Why Navakaal was charged with contempt of court

IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
Why Navakaal was charged with contempt of court

 

The issue here goes beyond freedom of the press and the image of the judiciary. It concerns the effect a newspaper has on relations between the majority and minority communities

 

Jyoti Punwani

 

Jayshree Khadilkar-Pande went to jail last week, charged with contempt of court,  waxing eloquent in front-page interviews about her ``beliefs’’, the ``tradition’’ of her newspaper Navakaal and the surge of reader support for her refusal to apologize in court. The Bharatiya Janata Party put up a seven-foot banner asking for her release, and even Congress MLC and known Lohiaite Husain Dalwai joined the long list of worthies who condemned the High Court’s sentence of a week’s imprisonment against her.

 

Jayshree Khadilkar-Pande was sentenced because she published five editorials written by her father, Neelkanth Khadilkar in 98, condemning Justice B N  Srikrishna for his Inquiry Commission Report on the 92-93 Mumbai riots. The issue here goes beyond freedom of the press and the image of the judiciary. It concerns the effect a newspaper has on relations between the majority and minority communities, and is closely linked to the lives and deaths of a large number of Mumbai’s citizens.

 

The Srikrishna Commission Report indicted two Marathi newspapers, Navakaal and Saamna (and also the Urdu press), for publishing inflammatory material during the 92-93 riots. Incensed, Neelkanth Khadilkar, who edited Navakaal for three decades till handing over charge to daughter Jayshree in 1997, wrote five front-page editorials protesting that he had not been called to explain his stand. 

 

To understand  the impact of these edits, one has to see the kind of newspaper Navakaal is. A four-page broadsheet catering mainly to workers, its edits normally start on Page 1, with bold banner headlines across all 8 columns.  Such was the effect of these edits that the then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court decided to take suo moto  action against the paper.

 

In their judgment delivered this month, Judges V G Palshikar and D B Bhosale of the Bombay High Court pointed out that Khadilkar had referred to the ``Justice Srikrishna Commission’’ exactly 12 times in his edits. The rest of the time, he had referred to ``Justice  Srikrishna’’. They also quoted from the start of the first edit, titled: ``The judge who has gone mad’’. It said that the edit was being written with ``due deliberations with research and knowledge’’. It then went on to say that Justice B N Srikrishna was a judge affected by insanity, and his Report was not in keeping with the seniority of the judge himself. After that, say the judges, ``in all solemnity, he writes that he is aware that the opening four sentences of the edit may amount to serious contempt of court and yet he was undertaking to write them.’’

 

Khadilkar described Justice Srikrishna as ``mentally retarded’’; ``more poisonous than a snake’’ (in the headlines), ``affected by insanity, hence should be removed’’; and ``egoistic’’. One edit asked,   ``Was the judge in his senses?’’ and another headline called for the judge’s  arrest for instigating communal riots. One edit attributed the Report to the judge’s bias and his ``desire for post-retirement benefits’’, while another asked readers to burn the Report.

Khadilkar’s defence was that he had attacked the Commission, and the Commission not being a court,   contempt of court could not apply. The headlines were meant to attract the readers’ attention.

 

But the judges accepted the argument of the amicus curie appointed by the court, Shekhar Naphade, that the attack was against Justice B N Srikrishna the judge, not the Commission. Had the writer wanted to make the distinction, he could have done so, they pointed out.

Indeed, as in the 92-93 riots, so after the publication of the Srikrishna Commission Report, Khadilkar had done exactly what he wanted. During the riots, his headlines and edits, by giving exaggerated versions of violence against Hindus,  inflamed passions in a city already on fire. Maybe Navakaal was not directly responsible for the  violence against Muslims, but like the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, it helped create support for such violence among its lakhs of readers.

 

Khadilkar’s anger at Justice Srikrishna didn’t stem only from the perceived injustice to him. A newspapers’ writings speak for themselves. Once they are judged as  inflammatory, no court asks the editor,  ``Why did you publish inflammatory material?’’

 

At the root of Khadilkar’s anger was Justice Srikrishna’s  indictment of the Shiv Sena, the BJP, and the Mumbai police for their role in the 92-93 riots. Justice Srikrishna had refused to accept the theory prevalent till his Report was published: that the Muslims, angry at the demolition of the Babri Masjid,  had started both the December 92 and January 93 phases of the riots, and being the aggressors,  had naturally been at the receiving end of police firings.  The Srikrishna Report stood this theory on its head, which is why it is yet to be implemented, even by a `secular’ Congress-NCP government.

 

The Sena-BJP government rejected the Report. Khadilkar did what he could: use his paper to abuse it and its author.

 

Journalists loyal to the Sena-BJP, including the largest association of Marathi journalists, the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, rallied round him, but the rest held back. Veteran journalist and former editor of Loksatta Madhav Gadkari, recipient of several contempt notices in his long career, commented: ``These editorials are Khadilkar’s personal contribution to Marathi journalism. Let`s not make them part of the history of Marathi journalism. There are certain limits to press freedom. ``

 

Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based free lance writer and columnist who has written extensively issues of communal conflict. Contact: jyopun@vsnl.com

 

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