Oct 292012

My column in today’s DNA

Trial by media: Kejriwal is simply on a witch-hunt

Madame Defarge is one of the most terrifying characters in modern English fiction. She makes her appearance in A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ novel on the French Revolution. She runs a wine shop in pre-revolution France, and all she seems to do is knit. But, in the intricate patterns of her knitting are the names of royalists and people who will be sent to the guillotines once the revolution takes hold. Later in the book, we see her as an observer at the guillotines where hapless victims will be publicly executed. The author introduces us to the blood lust of the mob that wants a human sacrifice to slake its thirst. While Dickens’ work was fictional, it was based on the events that took place during the French Revolution, in an era that came to be known as the “reign of terror”. All that was needed for someone to end up in jail and then have their head separated from body in the guillotine was for another citizen to accuse them. It was a period where more than 15,000 people died on the guillotine. While some possibly deserved a gory end, many were victims of people settling scores.

But, France was not the only culprit. The term witch-hunt derives from the practice of hunting ‘witches’. Women, usually educated ones, were accused of witchcraft, tried and executed all the way till the 19th century. The hunt for the witch usually began because of a sudden illness, crops failing or someone falling in love. All it required was someone to point the finger and say ‘witchcraft’, and lo behold there would be mass hysteria, heightened panic, and baying for blood. The entire locality would be out looking for this ‘witch’. When she was identified, there would be a public trial, with people at large coming up with stories that implicated her. The onus of guilt was on her, and she had to prove that she was innocent. This innocence was usually proven by a trial by ordeal, an agnipareeksha of sorts. She would be put through a life-threatening test. If she failed, which was more likely than not, it was because she was guilty. If she passed, it was because she used the witchcraft to survive, and therefore she would be put to death. The crowds were happy at the blood sacrifice, the self-righteous were satisfied, the pious pleased, and the woman dead.

Witch-hunt today is a term used to denote the behaviour of a system towards a particular group or ideology. For example, in the USA during the McCarthy era, there were witch-hunts against the communists; there are today, witch-hunts against Ahmediyas in Pakistan. The basic premise in all these cases is the same – whip up sentiment, accuse someone (of being dangerous to the system) and then hound them. The onus of proving innocence is on the accused. It is great as spectacle, but terrible for justice.

This is exactly what is happening in India at present. There are accusations being made, slurs being cast, and it is presumed that people are guilty just because they are accused. The mood of the country is currently intolerant towards politicians, in part due to the frenzy whipped up by Mr Kejriwal and his team – who are trying to position themselves as the only honest party in all this. On top of it, the media is adding another layer of drama by simply asking people who know no more about these cases than you or I, to judge the relative guilt or innocence of the accused. A kangaroo court of sorts. There is a sense of outrage being whipped up by two sets of parties for their own end: By Mr Kejriwal to build political capital for his new party, and by news channels in the ratings war.

Whether it is Shashi Tharoor, Nitin Gadkari, Salman Khurshid, Yeddyurappa or Mayawati – the voices baying for blood are louder than the evidence. The logic used is simple: ‘They’ are rich and powerful people and therefore there will be no evidence. But the lack of evidence, does it signify guilt or innocence? And even if they were guilty, should you not go through the process of establishing guilt rather than indulge in this chorus of accusations? The question to introspect is whether any of us wants to be treated in the same manner – pronounced guilty without a chance to clear our name if accused of a wrong doing. It is part of the UN declaration of human rights that a person is always innocent till proven guilty. Should we allow mass media hysteria and the outraged self-righteousness of a would-be political player to impinge on basic human rights?

  3 Responses to “DNA Column – Trial by media: they are simply on a witch-hunt”

  1. Those who enter public life cannot take refuge in that old saw “I am innocent till proved guilty”. We must hold them to a higher degree of accountability. Kejriwal has not fired loose cannons. He has come up with fairly detailed, credible and specific charges against each of the individuals. Follow-up work done by media showed that there was substance and merit in each of the allegations.

    An alert media shifts the onus of proof of innocence on to the politicians. The individuals so charged can choose to ignore the allegations and go into a shell or face the media and try to present their version. “Trial by media’ can be called unfair only if the individuals or ‘victims’ are not given equal opportunity or space to make their point. Obviously, the media cannot hang or punish a person, but it can let the viewers or readers form their own perception.

    The ‘innocent-till-proven-guilty’ principle is desirable in a civilised society, but those in the public space have misused it for decades and taken advantage of the legal labyrinth to push their case out of the realm of public memory. The whole world knows that several politicians have made crores through corrupt practices and dubious methods and yet the law of the land has not caught up with them. If ‘trial by media’ can hasten that process, let’s welcome it. Those entering politics better know that they need to work hard to build public perception of their integrity.

    • i don’t disagree wtih you. This is also not a comment on whether those who have been accused should continue holding office, or quit to clear their names. It is about the presumption of guilt. the ‘we have accused and the person is guilty until s/he comes up with evidence to prove their innocence is exceedingly dangerous territory.

      This actually began in a class lecture – was discussing Gadkari’s case – one of the student’s quipped “he is accused, it is upto him to prove he is inncoent’.

      The fact remains that all our rights from speech to the right to be held innocent till proven guilty are binary. either it applies for all or none. Self righteous anger is great in its place, but i see across the border and the almost messanic zeal of those who have appointed themselves to clean up society -and it scares me. Because once this starts, there is no end to it. Should the corrupt go – defintely. should trials be shorter – truly. should laws be reformed – yes. Should property of those convicted be confiscated – definitely. Should hard evidence be replaced by conjecture and hearsay – even if we know it to be true – No.
      Maybe i am old fashioned about this 😀 but that is the way i see it.

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