Press pool should weed out ambulance-chasers

Source: Ramesh Lalwani/Flickr

The quixotic desire to do good, be universally fair and make everybody happy is understandable … There is only one problem with this approach. We are a court” — Justice Janice Brown, the United States

There can be nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child, especially a child still flowering, still in early youth, with potential, promise and the unmet ambitions of a lifetime ahead. Three years ago, almost to the day, the parents of Jyoti Singh Pandey — the young woman in Delhi known to the world as “Nirbhaya” — mourned the death of their daughter after a gruesome and almost inexplicable tragedy.

A plucky young student, striving to educate herself and build a career, supported by working class parents who sought to live their dreams through their children, particularly their first-born, their daughter: It was a tragedy that could make a stone cry.

This past week the story of Jyoti Pandey and her parents came back to us, to haunt our collective conscience. In part, this was because the anniversary of Nirbhaya’s death, and of the horrific night of December 16, 2012, was upon us.

It also coincided with the release of the youngest of the men who brutalised and caused the death of Jyoti Pandey. He was an adolescent at the time, just a few weeks short of 18 years. As per the prevailing law, the adolescent could not be tried for the crime and convicted. He could only be put in a home for juvenile delinquents for a maximum of three years.

Ever since the tragedy of December 2012, the issue of whether a boy of 16 years or 17 years is still a child or should be treated as an adult — or should invite adult-like treatment for certain types of crimes — has been debated. A Bill to reduce the age at which adolescents would be considered adults from 18 years to 16 years was pending in Parliament and waiting for the Rajya Sabha to pass it.

Again, there were those who opposed and supported the Bill, and it finally meet the upper House’s approval this past week. The Congress agreed to allow the House to function and to back the Bill largely due to media and public pressure.

While the fate of Nirbhaya will forever remain a scar on contemporary India, how much of the sound and fury and outrage of the previous fortnight was genuine and how much manufactured?

This is not a cynical question. The sense of betrayal that the Pandey family must have felt as a killer walked away three years after their daughter didn’t return home is completely understandable. Women’s safety on the streets of Delhi remains a black joke. These are genuine concerns.

Yet, what was astonishing was the manner in which so-called enlightened folk — students from the two leading universities in the capital, the news media fraternity, political activists from a variety of parties, including the chair of the National Commission for Women — led an attempt to exploit the Pandey family’s grief, almost milk it for TRPs or political mileage, and try and force the authorities and the courts to keep the former juvenile in custody for longer than the prescribed three years.

Frankly, this was legally impossible. The release of the former juvenile may not have appeared just and may not have brought a sense of closure — if a sense of closure is ever possible for the Pandey family — but it followed the letter of the law.

Neither could a new law be applied retrospectively. At best, and one believes the police is already doing this, monitoring the juvenile as he moves into his old neighbourhood, tracking his movements and keeping tabs on him is what one can hope for.

Perhaps a demand for electronic tracking, using a device attached to or embedded in the body of the former juvenile for a fixed period of time, could be considered and written into the system. Yet, to not release him and simply hold him back by diktat was not feasible and, as the Supreme Court pointed out, patently illegal.

One may not always like the law, but the law is the law. As such, is it the job of the media and the prime-time circus we have given ourselves as a society to rev up passions in such a manner that deep, personal emotions of perfectly decent people are exploited so as to make it appear that they are in conflict with the law?

The Pandey family’s tragedy wasn’t the only one to be so hijacked in the past week. Saurabh Kalia’s parents were also victims. Captain Saurabh Kalia of the India Army was part of a patrol that was captured and taken prisoner during the Kargil War of 1999.

Subsequently, he was tortured, in violation of international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. His mutilated body was later returned to India. Since then, the Kalia family and many in the Armed Forces community have tried to get justice for Captain Kalia and make Pakistani authorities acknowledge and apologise for the barbarity.

While this endeavour should and must continue, so must — it needs to be said — engagement with Pakistan in other spheres. In March 2016, the 20-20 World Cup is to be played in India, and India and Pakistan will meet each other on the cricket pitch in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. A series of news channels have begun using the grief of Captain Kalia’s father to call for the match to be cancelled, arguing it would hurt the family to see the Pakistan flag fluttering in their country.

Hosting a cricket world cup — or any tournament of such scale — is not just a business enterprise but usually calls for sovereign commitments and guarantees by the Indian state. Can India seriously tell Pakistan not to come for an International Cricket Council tournament? Is it fair to interview and instigate — that is the word — Captain Kalia’s father into making heated remarks, provoke his sorrow, and attempt to create a controversy of this nature? Is this public discourse and journalism — or is it plain voyeurism?

 

This article originally appeared in The Pioneer.

 

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Ashok Malik

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