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Ananda Vikatan: a serious joke

T ^ H E imprisonment of Anaii1 da Vikatan Editor S. Balasubramanian for a trivial joke in his magazine and his release within two days shows to what absurd lengths the AIADMK Government is prepared to go to muzzle the press and how, in trie absence of the codification of parliamentary privileges, a citizen can be deprived of his liberty by a transient legislature where issues are often decided on partisan considerations and by brute majority. It also shows that a joke at the expense of a politician is no longer a laughing matter in a State where corruption has become a way of life.

For all that, the joke on the cover page in the March 29 issue comparing MLAs to pickpockets and Ministers to daylight robbers was not very funny, and would not have amused politicians anyway. And yet only the naive will readily believe that all the hullabaloo was over a joke. Only two issues or so earlier, the magazine had reported matter-of-fact that while Union Minister P. Chidambaram and TNCC(l) President M. Palaniyandi rushed to the accident spot within hours of the Ariyalur train disaster and Governor S.L. Khurana cancelled Holi celebrations at Raj Bhavan, Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran attended the 25th week celebrations of a Tamil film the same evening, much to the surprise of even the organisers, and spent; an hour laughing and joking. ; The ruling party, dismayed over the, growing popularity of Vikatan's sister publication Junior Vikatan which focusses on the darker side of Tamil1 Nadu politics, was waiting for a chance to hit back when the joke came as a godsend. But, surprisingly, the issue wks raised in the Assembly not by a ruling partyman but by Mr. N.S.V. Chithan of the Congress (I) who has been instrumental in getting many controversial rulings from Speaker P.H. Pandian like the resuscitation of a privilege issue against Vaniga Ottriisembly since the Speaker had already made up his mind that he was guilty and even indicated the punishment -- without referring the matter to the Privileges Committee or giving him a hearing, a right enjoyed even by a murder case accused. "If the Speaker feels he has unlimited authority to punish me, let him happily go ahead. It will only strengthen the notion that democracy is just an empty word in this State", he concluded. The editor's press statement was carried as an editorial in the next issue dated April 5 which hit tne newsstands on April 3. What happened in the Assembly the next day had all the trappings of a mock trial. Soon after question-hour, the Speaker read out his ruling rejecting the editor's explanation to his readers. The cartoon, Mr. Pandian 'said, was published maliciously and was calculated to undermine the prestige and dignity of the House and the reputation of Ministers and MLAs. Lest any action against the magazine should be construed as an infringement of the freedom of the press, Mr. Pandian observed, "Your freedom should not touch my nose." He held the editor prima facie guilty of breach of privilege and commended the issue to the House. Even as the non-Congress (I) Opposition leaders, one by one, pleaded for a lenient view of the matter, Mr. Pandian interrupted them, cut them short and every now and then bellowed into the mike words of wisdom like "You can't cut a joke at the expense of a stranger... I don't know the editor.... he can't take such liberties with me.... I won't leave him.... If a constable can execute the IPC, why not the Legislature?.... Don't be thick-skinned.... You may tolerate an insult, I can't, I am a sensitive fellow" and so on and so forth. Immediately after the Speaker handed down his suo moto ruling, Leader of the House and Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezhiyan moved the resolution for breach of privilege. During the debate that followed, all sections of the House barring the ruling AIADMK and the Congress tolerate such description of and read out a statement saying that it themselves?" Instead of tendering an had been decided to release Mr. Baapology, the editor had added insult to lasubramanian "in · deference to the injury by his sarcastic comments, Mr. magnanimity of the Chief Minister." Nedunchezhiyan said, recommending Congress (I) leader N.S.V. Chithan "deterrent punishment" of three and D. Yasodha wanted to raise points months' rigorous imprisonment. The of order. When the Speaker disallowentire non-Congress (I) Opposition ed them, the Congress (I) too walked protested and walked out. The motion out and stayed away for the rest of the was finally carried by voice vote with day. only the ruling party and the Congress Though the Speaker used his dis(I) voting in favour. Chief Minister cretionary powers to release the ViM.G. Ramachandran did not attend katan editor, the main issue, namely the Assembly that day. the Assembly resolution sentencing The action came in for widespread him to three months' RI, still remains, and scathing criticism. The first to as veteran parliamentarian and Marxreact was, strangely, the Congress (I) ist leader P. Ramafnurthi has pointed M P from Tindivanam, Mr. K. Rama- out. He has said the constitutionality moorthi, who said "There is not an iota and legality of the resolution should be of natural justice in it since the af- challenged in court. fected party was not given an opporIn a statement, Mr. Ramamurthi tunity to explain either to the House has said: "From the 'imperative need' or the Privileges Committee." State for 'deterrent' sentence of three monJanata Party President Era Sezhiyan ths, the release within 48 hours is an said the House had done immense anti-climax. But the whole episode is a damage to its reputation as a forum for sordid drama. To say that the Chief democracy. Marxist leader P. Uma- Minister did not know about the pronath said "If at all anybody is to be ceedings of the House on April 4 is hauled up for denigrating the legisla- unbelievable. Mr. Nedunchezhiyan ture, it is the AIADMK Government dare not bring such a resolution wiand the Speaker, who, by their arbi- thout orders from the Chief Minister. trary actions, have made the legisla- Why did it take 36 hours for the ture a laughing-stock." spring of 'mercy' and 'magnanimity' to The strongest indictment came well up in Mr. M.G. Ramachandran?" from the Editors Guild of India. Its The fact must be that the Congress President, Ramoji Rao, said: "There (I) High Command must have been was neither rule nor law in the process disturbed over the reaction of the of the action taken against the editor. people and the press in particular. Mr. It is arbitrary, unjust and against all Chidambaram would not have made principles of natural justice. The Tamil his statement before getting clearance Nadu Speaker arrogated to himself from Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. The Prime the functions of a prosecutor, a judge Minister or the High Command, most and a censor. While this is unthinkable probably, would have contacted Mr. in a civilised society, what is most Ramachandran, and the Chief Mindisturbing is that almost the entire ister must have carried out the orders. Assembly, barring a few Opposition Who authorised Mr. Chidambaram to

baram had condemned the action as unjust, we could have hailed his democratic spirit. Instead, he chose to apologise on behalf of the editor. What locus standi has he to apologise? Is he a member of the House? By tendering an apology, Mr. Chidambaram has indirectly acknowledged that the Vikatan editor has committed an offence. Strangest of all, Mr. Chithan, N Mr. Ramamoorthi and Mr. Chidambaram all belong to the Moopanar group. What sort of a game are they playing? Whatever the game, it is funnier than the Vikatan cartoon." Immediately after the Congress (1) walk-out, TNCC(l) President M. Palaniyandi told an impromptu news conference that Mr. Balasubramanian had been released not owing to the "magnanimity" of the Chief Minister but because of Mr. Chidambaram's appeal. As Mr. Balasubramanian himself put it after his release, "Press freedom does not depend on the magnanimity of any individual." Going by past record, Mr. Ramachandran will be the last person to show any such gesture towards the press. It is a known fact that Mr. Ramachandran was the author of the infamous Act to curb so-called scurrilous writings which was in fact a forerunner to the similar black Bill enacted in Bihar in the early Eighties. Mr. Ramachandran annulled the Act after the Bihar Bill touched off a countrywide uproar. That, in short, is his style of functioning -- to backtrack, somersault and withdraw into a shell in the face of a storm. He released DMK leader M. Karunanidhi a few days after his conviction in the Constitution-burning case. Similarly, he was forced to release Mr. Balasubramanian as storm clouds were gathering over the issue. A disturbing aspect of the whole

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President M. Palaniyandi rushed to the accident spot within hours of the Ariyalur train disaster and Governor S.L. Khurana cancelled Holi celebrajtions at Raj Bhavan, Chief Minister jM.G. Ramachandran attended the 25th week celebrations of a Tamil film the same evening, much to the surprise of even the organisers, and spent' an hour laughing and joking. \ The ruling party, dismayed over the, growing popularity of Vikatan's sister publication Junior Vikatan which focusses on the darker side of Tamil1 Nadu politics, was waiting for a chjance to hit back when the joke came as a godsend. But, surprisingly, the issue was raised in the Assembly not by a ruling partyman but by Mr. N.S.V. Chithan of the Congress (I) who has been instrumental in getting many controversial rulings from Speaker P.H. Pandian like the resuscitation of a privilege issue against Vaniga Ottrumai editor A.M. Paul Raj, the quashing of a High Court order acquitting two persons of forgery and of course, the disqualification of seven D M K MLAs for burning the Constitution. Like on the previous occasions, the Speaker was ready with his written ruling the moment Mr. Chithan raised the issue through a point of order. Mr. Pandian in his ruling said the joke had offended members and lowered their 'dignity. The House, he said, was a court of records and could initiate summary action. He warned the editor that he would be punished if he did not publish an unqualified apology in the next issue. ! Mr. Pandian chose the wrong / magazine to shake a stick at. Vikatan {is a household name in Jamil Nadu. / As Mr. Balasubramanian himself put it after his release, he would readily have expressed regret if the members had merely said that the joke had hurt them. But the guilt was presumed and an apology demanded at the point of a gun. As is to be expected from an editor of Vikatan's stature. Mr. Balasubramanian said it was a harmless joke not directed against any particular politician and if it offended anyone, it only meant that he had a troubled conscience. He said there was no point in offering any explanation to the As-

. ,,,,,.«· puma iacie guilty of breach of privilege and commended the issue to the House. Even as the non-Congress (I) Opposition leaders, one by one, pleaded for a lenient view of the matter, Mr. Pandian interrupted them, cut them short and every now and then bellowed into the mike words of wisdom like "You can't cut a joke at the expense of a stranger... I don't know the editor.... he can't take such liberties with me.... I won't leave him.... If a constable can execute the IPC, why not the Legislature?.... Don't be thick-skinned.... You may tolerate an insult, I can't, I am a sensitive fellow" and so on and so forth. Immediately after the Speaker handed down his suo moto ruling, Leader of the House and Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezhiyan moved the resolution for breach of privilege. During the debate that followed, all sections of the House barring the ruling AIADMK and the Congress (I), which is the main Opposition party, pleaded against overreacting to just a cartoon. When Mr. Manoharan said "We Should ensure the freedom of the press while asking it to be responsible," Mr. Pandian thundered: "Don't hold a brief for filthy journals. They are all yellow journals with no character, no morals and published by persons with filthy minds." He then turned to Mr. Nedunchezhiyan and said one month's revenue of the magazine be collected as fine. "It's only a suggestion," he added hastily. When Mr. Rahman Khan asked the Speaker to be restrained, Mr. Pandian retorted: "All 234 members have been insulted and you speak up for a filthy journal. You may be ready talose your reputation: I am not. I am a Sensitive fellow. I will not leave him." '' When Mr. Manoharan recalled how Mrs. Indira Gandhi rejected the demand to ban the BBC TV serial "Yes, Minister" which pokes fun at British leaders and how American satirist Art Buchwald parodied even President Reagan, Mr. Pandian said: "We are not Europeans. We don't wear pant and suit. We wear only dhotis." In his reply, Mr. Nedunchezhiyan asked: "Will it be tolerated if the Sankaracharya is described as a pickpocket and a Mutt head as a thief? Will judges, lawyers or even editors

ana me Speaker, who, by their arbitrary actions, have made the legislature a laughing-stock." The strongest indictment came from the Editors Guild of India. Its President, Ramoji Rao, said: "There was neither rule nor law in the process of the action taken against the editor. It is arbitrary, unjust and against all principles of natural justice. The Tamil Nadu Speaker arrogated to himself the functions of a prosecutor, a judge and a censor. While this is unthinkable in a civilised society, what is most disturbing is that almost the entire Assembly, barring a few Opposition

, ,,· uic iniamous Act to curb ,,ui onng such a resolution wi- so-called scurrilous writings which was thout orders from the Chief Minister. in fact a forerunner to the similar Why did it take 36 hours for the black Bill enacted in Bihar in the early spring of 'mercy' and 'magnanimity' to Eighties. Mr. Ramachandran annulled well up in Mr. M.G. Ramachandran?" the Act after the Bihar Bill touched The fact must be that the Congress off a countrywide uproar. (I) High Command must have been disturbed over the reaction of the That, in short, is his style of funcpeople and the press in particular. Mr. tioning -- to backtrack, somersault Chidambaram would not have made and withdraw into a shell in the face of his statement before getting clearance a storm. He released DMK leader M. from Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. The Prime Karunanidhi a few days after his Minister or the High Command, most conviction in the Constitution-burning probably, would have contacted Mr. case. Similarly, he was forced to reRamachandran, and the Chief Min- lease Mr. Balasubramanian as storm ister must have carried out the orders. clouds were gathering over the issue. Who authorised Mr. Chidambaram to A disturbing aspect of the whole

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groups, was party to the most barbaric decisjon of awarding rigorous imprisonnint t a a n editor, t o t i n g him-on a par wipi a criminal. This is the worst thing to happen to the press in our country." Then came the appeal from Union Minister P. Chidambaram who offered to apologise to the House on behalf of the editor. When the House assembled on Monday, only the ruling party and Congress (I) were present. The entire non-Congress (I) Opposition as also the press corps boycotted the proceedings. As soon as the House assembled, the Speaker waived the question hour

apologise for Mr. Balasubramanian? It would have been honest and straightforward if he had apologised to the people for the conduct of the Congress (I) MLA who had initiated the whole proceedings and those who had voted for the resolution. The whole episode exposed the Congress (I) to ridicule. As Dravida Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani pointed out, the issue itself was raised by Congress (I) member Chithan. Hs Deputy Leader in the House, Mrs. p . Yasodha, who spoke on the resolution, did not plead for admonition of the editor but wanted "at least the minimum punishment" awarded to him. Mr. Veeramani said "If Mr. Chidam-

drama is that for the first time in the legislative history of Tamil Nadu, summary punishment was given to an editor, that too for an innocuous car? toon. Hardly a few weeks earlier, a privilege issue was raised against a relatively unknown English periodical Aside for its report on the goings-on in the MLAs' hostel. The report called MLAs womanisers and worse. Yet the Speaker thought it fit to refer the issue to the Privileges Committee. Even Vaniga Ottrumai editor Paul Raj, who wrote that the MLAs were behaving like rowdies, was given only two weeks' simple imprisonment.

S. Murari..

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