Saturday, November 17, 2007

Joe Bhattacharjee on the prowl

Ravindra Kumar

In the wake of his party’s adventures in Nandigram, the Chief Minister of West Bengal has found it expedient to issue several outrageous statements. Perhaps the most shocking of these is that Bartaman, a widely-respected Bengali newspaper, has been provocative in the context of Nandigram during the past few months; that if it had been any other State, the government would have shut it down but that he, the Chief Minister, did not wish to dirty his hands by ordering such a shutdown.
Mr Bhattacharjee labours under several misconceptions, not the least of which is an exaggerated estimation of his own legal powers, a fact highlighted by the Calcutta High Court today in the context of the 14 March firings. Mere provocativeness does not militate against the Constitutional right to free speech; indeed it oftentimes embellishes it. But assuming a newspaper has been more than provocative, the law provides several remedies to an aggrieved party, such as a complaint to the Press Council of India or civil and criminal action for defamation.
The law does not however allow a government, any government, the power to shut down a newspaper and Mr Bhattacharjee’s assertion to the contrary is wholly misconceived. The Chief Minister may well believe that he has resisted the temptation to dirty his hands. He might, though, wish to reflect on the fact that by voicing his sentiments, he has done something far worse. Unexpectedly for a politician of such experience as he possesses, he has shown his hand.
Unlike the protections granted to the judiciary and legislatures, the law ~ anticipating perhaps the quality of rulers we would give ourselves ~ does not characterise contempt of an administrator, or of a Chief Minister, as a crime. Mr Bhattacharjee’s comment is beneath contempt, but it is ominous.
For implicit in the statement is the lament ~ a la Henry II ~ who will rid me of this troublesome newspaper? As cadre of his party has demonstrated so emphatically in Nandigram over the past few days, there may well be within the shadowy precincts of a building in Alimuddin Street many more than the four knights necessary for a dastardly deed.
While the law allows no means of shutting down a “provocative” newspaper, there are other ways to accomplish this. Newspaper vendors, many of them affiliated to the Centre for Indian Trade Unions and a part of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist, could claim unavailability of a particular newspaper and inject into households less provocative newspapers. The flow of government advertisement could be re-calibrated. Journalists of a provocative newspaper could be denied access. Tax regulations could be re-examined to target specific newspapers while creating exceptions to protect friendly ones. Government’s capacity for mischief is endless and matched only by its experience in inflicting mischief. By stating that he does not wish to dirty his hands, Mr. Bhattacharjee has telegraphed his intentions. The danger is both clear and present. The Press would do well to pay heed and do whatever it thinks it must to survive ~ either acquiesce as many newspapers have already done, or prepare to resist in such manner as the law permits, to protect the rights guaranteed to it by the Constitution.
The Stalinist we gave birth to, through an act of unimpassioned conception, is on the prowl and by Joe, the evidence of Nandigram suggests his bite is far worse than his bark.