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The Rediff Interview/The Hindu Editor-in-Chief N Ram
November 19, 2003
The Tamil Nadu assembly speaker's decision to issue warrants against the publisher, editor, managing editor and other journalists at The Hindu and also the editor of Murasoli has created a furore all over India.
Leading the battle against the decision was the the 125-year-old newspaper's Editor-in-Chief N Ram.
Ram discussed the issues with Special Contributing Correspondent Shobha Warrier in an exclusive interview.
Did you have an inkling, even before the Tamil Nadu police descended on The Hindu office, of the things to come? I ask this question because all the journalists wanted by the police had disappeared by then.
In the morning, a friend heard from an inside source that the (Tamil Nadu assembly) privileges committee was to recommend some punishment. Then, the source said, (state chief minister) Jayalalithaa would intervene and magnanimously say, since I am involved, there is no need to go further. This was what we expected.
Half of what we heard happened. The committee recommended seven days simple imprisonment, and Jayalalitha intervened, as expected, and said it was not needed as she was involved. So, the information was true.
What came as a surprise was the other part which was on the editorial. The committee recommended 14 days imprisonment, and she kept quiet which means, go ahead.
It was cunningly planned for a weekend. We had to take care of the liberty of our people.
Why did you decide to hide them? Why didn't they come out in the open and face the police?
Nobody decided to hide them. We saw it as unconstitutional and illegal. Otherwise, tomorrow, a legislature may say sentence somebody to death or whip him or cut his hands off like in Saudi Arabia, do you expect me to say, go and face it? There is nothing that prevents them from saying so. It is only a question of degree. We don't know how they will treat (executive editor) Malini (Parthasarthy). Rumours were they would rough her up. My uncle (publisher S) Rangarajan is 67 and has had two angioplasty surgeries.
If you say no court can look into it, what will happen tomorrow? The whole Constitution goes for a six. We argued in court, in fact, what is to prevent the speaker of the legislative assembly finding somebody guilty and sentencing (the person) to death and immediately ordering execution through a warrant by the speaker? What is to prevent it? You can say, right to life. The same thing is involved here. We don't know what they will do.
Who knows whether Rangarajan would survive the way the police behaved in Bangalore.
You don't have much trust in the state government machinery and the police?
To put it mildly, yes. The answer is, yes.
Do you feel the time has come to put a leash on the legislative privileges enjoyed by the legislature?
That is why we stood up. Of course, it is not new for me personally. I have witnessed S Balasubramaniam, my friend, editor of Ananda Viketan being sentenced, not even in the assembly. The speaker passed it for publishing a cartoon. That is the Doctrine of Sky-High Powers. He refused to take bail, and went to jail. He became such an issue overnight, even internationally, and then they released him.
He did not keep quiet. He went to court and in 1994, the full bench of the Madras high court not only found the violation of law, principles of natural justice and fundamental rights but ordered compensation. This is the important point. The court said the chief secretary of the government and the secretary of the legislative assembly should ensure that the compensation was paid. And it was paid. He still has the thousand rupees he got, framed.
So, the courts can intervene, and they did very successfully.
Then, it happened to (Illustrated Weekly of India Special Correspondent) K P Sunil.
Despite the successful intervention of the court in those cases, it has happened once again, after nine years.
I want the issue settled.
Who can bell the cat?
We can bell the cat. I will bell the cat. Personally, I am happy to do it. It is not just me, the press in India has to bell the cat. In the press, somebody has to take the initiative, and that initiative can't be taken if there is no challenge.
That is why, despite all the ugly incidents, I look at it as a challenge.
Are you outraged by the behaviour of the police, or do you feel sympathy towards the police who had to execute such orders?
I have no sympathy for the police. That is why repeatedly I said, if you get orders, don't do wrong things. Obey the law. Tell them it's wrong. Despite that, if you are forced to, if I were you, I would quit.
Don't you feel the politicians use the police, bureaucracy, etc to settle scores?
This has not happened with any other government. It is a fact. Whatever mistakes they made, it can't be compared with this. Because they raided our office. We found out that even under the British Raj, this had not happened. Nobody had ever invaded our premises! Then they went to the homes and behaved badly with the women.
It has not happened anywhere else. But the system is strong. I never had any doubt that we would be able to face it. I was not in the least tense. We knew they wouldn't be able to get away with it. It was a misadventure that collapsed very quickly.
The inconvenience caused to our newspaper was tremendous. We had to do the coverage of the events, deal with the police, deal with our employees who were angry, deal with the media and write an editorial! It was quite a lot of stress for everybody.
When did you leave office?
I think at two (in the morning)!
Did this experience remind you of the days you uncovered the Bofors deal?
Bofors was a different thing. Nobody raided our office on Bofors though there was much more at stake; the national
government's survival itself. But whatever faults his government had, Rajiv Gandhi never resorted to this sort o f a thing, though Bofors was one of the causes of his downfall politically. After that also, he was very civil. He took it well, which I admired.
Why is it that politicians in general and Jayalalithaa in particular are intolerant to the press?
That's our editorial, 'Rising intolerance.' Freedom of speech and expression are important issues. The Media Development Foundation organised a national colloquium on criminal defamation, criminal contempt of court and privileges. At that time, we didn't give such importance to privilege because we had forgotten. The last case was against K P Sunil. Somebody exercising his or her freedom of speech and expression getting punished this way is intolerable. And, this is not the first time. Others have done it.
But Tamil Nadu has patented this intolerance. It started before Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, during the time of MGR. But the DMK has never used it, nor the Congress.
The chief minister has offered to comply with Supreme Court orders.
I don't want to make any statements that will complicate the situation. We want this issue to be won. The issue is very simple, whether you can allow a doctrine of Sky-High Powers for the legislature, explicit or implicit, to override or trample upon fundamental rights.
The chief minister accused you of blowing up the situation and twisting it in your favour.
That's absurd because you don't expect a 125-year-old newspaper to remain silent. Did I blow it up? Of course, we
campaigned. The kind of response from all over the country did not please her. It became a huge issue. Everybody sympathised with us and the people involved. More importantly, they saw the issue and felt outraged. Every political party except the AIADMK supported us.
How did we blow it up? If I had continued for a month with the issue and my picture on the front page, you can say that. Did we overdo it? We may have covered intensively for a few days. Even today, I continue to get hundreds of letters from all over the world.
You got this kind of support from all over India because it involved The Hindu. Don't you feel if it had happened to a small newspaper or any other journalist from any other publication, it would not have created this kind of an uproar?
It would not have been the same. Somebody said she has bitten the wrong fish.
In the case of Nakheeran Gopal, a journalist who is in jail, arrested under POTA, there was no campaign to help him.
We took up his issue. I don't agree with his (kind of) journalism but that is a different matter. He wrote to me that I am tortured badly. Nobody has bothered so far. We bothered, but the system has not bothered enough.
Do you feel you should have highlighted his issue more?
We highlighted it a lot. How many editorials we wrote on POTA! As well as Vaiko's case. What did he do? I don't agree with his views on the LTTE. But he repeated what he said as an MP. He repeated the statement in Parliament and at a public meeting. If this is POTA, even Soli Sorabjee said, you can't use it. She is angry with him. They have suffered much more. The response should have been much bigger. The system, the government in Delhi should have taken it up much earlier. They were unable to make up their mind. But in our case, we have not seen anything like it.
Every party wrote to me, the BJP, the VHP. Even Tarun Vijay of the RSS publication has written in support.
Are you happy with the central government's response? The words used by them were quite muted -- concerned, pained, etc.
I am happy with the central government. When I speak to the prime minister, I must be very careful in what I say. I am not going to repeat to the press all that he said. What he said, I put it mildly as 'concerned.' But 'concern' is what it was. Concern can be deep, moderate, whatever. I am not going to describe it. He was concerned about it. He was not happy with it.
Similarly, the deputy prime minister was anguished and pained. George Fernandes said it was worse than the Emergency. All the chief ministers called.
Is not the personal relationship and accessibility you have with all these people a reason for the support you got from various political parties and all the state governments?
The Hindu always has had such a relationship. It started with Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and others. Major newspapers have access. It is a fact. But you must use it properly.
How long do you think this battle will go on?
It depends on them; whether they want to contest this case or give it up. I know we will win. What's the worst thing that could happen? 15 days in jail.
But nobody is going to approve this. If the speaker says I am taking back the warrant, I am speculating, then, we lose an opportunity to have the issue settled. But for the people involved, there's relief.
Either way, we can't lose; we are on a winning wicket.
Photograph: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty ImagesImage: Uday Kuckian