"The Congress is like Ravana," The Hindustan Times
of 2nd September, 1999, reported Dr Murli Manohar Joshi saying, "and
they have unleashed Sonia, the Surpnakha (Ravana's sister who was
humiliated by Lakshman) on the country." That in a box-item at the
very top of page 1, under the heading, "Below the belt." The source?
The Asian Age, reported The Hindustan Times.
Knowing what The Hindustan Times has been doing, I
look up The Asian Age. It doesn't take long: the relevant story
appears at the top of the front page of The Asian Age of the
previous day, 1st September. The report says, "At Union Minister for
Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi's rally in Mysore on
Monday night, BJP MLC Ramchandre Gowda referred to Congress
President Sonia Gandhi as Surpnakha -- sister of Ravana who was
humiliated by Lakshman. 'The Congress is like Ravana and they have
unleashed Sonia, the Surpnakha on the country,' much to the
So, from some MLC saying it at a rally at which
Murli Manohar Joshi was present to Murli Manohar Joshi saying it in
one short leap. But even that is not the end. The other secularist
paper, The Hindu of 1st September reports an additional detail.
Under the caption, "Heed PM advice: Joshi," the Mysore-datelined
news story in the paper reported, "'Please don't debate that,' a
visibly upset Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Union Minister for Human
Resources, said when his attention was drawn by presspersons to the
uncharitable remarks by his ministerial colleagues against the
Congress (I) president, Ms Sonia Gandhi. Mr Joshi also wanted to
know whether his party colleagues were taking the rebuke of the
Prime Minister seriously." "He was replying to a question on the
BJP's state unit general secretary, Mr Ramchandre Gowda, having
compared Ms. Gandhi to Surpanaki of the Ramayana in his (Dr Joshi's)
presence at an election meeting here on Monday. Dr Joshi told
presspersons on Tuesday that the feelings and advice of the Prime
Minister should be respected by all the party members and others in
the National Democratic Alliance. He had conveyed his views to Mr.
Thus, from Dr Joshi asking the man to abide by the
Prime Minister's guideline in the matter, to the simile being
delivered at a rally attended by Dr Joshi, to Dr Joshi himself
delivering the simile -- all in two short leaps!
The Indian Express had done exactly the same thing
in the case of Professor Vijay Kumar Malhotra: it had put in his
mouth words -- that Dr Manmohan Singh take off his turban so that
people may see whether he actually is a Sikh -- which he had not
uttered at all. And it had failed to correct the mischief for three
days, enough time for Congress to stage demonstrations etc.
The most notorious example of course involved The
Hindustan Times. By supplying a perverse headline, and altering the
reporter's copy, it fanned a concoction -- that Pramod Mahajan had
compared Mrs Sonia Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky. When that fabrication
was nailed by the reporter himself, the paper -- and the ones for
whose benefit all this is being done, the Congress leaders --
attempted to divert attention from the fabrication by using the
favourite device of politicians: "But how did Mahajan get the
letter?," it demanded in mock-horror.
What if Mahajan had got it from me? And I had
received it from the reporter, or from some colleague of his in the
paper's Bombay office, or from some colleague in the paper's Delhi
office? How would that dilute one bit the reporter's searing
indictment of what had been done to his copy by the editorial office
The press has been pontificating about politicians.
In fact, as the campaign has proceeded such perversions and
fabrications have become the staple -- of the press, much, much more
than of politicians. "IB study says Cong is inching ahead,"
proclaimed a bye-lined report on the front page of 31st August's
Times of India. The paper said that the IB assessment "has been
reportedly communicated to the Prime Minister's Office." Nothing of
the sort had been sent to either the Prime Minister or to anyone in
his Office. Nothing of the sort had been sent to the Home Minister
or his office. And I say that after checking with the persons
directly concerned: at the highest levels in the Prime Minister's
Office, in the Home Minister's Office, in the Intelligence
"Guilty Kargil Generals exposed," screamed the
headline across six columns of the front page of The Asian Age of
1st September. As the magazine Outlook had done in its cover story
earlier, the paper maintained that Brigadier Surinder Singh had sent
letters to the Army in August and November, 1998, warning them about
Pakistan's build-up and designs in the Kargil sector. The Army has
denied having received any such letters.
What the spokesman of the Congress(I) had released
earlier in the day, the paper carried as a great scoop: a "receipt"
from the Army of a communication from Brigadier Surinder Singh. The
date on the receipt itself should have alerted the paper: clearly
visible in the facsimile it carried across two columns, the date was
28 June, 1999. But the letters which the Brigadier was supposed to
have written were said to have been written in August and November
1998! The receipt had absolutely nothing to do with the non-existent
Not only the date on the receipt, the text of the
receipt too should have made that clear: at the very top, the
receipt stated, "Received HQ 15 Corps letter No 29734/SS/Conf dated
28 Jun 99 containing 68 (sixty eight) pages from Brigadier Surinder
Singh, SM, VSM" It is well-known that Surinder Singh had been
transferred. He had sent a representation against his transfer. This
was a receipt for that representation! Not just that, the officer
was by this time involved in litigation with the Army. He had been
directly in charge of troops in the Kargil sector. Sending patrols
etc., and keeping a vigil in that area had been his direct
responsibility. He was certain to be questioned on why patrolling
had been inadequate. If any single person's claims needed to be
cross-checked before publication, they were of this officer. But
then defeating "communal forces" justifies everything!
The Congress built its campaign on these twin
predispositions -- to print canards without verification, and to
broadcast anything and everything so long as it served "the Great
Cause" of harming "communal forces". Every day, the party spokesman
would hurl one new concoction. And the next morning, these papers
would reach it to millions of households. "Rs 900 crores loss to
public exchequer because of sugar imports from Pakistan," the
spokesman declared. Not just that, on the premise that the
concoction would fetch more if it could somehow be linked to
national security, the spokesman asserted that actually through
these imports Vajpayee had helped arm ISI and the Pakistan Army to
invade Kargil! "Will they dare to name the owner of Kundan Sugar
Mills?," he demanded, with an air of having some devastating
information up his sleeve. They were allowed to import 80,000
tonnes, and thereby provide foreign exchange to the Pakistan Army
and the ISI.
It turns out that import of sugar had been placed
on Open General License in 1994 by the then Congress(I) Government.
That a score of traders had been importing sugar since. That sugar
had also been imported from Pakistan. That one of the importers was
a trader in Chandini Chowk of Delhi, named Kundan Sugar Mills. But
what had that trader to do with the Prime Minister and his family?
And the firm had imported not 80,000 tonnes, as the Congress(I) had
alleged, but a paltry 2,500 tonnes! As for loss to the exchequer was
concerned, the Government had not imported any sugar at all -- how
was there a loss of even 9 paise, to say nothing of Rs 900 crores?
In fact, while the Congress(I) Government had allowed imports of
sugar at zero import duty, the present Government has successively
raised the duty to 27.5 per cent: it is now that every teaspoon of
sugar imported will contribute to the public exchequer!
Each of these facts could have been ascertained
with just a phone-call. Each of them should have been common
knowledge among journalists. But the rule held, "Swallow and vomit."
And the press became the megaphone of calumners.
The daily allegation has become the mainstay of the
Congress(I)'s campaign this time round, and that of its allies in
the media. But this is just a new low. It is this very party with
the help of some of the same papers which in the 1989 elections
forged and broadcast documents to prove that Mr. V. P. Singh and his
son Ajay had a secret account in St Kitts, an account into which
millions had been paid as kickbacks. And that was just one of seven
forgeries which these worthies had put out through the media. That
was their explanation of the kickbacks in Bofors.
This is one of the central issues before the
electorate today: should it place the country in the hands of a
party, and a leadership which is so comfortable with falsehood?
More is at stake than just an electoral outcome.
The eagerness with which the press is making itself the hand-maiden
of falsehood poisons public discourse -- something even more
elemental for a society than elections. The press often complain
that politicians do not discuss issues. But surely one of the main
goads to them to discard issues and pedal calumny is that papers and
TV channels as good as black out whatever they have to say on
issues. At a discussion on Starnews, the Congress(I)'s spokesman
recalled that he had fielded Dr Manmohan Singh one day to talk on
economic issues, and that the result had been that next day the
papers had not carried a word about the Congress(I)'s press
conference. "You mean, sleaze sells?," the anchor asked. Yes, said
On the one side that was quite a confession -- as
sleaze sells, the Congress(I) had decided to peddle sleaze. But on
the other, it was an important statement of fact. Coverage of
Parliament exhibits the same trait: hulla gets much coverage,
considered speeches get next to nothing; naturally, that balance
becomes an encouragement to the hulla-raisers.
The entry of TV has compounded the problem. As it
is, newspapers had given up examining issues in any detail. TV has
it as an article of faith that viewers turn off if any image lasts
for more than 30 seconds, that they do not want to be bothered by
detail. So, the moment someone start explaining the point at issue,
the interviewer shuts him up, "What you mean is that you do not
agree with Mr..., Let us move on, well, Mr... what do you think of
the other charge...?"
Several things can be done. The press should not
print allegations unless they are backed by evidence.
Second, if it just has to print the allegation
because of urgency or because of the importance of the person making
it, the press should pursue the allegation on its own in the days
that follow, and report its independent findings on the matter.
Third, TV programmers should devise extended
issue-based discussions among experts, and among political
Fourth, while the legal provisions on defamation
are excellent, victims hesitate to go to court because of the time
it takes to bring the case to any sort of conclusion: it took the
victim thirteen years to get a judgment even from the lowest court
in a case against The Indian Express in which to my personal
knowledge the paper had no defence at all. The remedy, therefore, is
to leave the defamation provision as it is but to legislate
day-to-day hearings of defamation cases. And for courts to award
Fifth, even under the law as it is, to repeat a
libel is libel. When a newspaper or TV channel broadcasts a libelous
statement, it compounds the libel manifold. Unfortunately, in
practice the courts are too liberal in this regard, and often papers
are able to get away by pleading that they merely repeated what X
had said. The provision on repeating libel must be enforced with due
Finally, in one respect the current situation needs
to be turned on its head. The harm calumny does is infinitely
greater at the time of elections. But our current practice seems to
be to be even more lax during elections in regard to what is
permissible. Notice that while the Election Commission has deemed
fit to pronounce its views on all sorts of matters in the past few
weeks, it has done nothing, it has not even said anything that would
dissuade party spokesmen from hurling defamatory allegations.
The defamation law should be enforced even more
rigidly in case the defamatory statement is made during elections,
if necessary the law should be amended for this purpose.
Such changes are necessary both to prevent
elections from being polluted further, and also to save media from