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JUST ANOTHER STORM IN THE HOUSE
N. Ram and V. Jayanth addressing the press, November 12

It may be some time before the full import of the high drama of November 7 in the Tamil Nadu assembly — when five senior journalists of The Hindu and the editor of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s organ, Murasoli, were sentenced to 15 days in jail for “gross breach of privilege” of the house — can be understood.

The sequence of events since J. Jayalalithaa’s return to power in the state in May 2001 till now reveals a complex pattern which ultimately precipitated the showdown between the government and the media on November 7.

In May, 2001, the assembly election results began pouring in, indicating the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s landslide victory. Jayalalithaa was sworn in as chief minister on May 14, although she was not a member of the legislature yet. Her nomination papers had been rejected earlier following court convictions in some corruption cases. But the first indications of a strained relationship between the new government and The Hindu were already visible.

The newspaper’s executive editor, Malini Parthasarathy, had triggered off a debate in its columns and advocated a “renunciatory ethic” to Jayalalithaa, arguing that the latter should not rush to hold the sceptre — as a few basics such as “democratic propriety” and “political morality” were involved — until Amma was absolved of the charges by the courts.

A dramatic turn came in June 2001, with the midnight arrests of the DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, his son, M.K. Stalin, and Union ministers, Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu, by the police force of the AIADMK government, for their alleged links with the Rs 12 crore flyover scam. The operation had echoes of the Emergency. Since then, the usually sober Hindu has been critical of the chief minister’s policies, particularly when Amma came up with controversial legislations like the bill to ban forcible religious conversions.

That the rulers were targeting The Hindu was quite evident then as now, amid a slew of defamation cases filed against the paper by Jayalalithaa’s government. The latest, the seventeenth one, was slapped on the day the Supreme Court stayed the arrest warrants issued by the assembly speaker, K. Kalimuthu, against the senior journalists including the newspaper’s editor, N. Ravi, and its publisher, the 70-year-old S. Rangarajan.

But Parthasarathy would have scarcely imagined — although the attack on the Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar for an article he wrote over a year ago should have held some hints — that Jayalalithaa’s police would be entering the premises of The Hindu looking for her. They then searched her house, not sparing even her cupboards, and also the houses of some other executive editorial members. The publisher-editor of Murasoli, S. Selvam, was also sentenced for having carried a Tamil translation of The Hindu’s edit, “Rising intolerance”, published on April 25, 2003, for which the assembly’s privileges committee had recommended the penalty.

The editorial pertained to some proceedings in the house and was based on an article and news reports earlier written by two senior journalists, the associate editor and chief of bureau, V. Jayanth, and the special correspondent, Radha Venkatesan, who had covered the assembly proceedings in question.

Jayalalithaa’s hypersensitivity to any form of criticism in the press is not unknown. She has always entertained the idea that she, a woman, has had to fight all the way to reach the top of Tamil Nadu politics, although she had no political legacy to speak of, unlike Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, who had power handed to them on a platter.

In her second term as chief minister (or rather, her third term as she could only contest the Andipatti by-poll in February 2002 and come back as an elected member of the house and chief minister after the Madras high court cleared her in the Tansi land deal and Pleasant Stay Hotel cases), Jayalalithaa was piqued that her “able handling” of the state’s financial crisis did not get a good press.

But this was largely the fault of Jayalalithaa herself, as hardly any of the officers in her government are accessible even for routine “background briefings”. Even the enthusiastic reporters, including those from the television, who often thronged the portico as she came out of her office in Fort St George, in the hope of getting a quote or two, were once told to keep off the area. This added to the informational opacity of the state government.

Looking at the general trend of the Tamil Nadu assembly’s proceedings in the last ten years or so, it can be said that it has always been touchy, particularly in matters related to the privileges of its members and that of the legislature as a whole.

Just two examples would suffice to illustrate this. First, the former deputy speaker and DMK legislator, Paruthi Ilamvazhuthi, was sentenced to a 30-day jail term for his “gross misconduct” in the house in the just-concluded monsoon session. Funnily enough, he was already suspended for the whole of the last budget session for the same “offence”.

Second, during the previous AIADMK regime from 1991 to 1996, when Sedapatti R. Muthiah was the speaker, as many as 21 “notices of privilege” including against several newspapers and magazines such as the Illustrated Weekly of India, were raised in the assembly. Of these, 11 cases were referred to the privileges committee. Even the official media organs, the All India Radio and Doordarshan, have been served privilege notices, and in one case, the editor of the Tamil daily, Dinakaran, was arrested and lodged in jail.

The predominantly bipolar nature of state politics — political leadership in the last few decades has been provided alternately by the DMK and the AIADMK — is also a contributing factor to the current mess.

While the DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, is a much-mellowed man and has taken criticisms in his stride, it is the dominating, charismatic leadership of Jayalalithaa which has helped the AIADMK turn around since the death of the actor-turned politician, M.G. Ramachandran.

Jayalalithaa recently remarked that people anyway do not care much for newspapers, with television channels stealing the show. However, her calculations seem to have gone wrong somewhere. For, never before has there been such overwhelming protests, from the media as well as the general public, across the country when it comes to differences between the government of the day and the media.

Jayalalithaa was forced to publicly declare that her government will adhere to the Supreme Court’s order staying the assembly’s arrest warrants against the journalists. But she did so only after the editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N. Ram, wrote to the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, seeking Central security for its office premises and staff.

It is this marked change in the attitude of the people and members of the media that appears to have made the difference this time. If the people of the state had refused to take any interest in the arrests, thinking it was none of their business, the November 7 incidents would have passed off as just another day’s stormy proceedings.

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