By Dhiren Bhagat
THE facts are simple enough on 24 April the Observer, London and The Indian post, Bombay published a story crammed with details about a RAW operation that went wrong. It was no ordinary operation. RAW was smuggling from Kabul caches of arms including rocket launchers when a small slip occurred. It was the sort of slip that journalism thrives on.
On Thursday, 19 November last year at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport a few stray bullets rolled onto the apron out of a crate that had just come in from Kabul on Indian Airlines flight IC 452. An alert security man spotted the bullets and informed his superiors. Within minutes R.K. Neogi, DCP Palam was on the scene. The crate belonged to a consignment of 22 crates; each of these crates was isolated and an X-ray examination commenced as both customs and police were convinced that they had hit upon a major haul of terrorist contraband.
The examination revealed more than just bullets. According to my informant — an eyewitness there was at least one rocket launcher in the crates that were examined.
A dispute began between the customs men and the security men each claiming credit for the haul. As appreciation letters were being written out, someone in civvies came in and identified himself to Neogi as a RAW operative. He claimed the crates contained government property and whisked them away before Neogi’s men could open them and make an inventory of the contents. According to the Freight Delivery Register, these crates were collected from the cargo warehouse on November 20.
The crates bore two addresses. The sender’s address was given as: Director General Communications Pul e Bag, Hea Amooni, Kabul
The consignment was addressed
Director General Communications
Sanchar Bhawan is the building which houses the Ministry of Communications but a quick check with the Ministry reveals that there is no such position as Director General in the Ministry, yet the Airway Bill Number 058 3035 4273 records the contents of the 22 crates as being telecom equipment’ and clearly states that the addressee was the ‘Director General’.
When the details of this episode became known to me, I contacted B.G. Deshmukh, the cabinet secretary and asked for an explanation, Deshmukh is the official RAW is supposed to report to; even so I did not expect an immediate response so I gave him 24 hours in which to furnish an explanation. The next day when! Called, Mr. Deshmukh said he had been unable to “get a final reply from that organization”. He said he could not ask me to hold my story as he was unable to confirm or deny it.
After filed the story for the two newspapers for which I write I went away to Bombay on an extended weekend, to be honest, I thought the matter would be picked up in Parliament and would most likely feature in the debate on the home ministry in the Rajya Sabha. I also thought our free press would pick up the story.
I was wrong. Nothing appeared. Nothing happened. No questions were asked. No tempers ruffled. On Wednesday I decided to do the rounds, I began in the morning with Opposition MPs who I thought would be interested in the story. With one exception none of the people I called on, really seemed to know much about the story. I may be wrong about this but with that same exception none of the MPs I called upon, seemed especially enthusiastic about it.
One MP, a senior parliamentarian, seemed especially concerned about his “political career”. He kept saying, “One story like this” and my entire career could be tuned. I will have to corroborate the details of the story first.”
I appreciated the MP’s desire to corroborate the details of the story and offered my services to that end, an offer that was not taken up. T came away with a sinking heart. The same MP had been quick to raise my last story on the disclosure in Parliament and ask questions about it. Had he once tried to “corroborate” with me whether or not Mr J.N. Dixit and the LTTE had admitted to the Rs 50 lakh payment the government had made to the Tigers last August before raising the matter in Parliament?
The exception was Lt Gen, Aurora who ‘had read the story in The Indian Post and had already, so he informed me, requested a special mention in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. Later in the day I was reassured by Mr Subramanian Swamy’s enthusiasm but till then’ felt it was just possible that most Hindu MPs did not like to raise embarrassing questions on Punjab. (In fact, even my telephonic conversation with Swamy made me despair about the attitude of most MPs: When I told him about my experiences he merely remarked, “So, now you have come face to face with Hindu communalism.”)
My experience with editors was even more disturbing. Of the six editors I called upon in Delhi only two assured me that they would look into the matter. The major papers the Times and) The Express were frank about their line. They were not going to have anything to do with it. An editor I spoke to, said the story had been raised at the editorial meeting on Monday, 25 April only to be turned down. On what ground I asked, “The national interest”. Another editor said he had been very interested in the story in fact he had cut it out and pinned it on the notice board for his reporters to see, but ultimately his editor in chief had turned it down. The reason “The national interest.”
A third editor said: “I don’t dispute your facts, but you are trying to frustrate my plan, I have been working on something for a long time and now you are trying to frustrate it.” What was his plan, I asked. “We have to bash up Pakistan, not a full war but aggression beat up their army in a couple of incidents. Then [tell you this “terrorism” will vanish.”
I must have looked incredulous for he continued, “You don’t understand mass psychology. Border people are always with the victor. Beat up the Pakistanis, show the Sikhs that we are stronger than the Pakistanis and “terrorism” will languish on the vine. “Tum to aadhe Pathan ho tumhen to yeh baat pata honi chahiye .” (You are a Pathan, you ought to know this much).
FORGET for the moment how disgusting this frank admission sounds. Consider, instead, a general problem, what is the duty of the press?
In December 1851, Louis Naplen, President of the French republic engineered a coup d’état which would make him Emperor of France, without consulting his colleagues or informing the Queen, Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his approval on behalf of Great Britain
The Times wrote against him and Louis Napoleon. The French ‘Monarch’ was displeased with the newspaper.
Lord Derby, in an address in reply to a Speech from the Throne chose to lecture The Times for its ‘outspoken language and to claim that “as in these days the English Press aspires to share the influence of statesmen, so also must it share in the responsibilities of statesmen”.
The editor of The Times, Deplane arranged for a reply to this preposterous suggestion. On his instruction, Robert Lowe wrote two editorials which appeared in The Times of 6 and 7 February, 1852. These editorials are the classic statements of our profession. Space prevents me from quoting them in entirety; what follows are some paragraphs which should be seared into the consciousness of our editors. “
The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times; it is daily and forever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion—anticipating if possible the march of events—standing upon the breach between the present and the future, and extending its survey to the horizon of the world, The statesman’s duty is precisely the reverse. He cautiously guards from the public eye the information by which his actions and opinions are regulated; he reserves his judgment of passing events till the latest moment; and then he records it in obscure or conventional language. The duty of the one is to speak; of the other to be silent. The one explains itself in discussion; the other lends to action. The one deals mainly with rights and interests; the other with opinions and sentiments; the former is necessarily reserved, the latter essentially free. It follows, therefore, from these contrasts that the responsibilities of the two powers are as much at variance as their duties. For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences to lend no convenient shelter to acts of justice and oppression, but to consign them once to the judgment of the world…
If the public writer shares in any degree the influence of the statesman he shares at least few of those personal objects which constitute so large a part of ordinary statesmanship. The responsibility he really shares is more nearly akin to that of the economist or the lawyer whose province is not to frame a system of convenient application to the exigencies of the day but to investigate truth and to apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.”
“The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with publicity. The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times”. The Times, 6 February, 1852