Of bans and privilege motions against the State media
By Pradip Phanjoubam
It is with sadness we note the banning of the Imphal Free Press by a group of Meitei Pangal organisations on the issue of reporting the fact of the publication of a sensational news in a newly launched New Delhi based magazine on how the Al Qaida was allegedly finding Manipur a fertile recruiting ground. It is sad not because of the readers the IFP would lose. Such bans have happened to this newspaper on so many occasions before, including a prolonged one by the All Naga Students Association, ANSAM, on a similar matter, virtually decimating IFP circulations in many hill districts. Whenever we felt we have wrongfully hurt the interests of people, we have never hesitated to repent and apologise, but when IFP was being targeted for no legitimate reason, or else for matters of principles it holds dear, we have stood our ground no matter what the material costs we have had to bear. So it will be in this case too.
Those who have read the IFP news on the alleged Al Qaida connections in Manipur will know it was a reportage of a sensitive article published elsewhere, and not IFP's own reportage of the news event. The IFP report explicitly makes this clear, and the report includes interviews by our reporter of a local police spokesman who denied knowledge of such connections, as well a local leader of the Lilong area where allegedly the Al Qaida has reached out to, and they too denied the veracity of the news item in the New Delhi magazine.
Both these bits of important information were included deliberately in the IFP report to give a picture of the original report’s standing from the local perspective. The IFP report hence could not have been more balanced and fair. It was just a matter of informing and alerting our readers, in particular the Pangals amongst them, that such a report has appeared in a magazine in New Delhi. The response from the Pangal organisations therefore is surprising and disappointing for it virtually is a case of spiting the messenger not the composer of the message. Much as we empathise with the Pangal community for what seems to be a disproportionate or even false charge, we fail to understand their outrage against the IFP. We were not the ones making the charge. We were only alerting the public that such a charge has been made, for the charge, false or otherwise, indeed is serious.
In our opinion, the legitimate question should have been how this charge at all came about, and from where? The report quotes Indian intelligence sources and since it emanates from New Delhi, the obvious deduction would be that it came from the Intelligence Bureau, IB. The author of the article, it may be recalled, had also two years ago created quite a sensation in the Northeast when a story appeared under his by-line on how the Government of India was preparing a Christmas gift for the NSCN(IM) in the shape of a “Supra National” non-territorial settlement of the Naga issue. This report, it may also be recalled, was straight out of a classified file of the Government of India. Quite obviously, the journalist has contacts deep inside the IB.
The question then is, how did the IB come up with such a report which the local police have no information of? Does this again point to the fact that Central organs of internal security located in the State, the SIB in particular, do not trust or take help from local police and intelligence counterparts? Surely the intelligence available with intelligence gathering wings of the Central government in the State cannot be as deep as those of local police intelligence networks. Or is it again a case of the Central bodies not trusting the loyalties of the “natives”? This trust deficit between Central and local security establishments, especially in counterinsurgency information sharing has time and again been the cause of so many innocent deaths – the school going boy Sanamacha of Angtha village who disappeared untraced after being picked up by the Army, to name just one prominent case.
The trouble (it is difficult not to hazard a guess), is not so much about the conviction in the veracity of their own allegations with which these Central intelligence offices pursue these cases. These Central government officers who head these offices come on short deputations to the State and during their tenure here, are under pressure to produce something worthwhile to secure their career advancements, hence very often suffer from the tendency to make mountains out of molehills. This had become more than evident, and in such a tragic way, in the run up to the 1962 war with China. For evidence, look for it in the Lt. Gen. Henderson Brooke-Brig. Prem Bhagat report on the 1962 debacle.
This report and its contents, although still not officially made public even after the new BJP led government took over charge in New Delhi quite contrary to the party’s election promises, is now more or less known to all interested in it, thanks to Neville Maxwell (author of “India’s China War”) to whom somebody, seemingly from the Indian Army’s top ranks who were disgruntled with the political leadership of the time, leaked the voluminous report. Maxwell has recently uploaded a major part of the document on his personal website for all interested to download and read. Even before this, those who have read “India’s China War” will know the book is a virtual paraphrase of the Henderson Brooke report embellished with the author’s own understanding of Indian politics as a New Delhi correspondent of the Times, London, during the 1950s. Despite his quite apparent pro-China tilt, the book is brilliantly conceived and argued, and it is said the then American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, appreciated the book so much that he had President Richard Nixon to read it as well.
There were many other reasons for the thaw in America’s till then cold diplomatic relations with Communist China, including China’s own break from its alliance with the USSR, but it is often said, with good reasons too, that Maxwell’s book has been an important catalyst. It is not a coincidence that not long after Maxwell’s book (published by an Indian publisher incidentally), hit the stands in 1970, that Nixon made his historic 1972 visit to Peking (Beijing) marking the beginning of a new world order and the opening up of the Chinese economy to the world.
The book’s importance was again underscored when Singapore’s iconic India friendly premier, Lee Kwan Yew visited China and Chinese premier Hua Guo Feng presented him with a copy of the book. Lee, refused to accept the book and in another show of his characteristic dispassionate, non-partisan statesmanship, is said to have told Feng in no uncertain terms, thank you Sir, but this book represents China’s point of view of the 1962 war, and India has its own interpretation of the causes of the war too.
Among others, the Henderson Brooke report highlights the blunders of the IB under its then chief, B.N. Mullick. The organisation and its authoritarian leader were shown as overly depending for most part on hearsay and conjectures to write their reports, costing India dear in the end, not the least in terms of lives of many valiant soldiers. This unfortunate legacy, determined by the urgency and insecurity to do something for self career promotion while in a forward post, the most popular strategy of which has always been to imagine and flag the shadowy presence of hostile foreign hands, hopefully has been buried and left far behind.
The Manipur police while under the former DGP, M.K. Das had clarified these information of Al Qaida connections had little or no basis, and now since it has come up on the public forum yet again, this time in a New Delhi based magazine, the State police must again do the needful, and come up with its own assessment of the situation.
Just for a little more perspective on Neville Maxwell’s political inclinations which a critic of his writings have described as “too enthusiastic to agree with China and too enthusiastic to disagree with India”, he is the journalist who predicted the end of India’s “farcical” Parliamentary democracy with the 1956 Parliamentary elections. His prediction, we know, has proven more a wishful thinking.
Before concluding, let me move to another unrelated issue. This is necessitated by the urgency of the matter pertaining to the Manipur Legislative Assembly moving a privilege motion against a well known human rights worker and a cable TV channel for what the legislators feel is a breach of privilege, not so much of the august Assembly, one feels, but their own as they imagine it. The first important question is, what should constitute the privilege certain institution in the Indian democracy, such as the Legislature and Judiciary, are deemed to enjoy? The answer to this question obviously would be a matter of technical legal interpretation. Dangerously though, the final say in coming up with this definition is given to the institutions under public scrutiny themselves.
The second important question is more fundamental, and indeed has been asked on several occasions at the State as well as at the National levels. Should these institutions continue to enjoy these privileges?
These questions have acquired a sense of urgency in the wake of repeated proven cases of corruption by those who are deemed to be constitutionally privileged. This being the case, to say criticisms, or corruption allegations, against judges, ministers and MLAs, constitute breach of privilege would actually amount to giving impunity to corruption by these individuals. It is indeed everybody’s knowledge men in these powerful institutions have time and again proven to be extremely corrupt and incompetent. Indeed again, to say ministers in Manipur today have reduced themselves to contract brokers would be an understatement.
Even the driving motive behind the current dissident movement in the Ibobi government, with the dissidents clamouring for a mid-term reshuffle of ministry can precisely be seen as a contract brokerage dispute and not one of conflicting visions of governance model. The only thing condemnable in the cable TV interview is the use of un-parliamentary, crassly abusive language in reference to the elected legislators. This was totally unwarranted and would have been considered a breach of decorum anywhere by anybody, fit for use only by the many internet urchins who crowd the legally uncharted territories of social media sites these days.
We for one feel the privilege enjoyed by some institutions as a constitutional norm should either be abolished altogether or else re-written. If they must remain, these motions must also be open to legal challenges in acknowledgment of the spirit of the warning that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. While the powers vested in these institutions should not be diminished, there must be mechanisms for checks and balances. Judges and legislators are certainly no saints, and are definitely far from being above reproach. Especially in a small place like Manipur where everybody knows practically every other person’s background and records, to claim otherwise would be at best laughable. The members of these so called privileged institutions therefore must be left open to democratic criticisms and probes for misgivings as any other individual citizen. There is therefore something very jarring in the privilege motion against a human rights worker for his public show of dislike of the State’s current crop of legislators for what he sees as their incompetence and corruption.