Monday 21 November 2011

Sawant must get Rs 10,000 cr (Sunday Guardian)


hat, a mere Rs 100 cr for the indescribable torture and humiliation felt by Justice P.B. Sawant as viewers beheld the sage visage of the jurist for the abnormally long period of 15 seconds, that too in a report about a scam? The sum awarded ought to have been much more, given that the channel aired an apology for such a lapse for only five consecutive days, rather than the five hundred that such inhumane treatment of Justice Sawant merited. As for the relatively low value placed on Justice Sawant's reputation by the Pune trial court, well, there are precedents for such admirable generosity towards a defendant.
Two decades ago, the Supreme Court fixed a sum of US $470 million as damages on Union Carbide, after the Madhya Pradesh government had demanded at least $3.3 billion in damages for the world's biggest industrial disaster. While many saw the amount of compensation decreed by the apex court as low, those involved in selection of judges for the International Court of Justice at The Hague clearly disagreed, as the Chief Justice who delivered the verdict, R.S. Pathak, was soon after made a judge of the ICJ, where no doubt he served with the same distinction as in his previous avatar.
The Pune trial court has struck a necessary blow in defence of press standards that would dry up 99% of reporting and commentary in India.
And now comes another verdict, in which many feel that the Honourable Court has been extremely parsimonious in awarding damages. This relates to the derisory amount of Rs 100 cr that was decided by the Pune trial court as being sufficient compensation for the agony inflicted on Justice P.B. Sawant (a former judge of the Supreme Court) by a television channel flashing his visage onscreen in a report relating to a scam involving provident fund dues. The showing of such images in such a context would do irreparable harm to the good judge's reputation, perhaps to the point where longtime friends avoid his company, and close family members begin to seriously consider whether he may truly be involved in matters relating to provident funds.
In such circumstances, perhaps an award of Rs 10,000 cr may have better met the ends of justice. After all, television channels are expected (presumably by the law and the Constitution of India, these being the only texts on which judges rely) to be 100% accurate in their reporting. Unless they ferret out all the information about a particular story, they would be committing an act of grave irresponsibility in telecasting such episodes. So what if it may take several years to gather all the evidence, or that in almost all the issues they seek to report on, such a perfect result is unobtainable? After all, most cases in India take dozens of years before finally getting settled, and hence there is a strong precedent for the media to follow the same example in their own work. Stories based on less than 100% information ought to be canned and never see the light of day. North Korean television can be a good model to emulate. There, nothing is conveyed that is remotely seen as suspicious or adventurous. It speaks of the generosity and capacity for forgiveness of Justice Sawant that he has not appealed against the small amount of Rs 100 cr that has been awarded as damages to him. Lesser men than him would have done so.
It is perfectly in order that the television channel in question has been asked to deposit Rs 20 cr and furnish a bank guarantee for four times that amount before being given the right to have an appeal heard against the High Court verdict upholding the trial court's decision. Unless one has serious money, one should not expect to waste the time of courts through appealing against judgments that clearly err — if at all — on the side of generosity towards the defendant. Putting in place procedures that would limit the frequency of appeals is a step that has immense beneficial value in a country where few are sensible enough to live for the 125 years and more that is needed to see through legal procedures.
Justice Markandey Katju has, with clear understatement, described in some detail the mentally challenged nature of those who (being unfit for useful tasks) work in the media.
Clearly, the media — as it presently operates — is a grave danger to civilised society and indeed to Indian culture. What the community deserves is a media that comments only after a process of verification that will ensure that only the most anodyne of commentary pass muster. Knowing the allergy of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi towards any mediaperson not considered genteel enough to share a pot of tea with her (several of whom have figured in the conversations of the loquacious Nira Radia), it is clear why Justice Katju was made the chairperson of the Press Council by her followers. Hopefully, he will soon begin to levy damages on newspapers and television outlets for reportage not backed by 100% evidence of the kind that only the National Security Advisor can gain access to. Clearly, such damages need to be more, much more than the small amount levied on Times Now for committing such an egregious act of media frenzy as showing an image of Justice Sawant in a report about a scam. What horrors will come next if the media were to get away with its myriad transgressions? Allegations of corruption against political leaders or high officials, and that too without getting copies of all files relating to the subject? What would happen to the future of India if the population were to get exposed to negative views about the selfless individuals who dedicate their lives to serve the people, and who live in the humble accommodations that dot Lutyensway?
he Pune trial court has struck a necessary blow in defence of press standards that would dry up 99% of reporting and commentary in India. Humble scribes such as this columnist, who will find it tough to pay even 1% of 1% of the (admittedly very low) level of compensation now established as a precedent in the Sawant case, will now need to pause before making comments about anything other than flowers in a park. The advantage will be that he will now need to visit the park more often, thereby improving his health.
Thank you, Justice Sawant, for standing up in defence of all those who are being attacked by a media that seems to believe it has the same licence in its reportage as do its counterparts in backward, repressive societies such as those found in the EU or in North America. In a country like India, that is teeming with saints, especially at the higher levels of the administrative machinery, the sort of media favoured by Justices Sawant and Katju are exactly the saintisised — sorry, sanitised — media we need.


  1. Here is a completely contrarian view: