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Official Truth as Judicial Truth, via the Media

Truth, via the Media December 13, Terror over Democracy by Nirmalangshu Mukherjee; Promilla and Co, New Delhi, 2005;
SUBHENDU DASGUPTA In the process of analysing a contemporary incident

Official Truth as Judicial Truth, via the Media

December 13, Terror over Democracy

by Nirmalangshu Mukherjee; Promilla and Co, New Delhi, 2005; pp 378, Rs 395.

SUBHENDU DASGUPTA

I
n the process of analysing a contemporary incident – the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 – the book under review deals with the current status of civil rights, the legal system, police action, public administration, the media and political parties in India. A foreword written by Noam Chomsky titled ‘Manipulation of Fear’ provides a theoretical background to the empirical analysis. Chomsky has written that the state terrorises citizens through its instruments, supported by nonstate elements like the media, which legitimise the build up, maintenance and use of the state’s repressive power. Enemies, both internal and external are constructed. Steps are then taken to get this accepted by the citizens with help from the media in order to justify state terrorism. Opposition to this structure is termed “anti-national”.

The author, Nirmalangshu Mukherjee has extended this framework of analysis of the repressive power of the state to an explanation of political power. A simple design of the frame is thus – those who want to capture and get into the seat of power also take various steps to remain there, as well as to extend the arena of power. One of these steps is to construct a source of fear – an enemy; make an arrangement to prove the existence of the source of fear and use it as a justification for continued presence in the seat of the power as protector against that enemy.

The then incumbent of power, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance came into office in 1999. Within two years they lost regional elections in various parts of the country. A number of incidents of corruption were unearthed. Internal contradictions within the BJP came to the fore. Implementation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) became quite difficult. Almost nothing was working in their favour. In the face of this situation the BJP used the incident of December 13 to regain what they were in the process of losing.

The enemies of the nation were constructed – Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim terrorists and Muslims. The citizens of India and the party in power were represented in stark opposition to these enemies. Pakistan’s offer of joint probe of the incident was rejected. There was a massive build up of the military at the border. A series of happenings following the incident of the attack on Parliament – POTA was passed as an act, Muslims were killed in Gujarat, and the BJP won the elections in some provinces.

The agenda of power was complete and yet not totally. Power has to exhibit its strength by punishing the enemy. The background was prepared and the usual equations were formulated. The author has presented the elements of such equations. Four individuals were arrested; they were Muslims; thus they were terrorists; as they were Muslim terrorists they were either from or supported by Pakistan; as Pakistan was involved, preparedness for war had to commence; and, as for the Muslim terrorists, their crime having been established, they had to be punished. The police

Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

constructed the “truth”, the media supported it, the special court accepted it, the opposition parties, including the left, approved it, and so did civil society. The four Indian Muslims were punished. The programme was complete, yet there was something left.

A few concerned members of the civil society – lawyers, teachers and intellectuals – took stands against this programme of power. Nirmalangshu Mukherjee has narrated the story of this role played by civil society. He examines extensively the official truth. He has designed his work in the following manner – (1) construction of the official text of truth as proclaimed by the police, (2) examination of the text and finding flaws in it,

  • (3) raising questions about the functioning of the investigation agency (constructor of truth), the media (propagator of truth), the judiciary (acceptor of truth) and the political parties (approver of truth),
  • (4) sketching a number of possible and conflicting scenarios and demanding a fullfledged, transparent public enquiry into the entire affair.
  • Role of the Media

    It is not possible to deal with all of this within the limited space of a review, so we will confine ourselves to Mukherjee’s analysis of the role of the media. The police prepares the points for official briefing, the administration presents the brief to the media, the media believes the official truth and publishes it unverified, civil society gets the knowledge from the media and accepts it unquestioned. Thus the truth travels with uncritical belief from an undemocratic space (police) to a democratic space (civil society) and attains the character of popular faith.

    Presentation of truth in the media, accepting the administrative version with a mixture of media techniques of the use of words – “allegedly”, “believed to have”, “reportedly” – indicates the indirect expression of non-belief, non-truth. But the media do not generally take the responsibility of questioning this “special” kind of official truth or do not take the initiative to search for the real truth. This leads to the suggestion that there are relationships between the media and power – amongst other reasons for this are the benefits the media gets from its association with power, its identification with power.

    The confession of an accused without any legal validity was reported in the media as the truth. The media had not considered or understood the way the confession was recorded. They avoided the scope to expose the undemocratic processes of police action. Connected with this is the market for news. The news of the attack on Parliament was designed as presentation of the “proof” of association of Pakistan, the enemy. There were mental profiles of terrorists as violent and inhuman, reference to religious fanaticism, where Muslims were presented as fanatic and anti-Hindu, hints of resemblance with September 11 by portraying the incident as very serious, part of a global design, and hence the justification to seek help from US, “our” ally, and tell them that they should take action against Pakistan, “our” enemy. People got this information and became convinced. They did not need any other proof. To them a judicial trial was a formality.

    Mukherjee’s book has revealed the operative structure of media in favour of power or as it may be said, as a part of power. Media decide what the readers, the common people, want to know or what they should know. Therefore, as the argument goes, they also decide what the readers should not know. The author has depicted related stories that the media had not reported. The four accused of the case charged under POTA languished in jail, subjected to torture, humiliation and sexual abuse. Afsan gave birth to her child in prison; she also developed psychotic symptoms. Their children dropped out of school, the families had to move from one shelter to another. The eye treatment of Geelani’s little daughter had to be discontinued.

    The truth that the media presented was incomplete, partial, truncated, engineered and designed, and the judgment was made on the basis of this truth. The media came to its judgment before the judicial process started. The administrative truth was passed on to the media; media took the official truth and transformed it into “media truth”. The judiciary accepted the administrative and media truth and translated it into judicial truth; media praised the judicial truth, without attending the trial.

    Overall, the book suggests a function parallel to the judiciary to be performed by members of civil society when a particular case is considered to have a significant impact on the very functioning of democracy in India.

    EPW

    Email: subhendudasgupta@hotmail.com

    Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

    Books Received

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    Deepak Lall: Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twentyfirst Century; Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2006; pp xii + 320, Rs 895.

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    Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

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