ON JANUARY 6, 2009 in a scene straight out of a 1970s Bollywood movie, six police vans chased down the car in which the chairman and director of Chitra Publications, BV Seetaram, and his wife were travelling in Udupi district, Karnataka. Seetaram stepped out to face a posse of 25 policemen seeking to arrest him in a two-year-old defamation suit against him. It is ironic that the policemen had forgotten to bring along the arrest warrant.
Chitra Publications publishes three newspapers, including the controversial Kannada news daily, Karavali Ale. A popular read in the coastal districts of Karnataka, the newspaper claims 40,000 subscribers and over two lakh readers.
A day after his arrest, Seetaram was produced before the court of the Judicial Magistrate (First Class) in Udupi — handcuffed to an iron chain and escorted by several policemen wielding automatic rifles. Citing a serious threat to his life from the police and the state government, he refused to apply for bail but changed his mind after being moved to Mysore.
THERE ARE INSTANCES WHICH SUGGEST THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS HELPING HINDUTVA FORCES
Seetaram’s arrest follows nearly two months of sustained attacks against his newspaper clearly aimed at disrupting Karavali Ale’s circulation. On November 17, the newspaper’s printing press in Mangalore was attacked and a constable on duty sustained injuries. Weeks later, distribution vans were intercepted and over 5,000 copies of the paper burnt. Hawkers and shops selling or stocking it were ransacked. Though complaints were filed and cases registered, no arrests have been forthcoming — something that hardly surprises the editor.
Seetaram has consistently held Bajrang Dal activists responsible for the attacks — he says they are incensed by his open criticism of their role in the attacks on churches in and around Mangalore in 2008. Seetaram’s accusation of the Bajrang Dal has hardly been refuted. The Bajrang Dal’s Dakshina Kannada district convenor, Vinay Shetty, while talking to TEHELKA, indicated support for the attacks against Karavali Ale. “If people are angry, they will react. He (Seetaram) attacks Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious leaders; people from the community will come forward to defend their leaders.” Days after a series of articles in his newspaper accusing the Sangh Parivar of playing a fascist role in the coastal region, Seetaram was arrested in a defamation suit filed against him in July 2007.
Bhoja Shetty, a resident of Udupi, filed the defamation charge against Seetaram alleging that the editor had blackmailed Shetty for a sum of Rs 1 lakh. Shetty states that when he refused to give in, the editor portrayed him as a rapist in his newspaper even though the charges were unsubstantiated.
Shocking treatment The police arrested Seetaram as they would a hardened criminal
IN YET another incident in 2007, cases were filed against Seetaram after he carried a series of provocative articles against Jainism and the Jain community. Seetaram had questioned the decision of a popular Jain saint to participate in public processions in the nude. He had argued that religious sanction had to make way for the demands of public morality, especially since there was a law
against nudity in India. The language and the tenor of the articles had led to his arrest following cases filed from an irate Jain community. “On several occasions, we ourselves don’t agree with the way our articles are presented. There is unstated yet clear pressure to meet a mark that has been set. Crime sells. Sensationalism sells,” says a local Karavali Ale reporter on condition of anonymity.
Questions about Seetaram’s brand of journalism notwithstanding, the sequence of events and his handcuffing have sparked outrage amongst journalists and editors across Karnataka and elsewhere. Protests and statements of condemnation against the highhandedness of the police, the political manoeuvring behind the timing of the arrest and the attacks against Karavali Ale continue to pour in.
The International Federation of Journalists, the Editors’ Guild of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and several journalists’ representation bodies within Karnataka have called the incident a clear threat to the democratic right to a free press. The Editors’ Guild of India has called for the repeal of criminal defamation provisions in the Indian Penal Code saying these provisions force editors to make long journeys to courts in small towns and have become instruments of harassment misused by influential persons.
The BJP Government and the police have, however, denied the claim that Seetaram has been targeted for his anti-communal stance. In statements issued soon as condemnations of the arrest began pouring in, both the Inspector General of Police (Western Range) AM Prasad (Udupi and Mangalore fall under his command) as well as VS Acharya, the Home Minister, denied unfair treatment. Delays in acting on Seetaram’s complaints of attacks against his publication are attributed baldly to “time required to complete due processes of investigation.”
These denials aside, there are other instances which suggest that the BJP Government and the police are unfairly supporting proponents of the Hindutva ideology. No action has been taken in two separate complaints lodged in Mangalore against a Kannada daily, Vijaya Karnataka. The complaints were filed by PB D’Sa, president of the Dakshina Kannada Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties and James Louis of the Bharathiya Crista Seva Sanghatane against a rightwing Kannada author, SL Byrappa,Vijaya Karnataka columnist Pratap Simha, and the editors and publishers of Vijaya Karnataka. Both D’Sa and Louis alleged that the articles were highly provocative and defended the attacks on the Christian community.
In the communalised atmosphere that has descended on Mangalore and the coastal districts, the fact that Seetaram was arrested and sternly treated while no action has been taken against the right-wing press is significant. Media responsibility and freedom of the press appear to be separated in Karnataka.
This article was originally published in Tehelka, a leading independent news magazine in India, known for its investigative journalism.