Two completely unrelated events highlight the climate of intimidation in which the Indian media operates. In Ahmedabad, a senior police officer — outraged by a string of stories about his alleged role in a police-criminal nexus — slaps a sedition case against the Times of India. And in Mumbai, the residence of the Editor of Loksatta, is attacked because an editorial in the leading Marathi daily criticised the Maharashtra government’s decision to install a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji off Marine Drive in the Arabian Sea. What is common in the two events is the attitude of intolerance and the belief that the media can be threatened and browbeaten into silence by a misuse of the law or an abuse of political power. It is shocking that O.P. Mathur, Ahmedabad’s new Commissioner of Police, should have responded to reports about him by slapping sedition charges against the Resident Editor and the reporter of the Times of India. Sedition laws, which are obsolete and have been repealed in many countries, have related historically to such things as subverting the government and disturbing the tranquillity of the state; Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines the offence as attempts to bring “hatred or contempt…or excite disaffection towards, the Government.” The Times of India’s articles on Mr. Mathur drew attention to unverified claims, found in court records, of his alleged links with a particular underworld don. To suggest that these reports constituted an attempt to subvert the state defies all logic. If they have unfairly damaged Mr. Mathur’s personal reputation, there are ways of redress and of establishing the truth, as, for instance, through contradictions and public responses and even through a defamation suit.
Similarly, the proper course for those activists who vandalised the residence of Loksatta’s Kumar Ketkar was to write ‘Letters to the Editor’ disagreeing with the newspaper’s stance. Newspapers have a right — indeed also a duty — to express themselves strongly and unequivocally on matters of public interest. They are not expected to stake out positions that please those in political life, those in power, or even those who constitute the majority. Intolerance against the written word is commonly justified in this country by invoking hurt sentiment. Ostensibly, it was Mr. Mathur’s sense of personal injury that led him to abuse a legal provision to intimidate those who embarrassed him. Similarly, those who were deeply offended by his newspaper’s editorial position supposedly carried out the attack on Mr. Ketkar’s residence. The sorry truth is that hurt sentiment in this country has become a cynical justification for those who want to bend the law or to take it into their own hands.