The summary order of the inter-ministerial panel of the information and broadcasting ministry asking NDTV India to black out its channel for a day for telecasting crucial information during the Pathankot attacks in January is unprecedented. It is the first such case after the government notified norms for live coverage of such incidents. Social media has been unsparing in its condemnation of this decision. That just the previous day the Prime Minister spoke of the dark days of the Emergency is an irony that has not gone unnoticed. Not has it been missed that NDTV India is one of the most sober channels in the country and its anchor Ravish Kumar a respected figure. Journalists have declared solidarity with NDTV. The Editors Guild issued a statement demanding it be taken back. The guild has emphatically said that the government could have taken the channel to court to take action against it. Where was the need to take this drastic step?
Now consider the killing — in cold blood, some videos seem to show — by policemen in Madhya Pradesh, of eight convicts who escaped a jail. A lot about the prison break seems fishy — the eight men, lodged in different barracks, managed to get out of their respective jails, kill one guard (but not his companion), climb over a 32 foot wall and jump on the other side, change into civilian clothes and sneakers and then engage in a gun battle with cops, even though they did not have any guns. And all eight were killed. It certainly sounds odd, and demands an enquiry. But the victims have already been branded as terrorists, even if they have not been tried yet. There are a number of instances when people picked up on charges of terrorism are found not guilty, sometimes after many years. Their lives are destroyed. They have no recourse to compensation — the system, having crushed them, moves on. Can we say with certainty that these accused would have been found guilty?
Yet, the cops are being hailed for having finished off “terrorists” and not by rabid followers of the government, especially online, for whom a Muslim arrested for terrorism is guilty beyond all doubt and deserves to be eliminated. And policemen in all parts of India are unapologetic about indulging in encounters. But when a chief minister of a state hails the cops for their action it is something to worry about. A day after the incident, and even as videos calling into question the police’s version were leaking out, Shivraj Singh Chouhan declared — at a public meeting — he would bestow rewards on the cops involved in the killings. He also criticised those who were doubting the police. “How long can you keep them under trial? Some people even get chicken biryani in jail,” he told an approving crowd. Chicken biryani, of course, is an easy-to-decode euphemism for “Muslim” and Mr Chouhan was obviously appealing to the base instincts of his followers.
But it is the first part of this statement that should worry all right-minded citizens, since an elected official is expressing his disregard for the law. Cases take too long to decide, so let us just take the law into our own hands and kill off the accused, since we know they are guilty. This is a man sworn to uphold the Constitution, but is making a mockery of the rule of law. Go forth and kill, he is telling his policemen — I will protect you. There is something common in the order of the I&B ministry’s panel and in Madhya Pradesh — an impatience with legal process. In the first instance, the government takes recourse to the most extreme measure, virtually banning the channel for one full day. That this will be seen as an assault on the media doesn’t seem to bother the government; if anything, that may well be the objective. Make an example of one channel and everyone else will fall into line. A long-winded legal case will have zero impact, neither on NDTV and nor on other channels.
Mr Chouhan, too, thinks that quick killings, execution style, is the most efficient way to dispose off cases; we know they are guilty any way (they are Muslims, remember), so why waste time and resources. Besides, disposing them off in this manner will get the approval of millions of the faithful, which in turn, means votes.
The tedious legal process can be enervating and frustrating. Often, the powerful get away with dragging on cases, burdening the courts even more. More often than not, it is the victim who suffers as the perpetrator manages to evade justice by stretching a case. Mr Chouhan says there should be fast-track courts for terror cases — that is something to be considered. But why just terror, why not find ways to speed up the legal system? In any case, the solution to those delays is not short-circuiting the entire process by taking recourse to extreme measures.
This is no different from two people locked in a dispute bringing in a criminal boss to settle the issue. Such extra-judicial solutions cannot be allowed. The ministry’s ban, if not contested and fought — and not just by NDTV but by the media in general — will become a precedent. Those who may foolishly gloat over its predicament should know that the government can turn on them too. It will have a very chilling effect on media freedom. As for the encounter killings, Mr Chouhan must make it clear that such incidents will not be allowed. This may be asking for too much, since he has already made his views known and is not likely to go back on them, but someone has to remind him that he is a chief minister, sworn to uphold the law and cannot indulge in such loose talk. When governments begin to scoff at the law, it sends a dangerous message down the line....