In Arnab Vs Maharashtra Govt, Here’s Why We Needn’t Support Either

Arnab’s ‘journalism’ was actually propaganda against the Thackerays. Thackeray govt’s actions are just as political.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image of Arnab Goswami used for representational purposes.
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“What is the harm if this gentleman is released on bail?... The problem cannot be that he will go back to the TV channel and scream and make allegations…He will certainly but that is no ground to keep him in custody,” argued senior advocate Harish Salve in Bombay high court on Friday, 6 November evening, pressing for Arnab Goswami to be released.

By then, the television anchor and propagandist had spent close to 60 hours in judicial custody after an unceremonious arrest from his Mumbai home in a re-opened abetment to suicide case.

The division bench of Justices SS Shinde and MS Karnik decided to hold a special sitting on holidays to hear his plea for interim release. He would spend another 60 hours at least behind bars and be moved to Taloja jail later for using a mobile phone while in Alibaug.

The HC rejected the plea on Monday, 9 November, and directed his legal team to approach the local court for bail. Goswami is looking at a few more days in jail.

How Arnab’s Case Pushed People To Pick A Side

The question asks itself, with some irony and rhetoric, in the minds of many. The answer to “what’s the harm” lies in Goswami’s brand of high-pitch, distorted and scurrilous verbiage and witch-hunts passed off as journalism for years, its political clout aligned with the right wing and segueing into majoritarianism-nationalism.

He became the face of this brand of journalism, revelling in it to run campaigns against students, human rights activists, peace activists, actors and others to be jailed for offences real or imagined.

In his version of the Fourth Estate, he was the ultimate journalist, prosecutor, judge and executioner, all rolled into one. With his arrest, he became the story too.

It’s a story in which different skeins are tangled; it pushed people to pick a side. Those who support him ranted about the freedom of the press and railed against the Maharashtra government and police – this includes half a dozen cabinet ministers of the Government of India and the Bharatiya Janata Party whose Maharashtra legislators organised ‘Release Arnab’ campaigns (a Marathi poster screamed “Arnab Goswami la soda” causing great mirth among non-Marathi speakers if he should get a soda to drink).

That the BJP strongly argued for Goswami has hard-to-miss implications. That it should speak for human rights after its governments have incarcerated dozens of rights activists and students is irony wrapped in mockery.

Why We Must Distinguish Between Arnab And Other Journalists

Those who disagree with Goswami’s journalism or find it/him repugnant had complex choices to make – some spoke up for his rights as an individual citizen despite his journalism, this included the ‘distressed’ Editors’ Guild and a number of centrist or left-of-centre editors; others defended him because the Uddhav Thackeray government had gone too far or misused its power in arresting him in the Anvay Naik suicide case.

The centrist position — the government’s acts are indefensible but Goswami must be defended even though his journalism is political propaganda — is itself indefensible. The Shiv Sena, which leads the government, is known to go after journalists – the late Dr Aroon Tikekar, Nikhil Wagle, Manimala, this writer too – but action against Goswami is not a part of this fabric.

The party detests journalists who speak inconvenient truths to it; in its estimation, Goswami is a political player on behalf of the BJP and therefore fair game. But we must make the distinction between him and other journalists. The balancing act is good optics, but what’s called for is nuance to separate the skeins of the story.

Why Arnab Goswami Must Not Claim ‘Privilege’ As A Journalist

One, it bears repetition that Goswami was not arrested for his journalistic work; his arrest was in a criminal case of abetment to suicide. However tedious, this is an important distinction to remember.

Goswami, the private individual, must not claim privilege as a journalist when caught for a crime unrelated to journalism; equally, the wails about freedom of press are unnecessary.

Indeed, governments of all hues and ideologies use non-journalism excuses to harass, repress and jail journalists to stop them from doing genuine journalistic work. But is this that kind of a case?

Two, the whataboutery argument falls too. Scores of journalists have been harassed, arrested, charged with draconian acts like the UAPA and sedition in the last few years in order to suppress their journalism; Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested for sedition in Uttar Pradesh a month back when he was covering the Hathras rape-murder case. Their arrests were decried, it doesn't mean that Goswami’s must be too. His arrest is not in this category.

The Mumbai Police moved against him in another case directly emerging from his journalism – more accurately, from the business of his journalism – linked to manipulating TRPs in what’s called ‘TRP Scam’. He has not been arrested in that case.

Is Maharashtra Govt & Police’s Treatment Of Arnab Really An ‘Overreach’?

Three, the argument that Goswami’s arrest in an abetment to suicide case – where law and Supreme Court judgments have set a high bar – is an ‘overreach’ by the Maharashtra government/police must apply to the two other accused arrested in the same case, but Firoz Shaikh and Nitesh Sarda’s arrests have not been condemned. The rage against Maharashtra government/police cannot be this selective.

Four, it’s utterly futile to leave politics out of the discussion and back Goswami as if he were just another journalist at the receiving end of an enraged government. His direct charge and single-salutation thundering, night after night, at Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh in actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death case was politically driven – he railed on about a ‘conspiracy’ to murder Rajput even when medical reports confirmed Rajput’s death as suicide, and defamed the film industry as a ‘den of narcotics’.

Goswami’s ‘journalism’, coincidentally, happened to speak the language of right wing pages on social media, many traced to people with BJP affiliations.

Mumbai Police found lakhs of tweets from suspicious accounts, later found to be fake or bots, which had sent out a flood of anti-Police hashtags targeting Thackeray and Singh. Retired cops even approached the court with a PIL accusing some media of ‘biased coverage’ and ‘creating false propaganda’.

Why Defend A Politically Partisan Player In The ‘Guise’ Of A Journalist?

It’s no secret in Mumbai that the BJP has tried every trick in the book over the last year to dislodge Thackeray’s government – comprising Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress. In its shadow fight with its ally-turned-foe Shiv Sena, hand-picked men and women were foot soldiers. So, Kangana Ranaut ratcheted up a storm with Mumbai-as-POK comment, Governor BS Koshyari backed BJP’s demand to open temples closed as part of Covid-19 restriction measures, the party’s eco-system spread malicious whispers about younger Thackerays, and Goswami directed his fire on Rajput's suicide at the chief minister.

What passed as journalism was really Goswami's propaganda against the Thackerays. The Thackeray government’s move against Goswami is just as political. The state home minister’s instruction to re-open the Anvay Naik suicide case came before Goswami’s campaign against the Thackerays, but the excessive police action followed his tirade.

Why must journalists defend a politically partisan player masquerading as a journalist in a political battle between two parties?

Five, the police force dances to the political masters' tunes. This is as true now as it was in previous governments. The same force that arrested Goswami and others had closed the suicide case in 2019 after Naik’s widow and daughter had run ran from pillar to post to file the FIR in 2018. The younger woman was harassed and stalked to pressurise her into withdrawing it, she has said. Goswami was, at that time, called not to Alibaug police station but to a joint commissioner’s office in Mumbai to merely record his statement. The police behaviour then hardly drew recriminations.

Politicisation Of The Police Must Be Condemned

Coincidentally, Parambir Singh – lauded by some now – was additional director general (law and order) of Maharashtra Police in 2018. The string of arrests of activists in Bhima-Koregaon case were made on his watch, the first FIR that was filed in the incident against two right wing leaders was allowed to languish, and he had held a press conference to show ‘evidence’ of alleged Maoist links of those arrested. The BJP was in power in Maharashtra then. There’s no denying the force’s partisanship.

A government picks its adversaries; cops play along to invoke the law. This politicisation should be protested.

Why Arnab ‘Does Not Need Our Support’

Lastly, it’s misleading to rail against Goswami’s arrest without recognising the immense privilege and political-social clout he enjoys. He is not just another citizen of the Republic of India who will languish in jail like Umar Khalid or Dr Kafeel Khan. Theoretically, they are all equal in the eyes of the law but the judicial system hardly treats everyone on par.

In all the cases he faces in Maharashtra, Goswami has had India’s topmost lawyers represent him, courts hear his applications and petitions within days of being filed.

His Habeas Corpus petition came up for hearing in a day when the 83-year-old Stan Swamy – arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case – has to wait 20 days to get a straw and sipper because Parkinson's has made his hands unsteady, and BJP leaders orchestrate support at the drop of a hat.

Goswami does not need or care for the support of others.

“It’s clear that the State is acting in malice,” Salve told the Bombay High Court bench. Malice in all its variants – mischievousness, meanness, malevolence – must be ‘familiar’ to Goswami. Protesting the Thackeray government’s indefensible actions does not have to mean expressing solidarity with him, much less defending him.

(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, writes on politics, cities, gender and media. She tweets @smrutibombay. is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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