A case, filed by the Central Government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, against the Jalandhar Punjabi language daily Ajit charging the paper and its editor Brijinder Singh with sedition is yet another demonstration of the authoritarian control exerted by the Indian government on the press. The paper with a circulation of 150,000 is the largest Punjabi circulation daily.

Earlier cases had been filed against The Tribune an English daily, published from Chandigarh, against the Akali Patrika a Punjabi daily of Jalandhar, and other Indian newspapers from time to time for publishing opinions which do not fall in line with the governments point of view.

The Ajits “crime” in this case is that it printed an advertisement from July 18 to 22 giving details of the last rites of Gen. Labh Singh of the Khalistan Commando Force who had been killed by the police.

When opposition leaders sent a written request to the Prime Minister to withdraw the sedition case against the Ajit Congress (I) party men cast aspersions against them and questioned their patriotism!

The irony in this case is that the paper is generally considered pro government. Its editor Barjinder Singh has been awarded the Shiromini Patarkar award by Punjab Government and was in fact an invitee to attend a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

A columnist Kuldeep Nayyar wrote recently if the Prime Minister’s letter to opposition leaders was to be taken literally, he would seem to be propounding a new guideline to newspapers and even an objective analysis of a problem might be taken as “encouraging terrorists.”

He quotes a news report from the Hindu in which the Tamil Tigers deny the Prime Ministers charge of going back on his promises and asks if a story giving the other point of view should be seen as supporting or sympathsing with the cause of the “guerrillas” in this case Sri Lankan Tamils.

Here is an extract from the story, “To apply pressure on us, the Government of India seized our weapons in Tamil Nadu before our leader (Prabhakaran) was invited to the negotiations about a year and a half ago. Then also, SAM7s were seized from us, the missiles were later returned to us. Besides the Government of India trained us on how to fire SAM7s after the Sri Lankan governments ‘Operation Liberation’ in the Vadamarachi area of the Taffana peninsula.

“During this period it is not known whether the Government of India was worried about which foreign agency supplied us with missiles. The Government of India thought that it could use us as mercenary outfits for its own interests, the greatest worry is that we will not resile our rights and we refuse to function as the mercinary outfits of the Government of India…”

The Hindu presents the other side of the story, one which is definitely uncomfortable for the government as it presents facts which have been officially denied and in fact if these charges are admitted Government of India charges that Pakistan is interfering in its “internal affairs,” would definitely sound hollow and double faced.

Newspapers are not official mouthpieces but the government seems to think that they are. Therefore exposure of corruption in high places, revelations of official bungling’s etc. are all dubbled by the government as reditious and submissive, which is at times called an official mouthpiece.

Even the Chandigarh daily The Tribune said in an editorial on the Ajit Affair that the Prime Minister had “rushed to judgment that the newspaper had indeed expounded. The cause of the dismemberment of the country… he is guilty of not only prejudging a very serious issue but seeking to influence the nation and even the judiciary to endorse such a hasty conclusion.”

Freedom of press is one of the greatest strengths of any democratic and vibrant society. A despot always seeks to curb the press and hence popular expression. India is now presenting an increasingly dismal picture of a subcontinent gone astray. The rulers are facing charges of corruption, judiciary is not trusted, and press either tows the official line or is curbed ruthlessly.

The government has resorted to formulating laws in which the accused is presumed guilty (contrary to all the practice of jurisprudence), police is accused of killing minorities (in Malian and Punjab), foreign press is barred from what the regime considers sensitive areas and increasingly the press is under attack in these areas.

Framing sedition charges against the Ajit has to be seen in this context, the action against Ajit is just the tip of an ice burg.

Article extracted from this publication >> September 9, 1988