Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Moving on from The Pioneer


My Second Innings Comes to an End.

My long, rather very long, second innings with The Pioneer comes to an end on May 31. My first innings coincided with the years Vinod Mehta was Editor of the paper. The second, and far more rewarding, innings has been with Chandan Mitra at the helm.

I opted for journalism as a career in the summer of 1982. In these 30 years, I have worked for various newspapers (including two of the oldest in India -- The Statesman, founded by Robert Knight in 1875 in Kolkata, and The Pioneer, founded by George Allen in 1865 and originally published from Allahabad),  written for many others. I have been singularly fortunate to have worked with editors with extraordinary professional abilities and human qualities. I have the utmost respect and regard for MJ Akbar, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, Vinod Mehta and Chandan Mitra.

Among them, Chandan, whom I have known for longer than I can recall, shall always enjoy a special place in my heart. He has been a steadfast friend, caring and kind, generous to a fault.

I have always held Chandan in high esteem for his scrupulous adherence to the best traditions of journalism. I am not aware of a single instance of his spiking a story or dressing it up. The credit for the stunning expose on the Great 2G Spectrum Robbery goes as much to him as to my colleague J Gopikrishnan. That’s only one such story; examples abound.

On no occasion has he ever asked me to tweak comments that appear on the Editorial Page, which I looked after. On occasions when a particular comment was perceived to be harsh by individuals or organisations, he did not hesitate to defend the paper’s position. Other Editors are known to have disowned their edit writers at the slightest indication of trouble.

Above all, his long struggle to save The Pioneer from going the way of many newspapers that have ceased to exist due to lack of resources is truly admirable. Lesser mortals would have abandoned ship after the Thapar Group decided to shut down The Pioneer which had stacked up huge losses. He took it over, turned it around, and happily the paper chugs along, small but independent and proud.

To borrow an expression, Chandan is a prince among editors and owners of newspapers.

It could then be asked, why am I leaving The Pioneer? The answer to that question, if truth be told, is simple: To try my luck with new media, specifically digital media. I will share the details as the Mumbai-based project on which I will be working takes form and shape.

I have been associated, directly or indirectly, with print media for three decades. When I began my journey into journalism, it was the hot metal era. From there I have travelled all the way to an age when technology drives media. And technology fascinates me. Indeed, technology has seduced me away from print media.

Yet, it’s difficult to discard the past and disown newspapering which I loved so intensely. A part of me remains irrevocably tied to print media. A 30-year affair can’t just be snuffed out like a candle reduced to a stub. So I propose to continue to write for The Pioneer where Coffee Break shall remain.

I have no hesitation in acknowledging that I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Chandan. As for The Pioneer, my affection for the paper is, and shall remain, limitless.

With Chandan’s blessings and support I embark upon a new path. Had it been otherwise, I wouldn’t have ventured forth. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gujarat denied what Maharashtra has

And Congress wants States to wage war on terrorism!

[Visual shows mayhem caused by serial bombings of July 26, 2008 serial bombings in Ahmedabad]

Duplicity and distrust have become the twin hallmarks of the UPA Government, more precisely the Congress which manages key Ministries and takes decisions without consulting either its allies or stake-holders, namely the States, who are directly impacted by firmans issued from New Delhi. Hence, it does not come as a surprise that Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram, whose boundless arrogance is matched by his limitless capacity for intrigue, should want the State Governments to meekly accept the sweeping powers of the yet-to-be-launched National Counter-Terrorism Centre while refusing to concede their right to strengthen the law and order machinery at their disposal as per the division of powers envisaged in the Constitution.

Mr Chidambaram wants the State Governments, especially those controlled by parties other than the Congress and its allies, to trust the NCTC which has been vested with the extraordinary power to search premises, arrest individuals and prosecute suspects, without taking the local police or law-enforcing agencies, or the State Government concerned for that matter, into confidence. Apart from the fact that it’s a bit thick for him to expect non-Congress Chief Ministers to trust the Congress (nothing good ever came of that), it’s downright disingenuous of him to slyly introduce a new investigative system to tackle ‘federal crimes’, or organised crimes as are committed by foreign and home-grown terrorist organisations and assorted crime syndicates, while disallowing State Governments to put in place laws that will enable them to achieve the same goal without their rights being trampled upon.

A case in point is Mr Chidambaram’s stubborn refusal to allow Gujarat, where the BJP is in power, to have its own anti-organised crime law similar to that which prevails in Maharashtra, where the Congress-NCP alliance is in power. The denial is in sharp contrast to the willingness with which the NDA Government accepted Maharashtra’s demand for what has come to be known by the law’s acronym, MCOCA, or the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. Chief Minister Narendra Modi wants a similar law, and for good reasons too, but despite all efforts, he has failed to secure the UPA Government’s approval. For the second time, the proposed law, really a Bill passed by the State Assembly, has been spiked by the President on the advice of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Ms Pratibha Patil’s refusal to accord her assent to the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Bill comes two years after it was sent to her for the necessary ‘mandatory approval’ by the Governor.

The reason why Ms Patil, who is not known to be averse to the bending of rules and violation of conventions when her own interests are involved, has refused to append her signature to the Bill, is because the State Government has not amended key clauses of the proposed law as demanded by the Ministry of Home Affairs through a Cabinet decision in 2009. Amending the relevant clauses, crucial to make the law a powerful weapon against organised crime and no different from what MCOCA provides for, would have defeated the very purpose for which it is meant. That logic is lost on the UPA Government. It insists that Mr Modi must remove Clause 16, which allows the admissibility of confessional statements of the accused made before a police officer, and Clause 20, which provides that those accused of committing an offence punishable under the proposed law will not be released on bail if the prosecutor opposes it. And since Mr Modi has justifiably refused to ensure compliance with this absurd demand, the Bill has been ‘returned’ once again.

The Bill had met a similar fate in 2009. The Gujarat State Assembly had debated and passed the Bill in 2004 and it was subsequently forwarded to the Union Government for the President’s assent. Although law and order is a State subject on which State Governments are competent to enact laws, in this case since the proposed law overrides certain provisions of the Evidence Act, IPC, CrPC and the provision relating to the jurisdiction of various courts, the President’s approval (which in effect is the Union Government’s sanction) is necessary. But the Ministry of Home Affairs sat on the Bill; on repeated prodding by Mr Modi, it was returned in June 2009 with the President’s message that the Assembly should reconsider Clauses 16 and 20. The Bill was cleared once again without any amendments and resubmitted for the President’s assent in November 2009.

Two-and-a-half years later, it has been returned unsigned.

The trickery resorted to with the explicit purpose of refusing to allow Gujarat to have its way is as amazing as the astounding demands made of the State Government by way of amendments. In the first instance, the Government of Gujarat was told it can’t have a MCOCA like law because its clauses were similar to those of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Since POTA had been repealed by the Congress soon after assuming power in the summer of 2004 in a stunning show of solidarity with those who are appalled by a legal deterrence to terrorism and believe terrorists should have unfettered rights, Gujarat could not have GUJCOCA. The second time round, Gujarat’s Bill has been found to be in conflict with the amended Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967 which is now touted by the Union Government as an ‘anti-terrorist law’.

If we were to accept the argument that UAPA offers the perfect legal deterrence to terrorism and other organised crime, then logically the Government of Maharashtra should be instructed to repeal MCOCA.
That has not been done so far, nor is there any intention to do so. Which, then, raises the question: Why is a law that is good enough for a Congress-ruled State not good enough for a BJP-ruled State? The law in Maharashtra allows for harsh penalties, including death sentence, for committing acts of terror, so does the proposed law for Gujarat. The Gujarat Bill allows the setting up of special courts to deal with cases in a time-bound manner, so does the law in Maharashtra. The Gujarat Bill empowers the State Police to intercept, record and produce as evidence any electronic or verbal communication, as does MCOCA. Interestingly, the provisions of MCOCA are also applicable in Delhi.

The Congress’s assault on federalism, essentially the rights of the States, in the guise of promoting national interest, must be thwarted before serious damage is caused. In every sphere of decision-making by the incumbent regime headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the emphasis is on how to put down the States, how to impose upon them that which they do not want, how to enforce ridiculous firmans that glorify the Congress’s first family, how to belittle the Chief Ministers and diminish their authority. That’s at once invidious and insidious. Mr Modi and his Government have been successful in keeping terrorists and organised crime syndicates at bay with the outdated tools at their disposal. But that’s more a tribute to the Chief Minister’s administrative acumen than to the Prime Minister’s wisdom. It’s a shame and a pity that Mr Singh has so utterly failed to rise above the petty politics of his party and the low intrigue of his colleagues.