Uproar on account of police First Information Report (FIR) against an independent media body’s report on Manipur has raised key questions on the prevailing spirit of getting questioned, accommodating contrarian views, and on the doctrine of proportionality in reactions.
Admittedly, the report was unflattering for the State in its suggestion of partisanship in the handling of the Manipur situation, and the State is entitled to its own view of the situation.
The State slammed the report, “the government and the people condemn the report in the strongest terms”, as did some individuals who petitioned against the same by calling it “false, fabricated and sponsored”. Errors in the said report in terms of a photo caption were rightfully called out (which was duly acknowledged as a mistake and agreed to be corrected by the media body), as should be the case.
However, the matter did not end with pointing to the mistakes, as the FIR resulted in booking under multiple IPC sections like ‘promoting enmity between different groups’, ‘rumour or report with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public’, ‘statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill will between classes, and defamation with criminal conspiracy’ etc.
Did this reaction retain a sense of proportion between the specific goal of maintaining peace and order in Manipur with the means (read, FIR, and its accompanying sections) towards protecting public interest? Or was it excessive?
The answer perhaps lies in understanding the antecedents, track record, and nature of the said media body i.e., the Editors Guild of India.
Such a Body Will Always Be 'Anti-establishment'
The defined genesis of the said body has been, “protecting press freedom and for raising the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines. Eminent editors of the day felt that the lack of an organized forum of editors was one of the reasons for the sustained suppression of press freedom during the Emergency”.
The underlying spirit of such a body will always be ‘anti-establishment’ as perhaps is always necessary, as opposed to beholden or acting as partisan spokespersons. But obviously, it ought to be accountable for any misrepresentation, falsehood, or malicious intent. Those aggrieved by its output will naturally attribute malintent and therefore maintaining a sense of proportionality in questioning its antecedents is vital.
The next question is - whether the said body is also partisan within its own bearings or simply ‘anti-establishment’. Beyond its genealogical attribution to the Emergency, it has had a consistent record of calling out all dispensations before 2014 too.
In fact, weeks earlier on 27th Aug, it had noted with concern the actions of the Government of Karnataka (under Congress rule) for setting up ‘fact-checking unit’ which would enable the State Government to take penal measures under relevant sections of IPC. The said media body filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, challenging the same. So, it has had, a past and continuing record of ‘questioning’ all dispensations.
Sadly, the culture of ‘questioning’ is under attack by politicians of all hues and persuasions and that enables a shockingly short life on that odd and disconcerting news that does come through, but somehow disappears from headlines before its pernicious impact is understood by all. Such fleeting shelf-life of ‘bad news’ can only be convenient to those whose tracks get covered by its disappearance. The media must be allowed to ‘question’ without fear or favour, albeit, without a partisan or malicious intent.
Remember Chetan Singh?
One such blink-and-you-miss-it fate of ‘bad news’, though with incalculably dangerous import, was of the recent Railway Police Constable who gunned down his senior and three others, in cold blood.
The storyline was consistent, a gruesome incident grabbed the headlines (with some truly disturbing details). It follows immediate denials, deflections, and then finally, meek acknowledgments. Within a couple of weeks, the matter is gone.
So, why should it concern us? Because the Devil lies in the details that are petering out, seemingly innocuously.
Consider the subsequent news that came out – the said Constable was involved in at least three indefensible disciplinary cases earlier, which ought to have denied him the right to wear the ‘Uniform’, and consequently, bear weapons of destructive capability. He had shockingly tortured a member of the minority community in custody and hauled up for the same, in 2017. He had withdrawn Rupees 25,000 from a colleague’s card, without authorization. He had also physically assaulted another colleague.
A person with a flexed communal bent of mind, who had committed fraud and violence on another brother-in-arm, would not have survived any one of these shameful accounts in the Indian Armed Forces, let alone all three!
Unironically, he only did what he was very likely to do – he shot his own colleague, sought out three specific people from a minority community, and then selectively killed them, all the while, supposedly mouthing some communal and partisan vitriol.
In the whole melee, the mealy-mouthed charade of contextualising his act (including a mysterious withdrawal of a statement within hours, which had cleared him of any health issues as part of Periodical Medical Examination [PME] of Railway constables) and then neither confirming nor denying the veracity of the shocking videos, made for murky optics.
Secondly, even more damaging than the obvious issue of the quality of some amoral personnel in policing forces, is the plausible communalisation-polarisation that has seemingly afflicted, some members of the ‘Uniform’!
Have the societal-partisan passions and the accompanying agenda of hatemongering crept inside the avowedly apolitical and constitutional realm of the ‘Uniform’? The said constable’s communal rants (videos shared on social media and admittedly, unverified till now) would send shivers down the spine of any truly well-meaning and patriotic (not hyper-nationalist) citizens, who worry about the future of governance and law enforcement agencies, to operate as per constitutional mandate, only.
Protector or Predator?
Are we even surprised (or the least bit concerned) as to why many across the nation, from Manipur to Nuh, or even those travelling on Jaipur-Mumbai train, would hereinafter look at the protector as the predator?
Have we got so carried away with the project of ‘Bollywoodising’ the sober imagery of the soldier to such an extent, that they are increasingly seen in a certain partisan or communal colour, nowadays?
Have the regrettable consequences of a deeply partisan or even communal sentiment metastasizing into the rarefied air of cantonments and barracks, dawned on the reckless politicians and their fiery spokespersons and poisonous IT cells?
Let us hope and pray that the findings into this horrific incident only point toward individual culpability or derangement, and not onto the larger ‘environmental’ or institutional malaise.
Most importantly, one wonders about the lack of enthusiasm and interest in pursuing a story of such magnitude and implications, by the media.
It is symptomatic of the distrust and rot that manifests in policing from Manipur to Nuh, and therefore it is hardly surprising that it is invariably the still apolitical (and proudly so) Indian Armed Forces, who are requisitioned to bring back peace and trust, as the proverbial ‘last resort’ of the sovereign.
Constable Chetan Singh, as a metaphor, would not have survived the Indian Armed Forces to be able to do as he did, ultimately. He wouldn’t have survived for some reasons, and the policing forces need to replicate those exact reasons in Manipur, Nuh, or even in trains.
The media on its part must follow a story in its logical suggestions and conclusions, even if it were to paint many of those in power, in a dim light. The day media steels its spine, everything and everyone starts becoming more accountable, responsible, and even answerable.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)