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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 16 New Delhi April 7, 2018

Dalit Anger, Muzzling Free Press

Saturday 7 April 2018, by SC


Dalit anger at the perceived dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) as a consequence of a March 20 order of the Supreme Court erupted in large-scale violence in different parts of the country, especially North India (with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, to go to polls this year, witnessing the worst violence), on April 2 resulting in the death of nine persons—six in Madhya Pradesh, two in UP and one in Rajasthan—while many were injured and there was considerable destruction of public property worth crores of rupees.

However, despite the Dalit outrage across Northern India, the Apex Court remains unperturbed. It asserts that people were “misled” and underlines: “The judgment (of March 20) is not in conflict with the SC/ST Act. It does not dilute the law in any way.” But as Anisha George, an Assistant Editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, explains,

The Supreme Court’s proposed safeguards will not go unopposed. Despite the routine as well as spectacular indignities Dalits face in the cultural realm and political economy, they have time and again invested faith in the law and Constitution. It is this faith which has been put to the test by the Court’s recent ruling. The judiciary needs to be sensitised to the nature and operation of caste in Indian society if it is to uphold this faith.

It is this which the learned judges of the Apex Court must be made conscious of—the sooner they realise this, the better.

Meanwhile following the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s notification laying down new guidelines punishing journalists for fake news, the PM is learnt to have ordered the withdrawal of the directive. But not before there was widespread criticism that such norms were an attempt to muzzle the free press in an election year.

The strongest criticism came from the Editors Guild of India. Even after withdrawal of the directive due to the PM’s intervention, it stated that it “remains deeply disturbed that faith continues to be reposed on the Press Council of India to deliver justice on such issues”, adding:

The recent reconstitution of the Press Council of India has been done in a manner that gives rise to doubts over the independence of the institution and its ability to play neutral umpire. The Guild’s nominees to the Council were disallowed on technical grounds. Also, the recent reconstitution of the Central Press Accreditation Committee has raised questions over the non-transparent processes being followed by the I&B Ministry as the Guild’s application was ignored.

Such developments are not merely deeply disturbing but doubtless cause profound concern. In this context the democratic forces and journalists’ organisations must be ever vigilant to safeguard press freedom that is being sought to be curbed on the slightest pretext by the present dispensation at the Centre.

April 5 S.C.

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