On the morning when Arnab Goswami was arrested from his residence, and the right wing establishment including the Union Cabinet Ministers of the BJP led Government of India went on an overdrive protesting the arrest and claiming that this was political vendetta, attack on freedom of press and reminiscent of “emergency”, it reminded me of a local proverb bandied around in Ponnani – which once upon a time had an epidemic of elephantiasis. The proverb goes that a person with two legs afflicted with elephantiasis hiding his legs in water teases a person afflicted with elephantiasis on one leg. It is particularly humorous since BJP governments in the centre and states they rule regularly resort to prosecuting journalists and media houses that are critical of the government. The union government goes a step forward and has set up a 200 member special cell within the I & B Ministry building headed by an Additional Director General to monitor media and tick off/warn erring media. And of course in the Reporters Sans Frontiers Freedom of Press index, India has a proud 142nd place out of 180 countries.
It is in the DNA of every State to dislike its critics – regardless of the kind of government or ideology of its rulers. And every government has harassed its critics at different levels universally. What differs is the levels of impunity and adherence to legal processes. And the anti-dissent DNA streak of the BJP government is not only strong, but also extremely violent. Why just journalists and media, the BJP has mastered the art of using state agencies to silence dissent or even inconvenience through various investigative and prosecutorial agencies that it has control over and no other government can match its technique. So, when in the morning, the BJP ministers rushed to protest the arrest of Goswami without sniffing their own backsides – like someone pointed out on Facebook, it didn’t seem like a journalist was arrested, but rather a member of the BJP national executive was. But that was expected. Arnab Goswami fandom is either a bunch of English speaking brain dead savarna zombies or the political bosses he serves.
But, what we will try to figure out here is the way multitudes of liberals who have often claimed that they detest Goswami (some of them do accept his invitation to TV debates regardless of their professed dislike) coming in droves to condemn the arrest of Goswami. Their primary claim is that Goswami’s arrest is political vendetta because he criticizes the government of Maharashtra and this arrest is an assault on freedom of press.
To understand this, first we have to understand the case for which he was arrested. But before we do that, let us revisit the man himself and his career. Goswami has had a career of a heckler than a journalist. Though, he has lied about it, he has never been a field journalist or even a copy editor. He has sat in the newsroom and heckled people in high decibels – much before he started heeding to His Masters Voice. Recognizing him as a journalist should be taken as an insult by any self respecting journalist – here, the key words are self-respecting. And through the process of heckling in the newsroom, he has managed to create caste and communal polarizations, defame people, urge his subordinates to commit crimes like stalking and trespassing into private property, blackmailing, running parallel trials in his newsroom on sub-judice cases, destroying lives and livelihoods. And he has used the camouflage of freedom of press to commit his atrocities. Freedom of press isn’t about fantasizing, inventing facts, abusing and insulting discussants on live debates. It is about reporting without fear and favor. But, I don’t believe that he will ever be prosecuted for it or even shamed. Perhaps, in the tradition of BJP/RSS that honors Savarkar, he might even become a national hero, if the current union government has its way.
But, that isn’t the point, regardless of all the above, even Arnab Goswami has all the constitutional rights guaranteed to a citizen including legal safeguards offered to journalists (for he has been recognized as such by the law) – nothing more and nothing less. It is in this context that we need to examine this particular arrest. While it is true that he has been having a standoff with the government of Maharashtra on the TRP scam, inciting communal violence, breach of privilege in reporting Sushant Singh Rajput’s case and most importantly – and the only case where he might be said to have some semblance of a defense in attack on freedom of press – the reporting of alleged disaffection of police staff with the Mumbai Commissioner of police – he hasn’t been arrested in any of those cases. He has been arrested in a case that is an outright crime.
The case relates to Anvay Naik allegedly killing his mother Kumud Naik and committing suicide in 2018 because of his financial troubles resulting from three of his debtors viz. Arnab Goswami, Feroze Shaikh and Niteish Sharda, who owed him INR 83 Lakhs, 4 Crores and 55 Crores respectively, not paying. He asks his heirs to collect this money and pay off his creditors, while holding these men directly responsible for their deaths. The suicide note is treated as a dying declaration under Section 32 of the Indian Evidence Act. Dying declarations are sacrosanct in criminal jurisprudence and are based on the maxim nemo mariturus preumuntur mentri meaning that “a man will not meet his maker with a lie on his mouth”. The sanctity of dying declarations are so high that they are exception to even the hearsay rule. The Maharashtra police had to file an FIR as there was a murder and suicide – both unnatural deaths, but closed the case despite the overwhelming prima facie evidence. This happened when the BJP was in power in the state as well as the centre. There were hardly any protests on the closure of this ordinary criminal case without trial at that point of time. Not even too many people who claim progressiveness protested.
This May, the family of Anvay Naik again took the initiative and approached the Home Minister of Maharashtra for reopening the case. Unfortunately, for Goswami, law and order is a state subject and his mentors had no role in the government of Maharashtra to stall it this time. Of course, it would be naïve to put it past the government of Maharashtra to pass over a golden opportunity to harness Goswami with whom it had other issues. If arresting Goswami was political, so was letting him off the hook in 2018. But, the fact remains that he was arrested on a criminal case and not a political case or an issue that involves journalism in any form – including the Goswami version of it. The hypocrisy of Arnab’s mentors and supporters who cheered the persecution and killing of journalists by the State and non-state actors for doing their journalism descending en masse to condemn the Goswami arrest is very understandable. What needs to be unraveled is the hypocrisy of the liberals – particularly those that claim they dislike Goswami, but he needs their support as the arrest is an infringement on freedom of the press.
Let us reread the facts – Goswami did not pay the money he owed someone. That person got into trouble because of that and he committed suicide – what has freedom of the press got to do with it? This is a case that has to go to trial. Goswami was given every right of a citizen, produced before a judge – who categorically stated that his allegation of being assaulted by the police was false based on video evidence and based on prima facie evidence, and remanded him to judicial custody. We must remember that Goswami is socially, politically and economically a very powerful man with powerful mentors within the government of India. He will be able to afford the best of lawyers to bail him out (if not get him out of the case by hook or crook) and he will not remain in jail for too long, while Anvay and Kumud Naik are dead and gone – finished. He will get more opportunities than an average citizen of India to be heard. So, then what is the meaning of all this solidarity heaping?
Is the argument that by virtue of the profession, the journalist should have immunity against criminal prosecution? Well, the Constitution makers didn’t think so. It is a specious argument that says the level of guilt would depend on your position in society which would create entitlements for classes like journalists, lawyers, police, politicians, etc. to get away with any crime – and they already do so in many cases. This is why the outpouring of solidarity is classist and casteist. This argument makes two sets of citizens – one set that can commit crimes with impunity and another that can be targeted even for non-crimes.
Calling a spade a spade, what seems to be the actual basis of the solidarity for Goswami, regardless of how much he is abhorred or detested, is that he is one of them by “caste” and “class” – and the fear that if this could happen to someone as powerful and influential – would any of their non-professional minor or major misdemeanors be dug out? In other words, this is a typical case of birds of a feather!
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.