By Swapan Dasgupta
Next to playing God, contemporary journalism is built on the principles of infallibility and public gullibility. Journalists and pompous editors are disinclined to admit that, being humans, they too can make mistakes and commit errors of judgment. More crucially, a misplaced sense of self-esteem has proved inimical to a sense of contrition. Like love, journalism usually means never having to say you are sorry.
Of course, honest mistakes can and do happen. Since information is subject to human interventions and interpretation, the scope for being misled by 'sources' loath to see Yudhisthir as a role model, is enormous. This may explain why old-fashioned practitioners of the trade strove to highlight the important distinction between verified reality and unsubstantiated claims or allegations. Both have a place in reportage but only when it is clear which is which.
One of the casualties of the tabloid culture and popular TV is that scepticism (I'd even say cynicism) has been replaced by certitude. Like the old Bollywood potboilers, the media seems to be driven by a macabre desire to divide humankind into the good and the bad—with the media, naturally, on the side of their chosen good. This undaunted sense of partisanship (depending on political preferences, nationality and commerce) is compounded by some robust demonology that transforms the 'bad' into both the 'ugly' and the 'evil'.
In a made-in-media society, this misplaced self-righteousness can have a hideously distorting effect on public discourse. Journalists are naturally dependant on non-attributable 'sources' for both insider information and perspectives. The problem, however, begins when the 'sources' start taking over the finished product. This seems to be happening in India with alarming frequency, especially now that the 'sources' have got it into their heads that they are not going to be held accountable for anything they dish out to news-hungry journalists in a fiercely competitive environment. The unending quest for the 'exclusive' has turned a large section of the media into stenographers. It has become captives to official dictation.
In the past 48 hours, India has witnessed a fierce trial by media targeting the favourite ogre of the liberal consensus: the Government of Gujarat. The CBI has charged Amit Shah, one of Chief Minister Narendra Modi's closest political associates, of a direct hand in the 'encounter deaths' of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi and his associate Tulsiram Prajapati. It has alleged that Shah, who was Minister of state for Home till his resignation on Saturday, conspired to kill Sohrabuddin, not because he was a suspected terrorist intent on killing Modi—the police in Madhya Pradesh had recovered some 300 AK47s from his home—but because he was running a protection and extortion racket with his favourite police officers. It has been suggested that Shah targeted Sohrabuddin at the behest of some harassed marble traders of Rajasthan. Prajapati and Kauserbi were on the other hand killed because they knew too much.
These are grave charges, particularly when levelled against a senior political functionary. It is almost akin to Home Minister P. Chidambaram or his Andhra Pradesh counterpart being formally charged with organising an 'encounter' killing of the CPI(Maoist) politburo member Azad and 'journalist' Pandey. If these charges are upheld by the courts they would undeniably constitute a damning indictment of the state government.
For the moment, however, the CBI's voluminous chargesheet is at the level of accusations. Shah hasn't yet presented his defence, and nor has the investigation been endorsed by the Supreme Court which is monitoring the case. On the contrary, the BJP has charged the CBI of being a compliant arm of the Congress.
Modi's public proclamation of Shah's innocence and the BJP's decision to throw its political weight rests on the belief that Shah has been targeted on flimsy grounds, perhaps as a prelude to a full-scale legal assault on Modi.
The BJP leaders who have examined the evidence say that the case against Shah is based on three substantive points. First, it is claimed that Shah was in constant telephonic contact with D.G. Vanzara, the police officer charged with the 'encounter' killings. However, there is nothing in the records to indicate that on the days Sohrabuddin and Prajapati were killed, Shah spoke to either Vanzara or the other policemen charged with the killings.
Secondly, the CBI has relied on the testimony of Raman Patel and Dasrath Patel, two 'history-sheeters' who claimed that they met Shah to get cases against them under the Gujarat act against anti-socials removed. In that meeting, Shah is apparently said to have told these complete strangers that Sohrabuddin had to be eliminated for political reasons.
The BJP claims that there are no cases under the anti-social behaviour law against the two Patels and neither is there any record of any meeting of Shah with them. Moreover, as is well known in Gujarat, Shah is extremely taciturn and not given to boasting.
Finally, the CBI has relied on the testimony of a jailed policeman who claims that a phone call Vanjara received (said to be on the day Kauserbi disappeared) was "presumably" from Shah. There are apparently no records to substantiate the claim.
The weight of the evidence against Shah will be assessed by the trial court. What is clear is that the CBI charges don't amount to an open and shut case which can be decided by a media combing the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. There have been enough instances of tall claims made by authorities being effortlessly punctured in courts. However, since the legal process is lengthy, the mismatch between reality and claim rarely get reported. Media certitude is frequently shown to be baseless but who remembers what was said or printed three years ago?
This may be why it is rewarding to play stenographer to those who are politically on top today. Tomorrow's flip-flop is another day.