SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: Can a newspaper (or magazine or website) publish anything in the name of a “debate”? Is such content questionable even when it does not directly spark trouble on the ground? And, in the eyes of the law, who is to be held responsible for the publication of such content?
These are old questions in journalism, but they gain added significance in the wake of police in the communally sensitive coastal city of Mangalore taking cognisance of two separate complaints against Vijaya Karnataka, a Kannada newspaper owned by The Times of India group, for two different articles published on two different dates.
Besides the overall editor of the paper, the resident editor, and the author of the piece, the police have registered a complaint against the directors of the Times of India subsidiary that publishes Vijaya Karnataka, in the second of the two cases. They have been charged with “spreading hatred” among the people and “disturbing peace in society”, both non-bailable offences under two different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Ironically, churches, convents and prayer halls in Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka had been attacked in September last year after Hindutva activists stumbled upon Christian literature (Satya Darshini) that allegedly mocked Hindu gods. This was deemed to be offensive to Hindus and the violence was sought to be justified in the name of the perceived injury to Hindu sentiment.
The boot is now on the other foot.
The first case is pretty straight forward and has been widely reported. On 27 December 2008, the Mangalore South police station, registered a case (FIR No 343, dated 27-12-2008) in connection with an article written by the noted Kannada author S.L. Bhyrappa in Vijaya Karnataka on 16 October 2008.
The case was registered on a complaint filed by P. B. D’Sa, president of the Dakshina Kannada unit of Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
In his complaint, D’Sa alleged the article titled ‘Inthaha ghatane bere yava deshadalli nadedeethu‘ (In which other country would such an incident take place?) incited communal feelings, in the wake of the attack on churches in Karnataka in September last year.
Apparently, the article by Bhyrappa cast doubts on “the integrity of Mother Teresa and a number of other Christian saints in reference to their contribution to humanity. The complaint said the article had hurt the feelings of Christians, and pointed to a number of demonstrations and jathas taken out by Christians against it.
The local diocese had termed the article “communally provocative” when it was published.
The first complaint named Vijaya Karnataka‘s editor Vishweshwar Bhat, its Mangalore edition resident editor U.K. Kumaranath, and printer and publisher, K.R. Ramesh, besides Bhyrappa.
But it is the second complaint, booked by the Mangalore North police six days later, on 2 January 2009, that is drawing the attention of ToI bosses in Bombay and Delhi.
This case (FIR No. 2, dated 2-1-2009) deals with an article written by Pratap Simha, a sub-editor with the paper who writes a weekly column titled Betthale Jagaththu (naked world) every Saturday on the editorial page, and published on 20 September 2008.
The complainant in this case is James Louis, vice-president of the Bharathiya Crista Seva Sanghatane (BCSS). And here, too, the charges are identical: of endorsing the bashing of the minority community and seeking to create discord among various communities.
Predictably, the author of the article (Simha), the editor of the paper (Bhat), the resident editor (Kumaranath) and the printer (Ramesh) have been named in this complaint. But also standing “accused” are five directors of Vijayanand Printers Limited (VPL), the Times of India subsidiary that publishes the paper: Ravi Dhariwal, Chinnen Das, Anand Sankeshwar, Bhaskar Das, and Probal Ghoshal.
Those who have seen the complaint say it does not mention why the ToI directors have been named as accused. All it says is that they are all responsible for the publication of the article.
The complaint refers to objectionable parts of the article ‘Haagantha helidavanu yaava Bajarangiyu alla‘ (the person who said so is not a Bajrang Dal man) and alleges that the article is a “deliberate” attempt to instigate the sentiments of the Hindu community against the Christian community and to create hatred towards Christians.
The complaint raises objections to paragraphs 6, 11 and 12 and says it can “poison the minds of the readers and hurt the sentiments of Christians.
In particular, it objects to the question “How will Christ help the people when he couldn’t help himself?” and the statement “Who will keep silent when offensive statements are made about their religion and is attacked?”
This, according to the complainant, justifies the attacks on the churches and prayer halls in Karnataka, coming as they did shortly after the Christian community was targeted in Kandhamal in Orissa.
It says paragraph 12 particularly instigates the people against the Christian community and justifies all the violence reported against minorities. Apparently the article in question contained the statement, “do not keep quiet when someone comes to your locality with the intention of conversion. Receive the books that they give and then teach them a lesson“.
The case against the author, editors, printer and directors has been registered under section 153, 153A, 153B and 295A read with section 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Section 153 of IPC reads: “Wantonly giving provocation with the intent to cause riot—if rioting be committed, if not committed.” Section 153A reads: “Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 153B reads: “Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration.”
Section 295 saying injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class has to be read with the IPC section 34 which says: Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.
Media observers say the mere filing of FIRs against the editor, printer, publisher, author/s and directors of the company alleging a plot to disturb communal amity does not amount to much, especially when the attack on the churches preceded the date of publication.
Moreover, the police have to investigate the complaints and only later contemplate or take further action.
PUCL’s D’Sa who accompanied the second complainant to the police station has been quoted as saying that the police inspector told them he would investigate whether the article did create any “negative ripples” in society. That is easier said than done.
But it is the attempt to implicate the directors in the case that is eliciting attention. Are the directors, all of them non-journalists, responsible for the publication of the content when four of the five directors cannot speak, read, write or understand the Kannada language?
Or is this just an attempt to cause pin pricks to them because a mainstream, mass-circulation Kannada publication owned by the country’s largest print media house is seen to have become the inhouse journal of the Hindutva herd?
The two cases should also be viewed against the backdrop of Mangalore emerging as a vortex of communalism into which journalists have not just been sucked in but are active players and participants.
On either side of the communal divide on the west coast, leading publications have played a not inconsiderable role in whipping up the surcharged communal atmosphere with inflammatory headlines and incendiary content. The circulations are soaring, but the faultline is growing wider and wider.
Trucks carrying Karavali Ale, a Kannada newspaper published from Mangalore, were attacked last month and its copies burnt allegedly by Bajrang Dal activists for its criticism of their role in the attack on the churches in September. The Press Council of India has had to intervene after the local police refused to register the paper’s complaints.
In March 2007, the paper’s editor B.V. Seetharam was arrested on the ground that his writings promoted religious hatred. Seetharam was arrested under Sections 153A, 153 B and 295A of the IPC—all non-bailable offences.
Ironically, the Vijaya Karnataka editors, the authors, and ToI directors have been booked under the same sections of the IPC.
But the larger question is of the role of the media in creating the ground for “public debate” on a sensitive issue like “conversions”.
Is the publication of any kind of content OK in the name of a public debate? Is it really the business of the media to maintain communal and societal peace and harmony, or is it of the “State”? Is it beyond the function of a newspaper or a writer to provoke readers because somebody might find it offensive?
If Christian literature published decades ago can be suddenly ferreted out and declared offensive to Hindus, are Christians wrong in finding offence in yesterday’s newspaper? Is it wrong for Muslims to feel offence if the Danish cartoons are republished in the name of “debate”?
Who was that genius who said an eye for an eye only makes the whole world go blind?