It’s outrage time on social media again. This time it is over the arrest of Arnab Goswami by the Maharashtra police in a case involving the suicide of an architect and his mother. By now we understand the algorithm of an outrage fairly well, but in this particular case it gets a bit complicated. The man at the centre of it is Arnab himself, the man who usually leads outrages on his television channel. Then there’s the question of how one treats him in this particular context – as a journalist, as a private individual or as a political player or as a combination of all three.
His arrest smacks of vendetta, particularly in the backdrop of his relentless attack on the state government, and the anger among his diehard followers is understandable. Nobody loves their hero being treated like anything less than a hero. However, to get a sense whether their feeling is justified we must delink his different identities and examine each separately.
Here is a brief account of the case: Anvay Naik, 53, Managing Director of Concorde Design Pvt Ltd, and his mother Kumud Naik, a member on the board of the company, committed suicide in 2018. The reason why they ended their lives, according to a suicide note purportedly penned by Anvay, was non-payment of dues by firms managed by Arnab, Feroze Shaikh and Niteish Sarda for separate works. It said the combined due from the trio was to the tune of Rs 5.4 crore, of which the share of Republic TV was Rs 83 lakh. The duo was unable to withstand pressure from creditors anymore, the note said. In 2019, the case was closed by the police citing lack of evidence. The family members say they had no knowledge of it and learnt about it from a tweet of Republic TV. According to procedure, the closure should have been communicated to the family by the magistrate concerned and the former had the right to lodge a protest complaint. In May 2020, after repeated appeals from them, Home minister Anil Deshmukh ordered reopening of the case and a CID probe into the matter. The current police action follows the investigation into the abetment to suicide charge.
Adnya, daughter of the Anvay, an architect herself, has told news media that there was immense pressure on them to close the case. They were issued threats. The investigating officer, she alleged, asked them to sign a paper which read they had filed a case to take revenge and they wanted to withdraw the case. They didn’t sign on it. She claimed her father received veiled threats from Arnab himself.
Now, let us assume that all of this is false. Republic TV has claimed that all dues to late Anvay has been cleared. Let’s assume this is true. Does the case still need a probe? The answer in a civilised society committed to the idea of justice should be yes. In the case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, there was no suicide note holding anyone responsible. Yet a vocal section of the media managed to manufacture a culprit and demanded that she be punished. In the case of Anvay, there’s a suicide note clearly mentioning names. The principle of justice demands that there should at least be an investigation to the satisfaction of the aggrieved party.
Before we proceed, here’s a small note. This article does not seek to judge Arnab the person or his brand of journalism, but tries to decipher the public psyche in our highly politicised times. Our passion to be seen politically involved could be disturbing our moral compass, leading us to serious errors of judgement. Worse, it could be eroding the goodness in us as human beings. We no more care about right or wrong, we just align our judgement to our political leaning. This was evident in the hounding of Rhea Chakraborty in the Sushant suicide case. It is evident again in the suicide of the mother-son duo.
Let’s get back to the topic.
This is clearly a case involving private parties over a contract that was allegedly dishonoured. Both should ideally be treated as ordinary Indians seeking resolution to a legal matter. Bringing in the weight of Arnab’s status and stature as a journalist or anything else but a private person to the picture makes the parties to the dispute unequal. The law is not supposed to treat them as such. In Sushant’s case, the demand for an investigation by central agencies sought by his family was justified. It sought to find the truth from a welter of charges and counter charges. The result may not have been to the liking of the family though. If a probe to establish the truth was welcome then, there’s no reason why it should be any different in the present case.
If we believe in the idea of justice, then our stand in the case must be unambiguous. Call for a fair probe would be a good step in that direction. If we fail to stop creating big people and insignificant people before the law then it might come back to haunt us. What a great gesture from a public figure it would be if Arnab himself demanded a thorough investigation into the case! Would his followers persuade him to do that?
Should there be special privilege for Arnab just because he is a journalist? This is not about him only, but a general question about all journalists. If the answer is yes, then the outrage over his arrest would look more balanced if there is similar outrage over other journalists being slapped with serious charges for reporting flaws in the strategy of state governments in handling the COVID-19 pandemic or their social media posts criticising policies. This has been happening in several states where governments are too impatient about or too sensitive to criticism, even constructive ones. We haven’t seen much outrage over it.
In the case of such journalists, they were only doing their job. The Anvay Naik case has little to do with Arnab’s role and activities as a professional. If he exposes corruption in high places and faces vengeful action from his targets for it, then he ought to be defended. But that is not the case here. The outrage conveys the impression that we want the law to be differential to journalists, particularly powerful ones.
Coming to the point of political player mentioned earlier, it involves principles of ethicality, neutrality and morality basic to the profession. Does a journalist remain a journalist after he turns his platform into the propaganda arm of a political party and behaves like a party worker with a megaphone? Let’s clarify this: Journalists flaunting allegiance to a political party is not a recent trend. The show of loyalty was probably more brazen in the heyday of the Congress. BJP’s spokespersons have been openly calling some television personalties Congress stooges for sometime now. Leaders of the Opposition make the same allegation against Arnab and others. The only difference is in the case of the latter it is more in-your-face, bereft of sophistication – of both language and logic – and with little pretension of being nonpartisan. However, the basic question remains.
The problem here is once a journalist makes his political leaning too obvious and uses his media platform to further the agenda of a party, he is no more seen as fair or neutral or driven by ethical considerations. Political outfits view him not as a journalist, but as a political adversary who must be dealt with options available to politicians. The police action against Arnab should be viewed against this backdrop. If, as insinuated by Anvay’s family, there was no serious attempt to pursue the case during the earlier government, it could have been a matter of political choice then too.
For an outsider not fully informed about the case perhaps the best course is to treat it as a matter between private parties and let the weaker of the voice be heard too. The outrage reflects our unwillingness to do so. We merge all identities of Arnab into one and pre-judge him as the victim. The fact that a family has lost two members and deserves justice does not register on our moral radar. This is unfortunate. Politics certainly is diminishing us.
[This is part 20 of our series titled Decoding Democracy]