Republic TV is going hammer and tongs at the Maharashtra Police for its action in arresting the channel’s owner and star anchor, Arnab Goswami. The channel claims that this is an attack on journalistic freedom and the Constitional right to free expression. Other journalists also believe that the arrest is petty revenge for Goswami’s raucous criticism of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, other ministers and the Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh.
However, some people have justified the actions of the police, saying that it is poetic justice. For months, Goswami and his channels demanded that actor Rhea Chakraborty should be arrested for abetment after her boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, though there is no credible evidence that she had anything to do with his death. Now, Goswami himself is in jail on charges of driving an interior designer and his mother to kill themselves in 2018 because he allegedly failed to pay the man money due to him.
Some have contended that that this arrest has nothing to do with press freedom because Goswami is not a journalist but a propagandist who amplifies the Bharatiya Janata Party’s line on issues. Others point out that Uttar Pradesh is probably guilty of taking the largest number of coercive steps against journalists. Hence it is ironic that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath took up cudgels on behalf of Goswami, purportedly under the guide of defending media freedom.
Amidst this cacophony, we are miss the most important element of this saga: the attack on the liberty of citizens. Most citizens, irrespective of whether they agreed with Goswami, were clearly unhappy at the treatment accorded to the anchor – especially when the police went to his home early in the morning to arrest them. They believe that the police could have gathered evidence and questioned him before taking coercive action, if necessary. Instead, they acted like bullies displaying their naked power.
Many of Goswami’s critics rightly pointed to the completely unjustified incarceration of people like doctor Kafeel Khan, activist Sudha Bhardwaj, poet Varavara Rao and journalist Siddique Kappan and many other human rights defenders and journalists in a variety of cases. They claim that by being alloted bail hearings by the courts so swiftly, Goswami is receiving special treatent.
I wish this would generate some discussion on the fact that while “bail not jail” should be the guiding philosophy, our police and courts mostly do not adhere to this. While we discuss the treatment meted out to journalists and prominent people , we should give some thought to the common citizen. If we wish to have real rule of law and respect for our fundamental rights and the Constitution, we will have to demand swift access to justice for every citizen.
The draconian laws that allow citizens to be held in jail without hearings must reviewed. We must stop accepting that there can be unconscionable delays in our investigative and judicial processes. It has been shown that by merely filling all sanctioned judicial positions, a time-bound justice system is possible. (Read my article “Clearing India’s huge backlog of legal cases isn’t quite so tough – 6,000 new judges could do it.”)
Instead of feeling outraged only when the VIPs and well-known figures are involved, we should be focussing on the eliminating the root causes of injustice.
We need to remind ourselves about Gandhi’s words: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest woman whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to her. Will she gain anything by it? Will it restore her to a control over her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.