| Madam disposes
A most reassuring spectacle, the national media as a body rising in furious protest against the authoritarian goings-on in Tamil Nadu. The speaker of the state assembly, a Jayalalithaa acolyte; poor fellow, he has to do her bidding. Or, more often than not, he and his fellow-creatures have to anticipate Madamís wishes and act accordingly. Parliamentary privilege is what you define it to be and the presiding officer, if he is sufficiently bloody-minded, is in a position to punish, altogether arbitrarily, just any member of the legislative assembly and, for that matter, any individual whose face Madam does not approve of. Such an arbitrary attitude is dangerous in the extreme for democracy: so state the media in unison.
Even so, please wait a while. Arbitrariness of definition can make heavy weather of not only the definition of a speakerís privilege, but also that of essential services or of terrorism. There is not much to choose from, as far as political pigmentation goes, between the two major parties who have taken turns to rule the country from New Delhi. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are also equally responsible for the enactment and enforcement of the Essential Services Maintenance Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. These are national legislations and their ambit runs all over the Union of India; the states are concurrently empowered to apply them.
Madam Jayalalithaa has taken full advantage of the authoritarian possibilities of the two acts. By all means, condemn her, ridicule her standard-bearer, the state assembly speaker. The ire of the national media, however, should really concentrate on those responsible for the enactment of lurid pieces of legislation, which spark the imagination of would-be tinpot dictators. All political parties, barring of course the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have disapproved of the Tamil Nadu outrage. Is there not a hypocrisy lurking though behind this kind of lip-sympathy emerging from different quarters including the Congress and the BJP'
May not yet another question be directed, with humility, at the media as a whole' Newspapers and television channels are currently devoting a considerable segment of space and time to express their collective distress at Tamil Naduís assault on the press. Righteous indignation is bubbling over. But it will do no harm to indulge in a modest memory-refresher course. Barely two months ago, in Tamil Nadu itself, the state government invoked the provisions of the ESMA to dismiss from service and, at the same time, put under arrest, close to four hundred thousand government employees and teachers. There could be no grosser instance of arbitrariness, nor any grosser violation of natural justice. A five-line circular was considered adequate to put out of employment hundreds of thousands of wage-earners. Few tears were, however, shed by the national press at the plight of the dismissed teachers and government employees. Those who were deprived of their jobs received no justice from the judiciary either; a division bench of the Supreme Court was firmly of the view that those drawing emoluments from the government have no right to go on strike. According to latest information, that decision is to be reviewed by the constitutional bench of the nationís highest judiciary. Meanwhile, those 400,000 employees have gone through the experience of perdition: as directed by the Supreme Court, they have been forced to seek forgiveness from the chief minister. She has not granted a blanket pardon; she has picked and chosen, and taken back only those her whimsy favoured. The circumstances have been made murkier by another development in a different part of the country: a suo motu verdict of a Calcutta high court judge, never mind Article 19 of the Constitution, has slapped a ban on dawn-to-dusk processions and rallies.
By and large, the media have strongly supported both judicial decisions; much editorial froth and presentational savvy have been expended to stress the necessity and the desirability of discipline and a work-culture; otherwise there was no hope for the nation to reap the heavenly benefits of globalization and liberalization. The message sent out by the media is unequivocal: whoever is not disciplined, whoever revolts against the authorities, whatever the cause, deserves to be sternly dealt with.
This has been the up-to-the-minute track record of the nationís media. Now suppose the campaign unleashed against her leaves Madam Jayalalithaa unimpressed. Suppose, too, that the BJP regime in New Delhi, for diverse reasons, chooses to follow the line of least resistance, and decides not to lift even the littlest finger to rein in the Tamil Nadu chief minister. Since she will continue to consider herself the monarch of all she surveys, she could, even while everyone is waiting for the Supreme Courtís final verdict, decide to teach the tribe of journalists a further, harsher lesson. Journalists themselves would be the first to claim that the media represent an essential service. Madam J might, very conveniently, pronounce that, in organizing the protests and rallies against her, they have been guilty of dereliction of their duty, which is an essential service. She would therefore have no compunction to prohibit such rallies and, invoking the ESMA, place under arrest the protesting journalists. Should she venture to take this step, members of the press would find themselves in the same position as the 400,000 government employees and teachers who were earlier at the receiving end of Madamís treatment.
One or two leading spokesmen on behalf of the media have been known to comment in the wake of Jayalalithaaís latest initiative that she has swallowed more than she would be able to chew; journalists are not public servants, they could not be cowed down in the manner teachers and government employees have been. But you never know, once the arm of the Maintenance of ESMA is extended over them, even members of the press could find themselves visited by the same fate as visited the government employees and be made to cool their heels in prison.
And why stop here' Never underestimate Madam. Vaiko Gopalsamy is languishing in a Tamil Nadu prison for more than a year. Madam took him in under POTA, on the ground that he had, in a public meeting, expressed some verbal sympathies for the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This was regarded as guilt by association. Apparently the provisions of the POTA are so elastic that even if, in course of slumber, an individual experiences a dream sequence where the heroine happens to be a Tamil Tigress, and he mentions the gist of the dream to a neighbour, he would be reckoned as a terrorist and would get arrested.
In her present mood, the Tamil Nadu chief minister is quite capable of making use of even the POTA to nab one or two journalists who, as per Chepauk gossip, passed one or two snide comments on Madamís inventory of saris and jewels; fomenting disaffection against her could be defined as terror. So we are back to John Donne ó ďnever send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.Ē Constituents of the media are under siege. They deserve, and are receiving, all the sympathy the nation can marshal. Overtly authoritarian behaviour cannot however be stopped through piecemeal actions. It is incongruous logic to assume that hapless government employees could be thrown to the wolves ó after all, they are an inferior species ó while those belonging to the noble profession of the printing press in particular and the media in general must remain unharmed. Arbitrary legislations are, by their very nature, featured by arbitrary jurisdiction. It is possible to invest the definition of an essential service or terrorism with infinite variety. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the assessment of criminality similarly is the exclusive privilege of the one who does the assessing.
The conclusion is obvious. Either we have a democratic society, with democratic institutions and a foolproof legal system, or we cross over to an out-and-out authoritarian order. Once a compromise is effected with the procedures of democratic functioning including the rule of law, we are on a turbulent sea. How do we know what Madam Jayalalithaa is doing today will not be repeated, in toto, by a BJP or a Congress government either at the Centre or in some state on a not-too-distant future occasion' Despots are not born, despots turn into despots because the ambience allows them to, and, among others, the media too contribute to this ambience.