The society, culture, publishers, citizens, and their state and judiciary are still, on the 75th anniversary of independence, to come to terms with our republican constitution. No amount of flag-waving should distract us from the central fact of state-sanctioned violence and the principles of justice and freedom of expression for all citizens. And freedom from every kind of violence.
Although we have a constitution and a legal system, the spirit and letter of the law cannot be taken for granted. As we can see from the recent reversal or lapsing of Roe v Wade in the United States, the courts can reverse modern democratic and human and women’s rights orders when they are themselves in collusion with anti-democratic forces. And we cannot say, as some Indian political leaders said in the past in answer to criticism, that “this is a worldwide phenomenon.” All democracies are in the process of becoming more perfect, and what drives them forward in their quest is to expand and establish these rights in the courts. Unfortunately, at this time, our courts are themselves lamenting that they are not being heard.
The problem is more serious for the news media as many of its journalists languish in jail, and others are threatened into silence and self-censorship. On the one hand, the legacy news media needs to establish its credibility among readers, who rightly suspect it of being sold out to the government and advertisers. On the other hand, legacy media is under threat from big tech such as Facebook and Google, which is stealing its readers and revenues. The legacy media’s silence on many instances of cast and minority violence is not improving its credibility and is merely handing over the conversations to digital and social media.
In the instance of the release of the convicted rapists and murderers in the Bilkis Bano case, the television media has been relatively more forthright. The release of the convicts has brought mostly initial coverage of the release followed by a stupefied silence from the legacy print media about its justice, morality, or the protests that are daily taking place. A notable exception is Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s editorial page column in The Indian Express on 19 August 2022, ‘Is this how justice ends?’ (Subsequently, on 21 August some columnists such as Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyer and Tavleen Singh have spoken out in their regular Sunday columns in the Times of India and The Indian Express, respectively.)
Mehta’s opening paragraph reads, “Let us make no mistake about it. The approval by the Gujarat government panel for the remission of sentences of 11 men convicted of raping Bilkis Bano, the murder of a three-year-old child, and participating in the murder of 13 others is not just a travesty of justice. It is also a dangerous political dog whistle. The government may yet reconsider its order. The Supreme Court may, if approached, overturn it although it gave permission for the remission application to be considered. But the damage has already been done. “Is this how justice ends?” Bilkis Bano’s poignant question pierces through the carefully constructed facades of the Indian republic. The haunting force of this question has no answer. The fact that the force of this question is not even being felt widely is a testimony to a moral numbing of the republic and its blatant communalisation.”
At a time when the economy is recovering, and we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of our independence, we must reestablish our democratic ideals and the rule of law, eschewing all forms of violence. Our newspapers were crusaders for freedom and justice – this must remain their keystone in the agenda of nation-building.