredited with the Press Information Bureau - whose bona fides must be duly verified by the Union home ministry before being issued an identity card - on utterly incredible trumped-up charges. It planted stories in the media that he confessed to having received foreign slush funds - a charge the detained man can't even begin to counter.
Last week, inmates of Tihar jail, where he is incarcerated in judicial custody, physically assaulted Geelani. It is hard to believe that this could have happened without the warders' complicity, even their goading - and without discreet political encouragement.
Again, the message rang out loud and clear: criticise the NDA government, try to hold it accountable to its promises, pretend you live in a free society under it, but at your own peril; the danger to you will be all the greater if you happen to be a Kashmiri - don't forget the other Geelani (SAR), the Delhi lecturer, charged for abetting the December 13 Parliament attack, no less.
It's only fair to admit this isn't the only Indian government that has practised media manipulation and intimidation. Many others have, most infamously under Indira Gandhi's Emergency. But none other has been as overwhelmingly obsessed with whitewashing its image, with suppressing, doctoring, or distorting the truth, manufacturing a false sense of normality, and granting respectability to extreme Right-wing exclusivist politics as the present regime. None other has so consciously refined political intimidation or elevated it into an art. And none has so cavalierly ignored journalists' protests - over Outlook's harassment, Tehelka's victimisation, or assaults on reporters in Gujarat.
On its 27th anniversary, it's tempting to call this some kind of slow motion undeclared Emergency. That would be an exaggeration. But the field where the similarities get disturbingly close is justice delivery. During the Emergency's habeas corpus case, the high judiciary failed to defend the fundamental right to life. Now, it has handed out a judgment which deprives an accused of life itself - on an extra-judicial confession, which is subsequently retracted.
Today's Supreme Court is the most conservative in independent India's history: witness its judgments in the Narmada, Balco or Arundhati Roy cases. Now, in the Devender Pal Singh case, a three-judge bench has held that the extra-judicial confession in question was uncorroborated, that nothing new emerged from it, and that independent testimony (even police witnesses) belied it.
Yet, mysteriously, two judges sentenced Singh to death, while the seniormost judge acquitted him! The mystery's key is the 'T' word. Singh is an alleged 'terrorist', tried under TADA.
Such is the infective power of the media hype about terrorism, its reduction solely to its non-state forms, and its privileging as the only real security issue, that the most flagrant breach of elementary judicial maxims ("beyond reasonable doubt" and "innocent until proved guilty") can be condoned.
Indeed, the new Prevention of Terrorism Act sanctifies repugnant extra-judicial confessions, which are violative of the Evidence Act and of constitutional rights, and imposes unconscionable sentences.
Clearly, the room not just for dissent, but for tolerance, decency, and elementary legality is shrinking. We are becoming victims of our rulers' paranoias, their Hindutva prejudices, their 'National-Security-State' obsessions, and their bellicose, viciously chauvinist grossmacht (great-power) nationalism.
The lights are going out, the exits are closing
The Hindustan Times
June 28, 2002
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