While confirming that he and his wife Payal Nath have separated after 17 years of marriage, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has lashed out at the media for breaking the “undeclared code of conduct” that usually keeps the private lives of public figures out of the headlines.
The separation and rumours of remarriage have been the subject of several newspaper articles and television stories over the last week, with Star News going so far as parking an OB van outside the Akbar Road residence where Ms. Nath lives with the couple's two young sons, and questioning the domestic help when she stepped out of the house.
“I have noted with considerable dismay and anguish the growing tide of speculation in the media about my private life particularly the status of my marriage,” said a statement issued by Mr. Abdullah on Thursday.
He added that “the speculation about motives and about my future course of action are unfounded, untrue and deeply hurtful to all concerned. The stories about my remarriage are completely false and concocted. It is a pity that while repeating these lies, no effort was made to ask me whether any of this is true.”
Sources close to the CM say that journalists called his Srinagar office, falsely claiming they had a copy of the legal notice sent by his estranged wife – when no such notice existed.
Nora Chopra, whose gossipy snippet on Omar's divorce and supposed marriage plans appeared in the Sunday Guardian on September 11, claims she did try to reach Mr. Abdullah and his personal secretary by phone for a response before going to print. She described the unsourced item as a legitimate “political story” since the subject is a Chief Minister, but admits she made no attempt to check the story with the women she identifies as remarriage prospects.
Incidentally, the woman identified as his father's choice of a new bride – the J&K Home Minister Nasir Aslam Wani's sister-in-law according to the Sunday Guardian, his sister according to a September 15 article in Delhi Times, the supplement of Times of India – simply does not exist. Mr. Wani does not have either a sister or sister-in-law.
With newspapers, channels and websites including photographs of the entire family in their stories regarding his separation, Mr. Abdullah bashed the invasion of his children's privacy. “At this point, my concern has to and will remain my young sons who do not deserve to see themselves splashed across the news channels and pages of newspapers in this manner,” his statement said.
While the journalists concerned sought refuge behind the fact that they had not actually mentioned names, the unmoderated comments to their online articles turned into a virtual free for all. With blogs and tweets also blurring the lines between what is fair game and not, the internet is changing the Indian media's unwritten privacy norms.
Apart from Omar Abdullah, other Indian politicians who have faced mainstream media interest in their private lives are former Minister and novelist Shashi Tharoor, and MP and former cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin. And then of course, there is the case of India's most eligible bachelor, Rahul Gandhi, whose love life evokes much interest in gossip circles but has not made it into print since his first few months in politics in 2004.
“There seem to be different standards at work here. The Gandhi family is allowed its privacy but lesser mortals are not,” says Sevanti Ninan, who runs the media watchdog website The Hoot. Even the secrecy shrouding the recent surgery of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was treated with deferential respect by the media.