In India, Arrests and Raids Expose Limits on Press Freedom
As political cartoons go, it was fairly mild. “A harmless, innocent joke,” the man who published it said.
It appeared on the cover of Ananda Vikadan, a popular Tamil-language weekly magazine, and it showed two greasy-haired, shifty-eyed men seated on a stage. A man in the audience, speaking to a friend, provided the caption:
“The one who looks like a pickpocket is a state assemblyman. The one who looks like an armed robber is a state minister.”
This is tame stuff in light of the centuries-old tradition of political cartooning, but it was enough to land Srinivasan Balasumbramaniam, the magazine’s publisher, in the Madras central jail.
The cartoon had driven P.H. Pandian, Speaker of the state legislature of Tamil Nadu, into a sputtering rage. “All journalists are scoundrels,” he bellowed, and demanded an apology from Balasumbramaniam. When no apology came, the legislature ordered Balasumbramaniam to jail for three months of “rigorous imprisonment.”
A national furor ensued, and Balasumbramaniam was released after just three days behind bars.
Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram paved the way for the release by apologizing to Pandian “on behalf” of Balasumbramaniam, who, he pointed out, came from a good Tamil family.
Meanwhile, Pandian, a prominent Madras lawyer when he is not holding forth in the state legislature, tried to expunge his intemperate remarks from the record.
The Tamil Nadu affair, together with another recent case in New Delhi in which government investigators raided the home of the publisher of the Indian Express Group, the country’s largest newspaper chain, has raised serious questions about freedom of the press in India--for the first time since the infamous “emergency rule” of 1975-77 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
“There has been a steady tightening of the screws on the press,” said K. R. Sunder Rajan, a free-lance reporter who was jailed during the emergency period. “Journalists have been finding it increasingly difficult to operate, especially in Tamil Nadu.”
Under the emergency, foreign correspondents were expelled, several Indian journalists were jailed and newspapers, including the Indian Express, were shut down.
Few Indian journalists think the situation today is anywhere near as serious as during the emergency. India, almost alone in the Third World, has an open and vigorous press. Editors and reporters for the nation’s 20,758 newspapers and magazines, which appear in 91 languages, work under relatively few restrictions on what they can say about their government and government leaders.
For example, a political analysis in the Indian Express recently accused Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of being a liar. And in the Balasumbramaniam case, the Hindustan Times, expressing solidarity with the jailed magazine publisher, reprinted the offending cartoon.
A Hindu newspaper here in Madras published a cartoon depicting the state’s chief minister as Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, who “sentences first and gives verdicts afterwards.”
“Many sections of our press,” said H. K. Dua, executive editor of the Delhi-based Hindustan Times, “have held ability and willingness to be independent to a degree that is not available in other Third World countries.”
What limitations the Indian press does have appear to be largely self-imposed. Few newspapers, for example, criticize Indian foreign policy. Most newspapers voluntarily do not identify the religion or caste of those involved in ethnic conflicts.
Journalists who have challenged this convention have found themselves in hot water. The magazine Surya, once pro-Indira Gandhi but now affiliated with the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, published photographs of genocidal massacres--Hindus killing Sikhs--after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October, 1984.
Because of the pictures, and articles as well, the magazine and its reporters have been charged by the government with three counts of sedition and hauled into court on more than 300 other complaints.
Surya’s publisher, J. K. Jain, a prominent New Delhi physician, continues to fight the government on this issue.
“The government does not have a monopoly on the national interest,” Jain said.
If the Indian press was not vigilant in protecting its rights before, the jailing in Madras awakened it with a start.
“This was actually a blessing in disguise,” said Balasumbramaniam, now back in his office after being given a hero’s welcome by his staff. “For the past two years the politicians have been especially harsh on the press here. But the press became unified over this issue.”
Despite the gravity of the case in Tamil Nadu, a more serious threat to press freedom may have taken place earlier, in New Delhi.
On March 13, agents of the Central Bureau of Investigation, ostensibly looking for a confidential government file, raided the home of Ramnath Goenka, chairman of the Indian Express Group. That same evening, agents arrested and jailed S. Gurumurthy, a young adviser to Goenka and occasional writer for his newspaper.
Although government investigators said the timing was coincidental, the raid took place on the day that the Express published a confidential letter from President Zail Singh to Prime Minister Gandhi in which Singh detailed his grievances against Gandhi.
“The timing was too glaring to be missed,” the Editors’ Guild said in a statement that condemned the raid as “Rajiv Gandhi’s government’s attempt to muzzle the press.”
But there were other, more serious press issues at stake. The raid followed a months-long campaign by the Express against a Bombay textile corporation with strong national political connections.
One article in the campaign, written by Gurumurthy, quoted extensively from confidential government reports, detailing special favors granted the Bombay textile firm by members of the Gandhi government, including a former finance minister.
“What they did was scandalous,” Express editor Suman Dubey said. “Quoting from government documents is routine. These were not the Pentagon Papers.
“Instead of doing something about the bandicoots (a large rat found in this part of the world), they have come after us.”