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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Knives out for Arnab, Centre recumbent before a fascist state

A rogue regime is running the show in Maharashtra, and all the ammunition the Centre has in its arsenal to check the state’s descent into full blown fascism are homilies. The courts, high or supreme, are in no hurry to act, armed as they are with the instant excuse of systemic delays, not to speak of the individual biases of judges, and pressures from the political executive. This was more than evident from the refusal of the Bombay High Court to grant interim relief to the editor-in-chief and managing director of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, who was illegally arrested by minions of the venal Mumbai Police on November 4 in connection with a false case of abetment to suicide. The case was closed in 2018 with the concurrence of the court. The HC reserved its order over a legal quibble after a six-hour hearing. That a law abiding citizen was under illegal detention did not seem to bother the right honorable justices S S Shinde and M S Karnik.

No other conclusion can be drawn by the distressing and depressing events leading up to the detention of Bharat’s foremost nationalist journalist. A posse of cops toting AK-47s led by a sacked encounter specialist barged into Arnab residence at 6 am, manhandled him in the presence of his family, and literally carted him away like a sack of wheat. The move was a desperate gambit after successive efforts to fix him in connection with a trumped-up Television Rating Point (TRP) scam came to naught.

Things could not have been much worse had the cops landed up to nab a dreaded criminal or jihadi. In fact, the reprobate Mumbai police has been never been known to act against an enemy of the state as it did against Arnab. By the state government’s own volition as proudly reported in the Times Of India, a 40-member team had been formed at the behest of the state home department headed by a Sharad Pawar lackey to execute “Operation Arnab”. The team was tasked with the job of firing a volley of FIRs to bring the channel’s defiant editor to his knees, failing which to force him to either shut shop or shift out. A sting operation conducted by Republic on a state minister (one of Pawar’s many flunkies in the Muslim community) affirmed that the larger intent was to drive Arnab to commit suicide. Scums can only talk the language of scums. More shocking has been the Centre’s abysmal failure to protect the Constitutional rights of a leading journalist from being continuously hounded and harassed by rogues in uniform dancing to the tune of the knaves in power.

When documentary evidence gave the lie to every charge, the police looked desperate to clutch at other straws. And lo and behold the suicide of a 53-year-old interior designer named Anvay Naik fell into the waiting lap of the Mumbai Police. Going by the fanciful allegations of his wife and daughter (personally known to Pawar), her husband and mother-in-law,  a director in the private limited company, Concorde Designs, were compelled to end their lives life after three clients for whom he had rendered services had not paid him for their labors. One, allegedly, was Republic. The basis of the allegation was the chance discovery of a handwritten piece of paper on which the names of Naik’s debtors had been scrawled. This was touted as his dying declaration. On the basis of this supposedly precious piece of evidence Arnab was whisked away by the police, and the closed case reopened against the alleged abettors of the joint suicide. This was done without the approval of the court on whose authority the case was closed for lack of substantiation.

What Naik’s mischievous wife, Akshata, never clarified, and the police never inquired, is what drove her mother-in-law to strangle herself. A perfect case of whodunit? The family’s claim that the son strangled his own mother before tying the noose on himself at their farmhouse cannot be taken at face value. Nothing was heard of the matter till the opportunist Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime came to power late 2019, and the wife appealed to Pawar this May to have the case reopened. She said her husband discouraged her from pestering Arnab for the dues since he was a “powerful” journalist.

It is doubtful if Naik ever conveyed, either verbally or in writing, that he had decided to end his life due to mounting liabilities though he must have been under severe mental stress. His company’s accounts revealed he had totted up a debt of Rs 26.5 crore between 2013-2016 when Republic TV was not even a reality. No tax returns were filed since. Those in the know say Naik habitually defaulted on project deadlines, compelling his clients to hold back payments. The channel’s own records revealed that 90 per cent of Naik’s dues stood settled. Efforts to pay the remainder (Rs 83 lakh) were repeatedly made but the money did not end up being transferred to his bank since his account had been deactivated. Which at best is an untenable excuse since a crossed cheque could always been dropped at Naik’s residence at Alibaug.

It is unlikely that the channel’s managing director (who also happens to be Arnab) was directly dealing with payment issues. Absurdities and idiocies have no limits. To charge a company head of abetting a suicide of a contractor whose payments were not settled and have him arrested may have few parallels. The chief judicial magistrate of the Alibaug lower court, Sunaina Pingle, before whom Arnab was produced, should ideally have thrown out the police case and immediately ordered his release. Instead she chose to meet the cops half-way by remanding him to judicial custody while admitting the illegality of the arrest. At stake is a simple point: If opening of a closed case without the court’s sanction is illegal, how can a 14-day judicial remand of a person wrongfully charged be legal? Small wonder the dispensation of justice in lower courts  is often held in contempt.

The hounding of Arnab commenced on October 8 when Mumbai’s venal police commissioner, Param Bir Singh, convened a press conference to implicate his channel in a fake TRP scam involving India Today. FIRs were subsequently issued against hundreds and hundreds of staffers and senior managers and editors subjected to hundreds of hours of questioning at the Crime Branch. The channel’s advertisers were also summoned with the obvious intention of pressurizing them to back out. Untold pressure was brought on the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC),  and Hansa Research, the consumer insights company contracted to monitor audience measurements of TV channel viewership. Both bodies had in their reports identified India Today as the prime offender in the TRP scam case.

The writ petition against the State of Maharashtra moved by Hansa Research in the Bombay HC on November 4 confirms the plot to implicate Republic. The Mumbai Police Commissioner and his henchman have been impleaded. Hansa alleged that its executives were being threatened with dire consequences unless they certified that the report which found India Today complicit in faking TRPs was counterfeit, with Republic the real culprit.

Even the state assembly threw its weight behind the anti-Arnab operation. It readily committed the blatant illegality of dispatching a privilege notice to Arnab with the full awareness that only legislators fell under its ambit. Mercifully the apex court took the House to task by issuing a contempt notice to the secretary of the Maharashtra Assembly for trying to “intimidate” the editor with the objective of preventing him from approaching the top court for help, a virtual fundamental right under Article 32 of the Constitution. The SC nullified the possibility of Arnab’s arrest under the privilege notice.

Knives are still out for Arnab. The larger conspiracy to break him mentally is intact. The Raigad police has moved the sessions court against the lower court’s order remanding him to judicial custody, and seeking police custody instead. That hearing comes up on November 9.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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