The home ministry’s decision in the second week of July to ban the Chennai-based Sun Group, owned by the Maran brothers, from participating in bidding for FM radio spectrum in an upcoming auction has created a political furore in Tamil Nadu. The ministry also announced in June that it would not renew the group’s security licence when it expired on December 2. A TV channel needs this licence to go on air.

The ministry justified its decision by citing pending criminal cases against former union telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and his brother, Kalanidhi Maran, who is the chairman of the Sun Group. The DMK was part of the United Progressive Alliance-2 at the centre and was ruling Tamil Nadu, but is now in the opposition in the state.

The Marans are accused in the Aircel Maxis deal connected with the scam concerning the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum during the previous, Congress-led government’s tenure. The CBI filed a chargesheet against them last August in a special trial court in New Delhi, where the case is coming up this August 3 before judge OP Saini, who is hearing the 2G cases.

In April, as a fallout of this case, the enforcement directorate attached property worth Rs742 crores belonging to the brothers. Acting on an appeal filed by the Marans, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed the attachment on July 10 and has referred the case to the bench monitoring the 2G case, headed by Chief Justice HL Dattu. This case is coming up on July 23.

The Marans are also accused in a private telephone exchange case. The CBI has accused Dayananidhi Maran of using 322 international telephone lines for Sun TV while he was telecommunications minister between 2004 and 2007,

The CBI moved the Madras High Court in the last week of June to cancel the anticipatory bail granted to Dayanidhi Maran in this case, saying that he had not cooperated when its officers had questioned him in the first week of July for three days at its premises, and interrogating him in custody was therefore necessary. This petition is coming up this week before a single judge.

Action and reaction

After lying low for some time, the Sun Group has decided to hit back. Since July 17 it has been airing interviews with leaders from a variety of political parties who are condemning the home ministry’s decision. These leaders include not only the DMK president M Karunanidhi, the Marans’ granduncle, but also leaders belonging to the Congress, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Patali Makkal Katchi and Left parties. Except the state’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bharatiya Janata Party, other political parties have condemned the ministry’s decision as an assault on the freedom of expression.

The Sun Group filed a petition in the Madras High Court on Monday challenging the union home ministry's refusal to allow it to take part in the FM Phase III auction, and sought a direction to permit its participation in the upcoming round.  The petition is likely to come up for hearing in three to four days.

Intellectuals and activists have not openly condemned the home ministry’s decision, but there is disquiet about it. “This is a dangerous precedent,” said a senior professor at Madras University who did not wish to be named. “Today people are keeping quiet because the target is the Sun Group, whose past is such that no one will support them. But tomorrow anyone else could be the target. That’s the danger.”

But other television channels have a slightly different perspective, given that many have accused the Marans of having stymied competition. A Tamil channel, Polimer TV, has launched a counter-attack on the Sun Group’s interviews. From July 18, it started telecasting programmes in which it asked why these political parties had kept quiet when the Marans-owned Kal Cables had blocked signals of rival channels for so many years. It began when the DMK was in power, from 1996 to 2001, and from 2006 to 2011. They were also part of the ruling coalition at the centre from June 1996 to February 1998, again from April 1999 to December 2003, and from 2004 to 2013, each under a different dispensation.

“Kal Cables had the monopoly throughout Tamil Nadu for many years,” PV Kalyanasundaram, managing director of Polymer TV, told in a phone interview. “When we launched our news channel, Kal Cables did not beam our signals. I went to the TDSAT [the appellate body of the telecom regulator] and got an order telling Kal Cables to beam our signals. They still blocked our signals. So why are political parties talking about the freedom of speech now? Where were they when other channels were blocked?”

The issue of Marans dominating cable TV distribution in Tamil Nadu is not new. In its 2011 assembly manifesto, the AIADMK vowed to end this monopoly. In September 2011, the party’s chief minister Jayalalithaa launched the Arasu Cable business, and said: “For Rs 70 a month, people can enjoy more than 90 channels. So far, the money went to one family, but here after it will come to the state exchequer, and we are fulfilling our poll promise of breaking that monopoly.”