Also: The Hounding of Zahira
LET us, for argument's sake, assume that Indian Express is a newspaper of conscience. We assume that all of Express's assertions in the Best Bakery case were made with no hidden agendas, and with no other motive than to serve public interest. Let us further assume that the said assertions were made in good faith even when they were mutually contradictory, provided the original claims and their contradictions were issued at different points in time.
That is, if Express makes claim X, and then a while later goes on to make claim Y which contradicts X, we assume that the facts available to Express at the moment of asserting X supported making such a claim. In the course of time, other facts come to light, which supercede the older ones, leading to claim Y, which may contradict X.
With this assumption in mind, let us explore Express' role in the Best Bakery case, and see where that exploration leads us to: a strengthening of the assumption, or to a negation of it?
But, you might ask: why focus on Indian Express? Why not on Times of India, India's major vendor of softcore porn (packaged, of course, as infotainment)? The short answer is: Arun Shourie. For a longer answer, please bear with me.
* * *
To begin with, Indian Express was convinced that Zahira Shaikh was initimidated into giving false witness in the Baroda court. The paper was convinced of this beyond a shadow of doubt, with a degree of conviction bordering on that of a religious zealot, as we shall show shortly. So question arises: what were the facts before the paper that led it to this emphatic conviction?
Answer: the anguished cry of Zahira's mother Sehrunissa Shaikh that she trembled in fear in court; followed by Zahira's own "admission" in Mumbai at a Press Meet orchestrated by an alleged NGO that she too did the same.
Indian Express swallowed the Shaikhs' story hook, line and sinker. But of course, it would have done due journalistic diligence to their story before swallowing it lock, stock and barrel. Any two bit journal would have done it, so there is no reason to believe that a paper as serious as Express, a paper of conscience, would not have done it. We are certain that the paper would have deliberated on the plausible reasons for the Shaikhs' behaviour, reasons such as that mother and daughter might have been bribed, or that, even more fundamentally, they were in fact (horror, horror!) telling the truth. A hint of the first possibility even crops up in Ayesha Khan's tete-e-tete with Sehrunissa: Ms Khan asks the latter: did she turn hostile because she was paid off? Sehrunissa responds in the negative, and Ms Khan appears satisified with that denial.
Thus, after weighing lots of options, Shekhar Gupta and his team of conscientious journalists had opted to believe in Sehrunissa's story. The clinching argument that sealed their decision must have been, if we might hazard a guess, that people who saw their own kith and kin burnt alive couldn't possibly be lured by lucre to forsake their shot at justice; ergo, if they claim that they were threatened, they must have been.
Thus born, Express's belief in the Sehrunissa Line turned out to be total, not marred by even a teenyweeny bit of self-doubt or circumspection. The amount of conviction that Gupta's editorialists brought to the aforementioned line can be gauged from the intesity with which they peddled it in the oped page. The paper's editorial the day after it broke the Sehrunissa story was, in part, a mushy slush of maudlin verbiage on the subject of The Suffering of Sehrunissa: if the title bore the quintessential newspaper-of-conscience air, the script was vintage Bollywood:
Sehrunissa Sheikh's reasons for turning hostile indict us all
... try explaining Sehrunissa's narrative in The Sunday Express. In a narrative of intimidation and apprehension, she attempts to explain why she turned a hostile witness... listen to her, and the reasons take shape. She received threats, she says, that she would be killed if she repeated in court what she had said outside...
.. she stood isolated not only from her attackers and their benefactors, but also from fellow witnesses. She feared. For her life. For her daughter's life...
A grandiose statement of Lessons Learnt follows the plugging of this tear-jerker Narrative: the criminal justice system (in Guajarat of course) sucks. There is Fear all over, in the courts as also outside of them:
To understand what Sehrunissa's words mean for our criminal justice system, remember that those legal arguments are tossed back and forth in an atmosphere surcharged with fear. Remember that the reassuring rhythm of legalese is often not carried beyond the courtroom's hallowed precincts by victims of violence. If outside there is intimidation, beyond the safe enclave of the court also lies fear.
* * *
The Indian Express, as we saw earlier, scored a major victory when the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of Best Bakery case in Mumbai. The court bought into the argument that witnesses were intimidated in Baroda, that witnesses will continue to be initimidated in Gujarat, and therefore a fair trial is possible only outside of Gujarat. This was the argument of Shekhar Guptas, the Citizens for Peace and Justice, and of NHRC.
But that is an argument that collapses if you accept the claims of Tehelka's latest hidden-camera job, assuming, again for argument's sake, that:
1) the tapes are genuine; that, unlike in its previous sting, Tehelka resorted to no doctored recording of the proceedings
2) the claims of people filmed in the tapes are true, and,
3) no prostitutes or pimps were used in the operation.
(Indian Express ought to be able to comment on the last assumption, but we digress.)
If the claims of Tehelka's so-called expose are to be believed, then, the case in Baroda court flopped not because the witnesses were frightened into tunring hostile, but because they, of their own volition, without even coming under pressure from the accused, offered, extremely cynically, their crucial legal testimony for a lucrative price. And sold it eventually.
If the claims of Tehelka are to be believed, then, the case in Baroda collapsed not because the court or the prosecutor did a poor job, but because, to repeat, the witnesses, of their own volition, sold their testimony at a premimum.
(Express once carried a story titled 'Biased Bakery'. No kidding. That was the actual headline. The gist of the story was that the Baroda fast track court delivered a biased judgement. The paper's legal eagle Manoj Mitta even laced his manure with special venom for the court's judge: he insinuated that the judge was a "Sangh Parivar" man. So here's helping Express with some more innovative headlines:
etc., etc. But we digress again.)
Of course, we are reckoning without the super-smartness of Shekhar Gupta's eagles. One advantage of belonging in a media cartel that comprises the whole of the media is that you can constantly change goalposts without getting challenged publicly for your endless cascade of flip-flops. Having all along advanced the argument that the fast track court's judge and prosecutor must have probed the "fear" factor, Gupta's boys will now nonchalantly contend that they failed factoring in a bribery angle. They will definitely want to know: but weren't the judge and the prosecutor supposed to divine the fact that witnesses were bought over?
Answer: but how? How were they supposed to know it when no less an entity than Indian Express, with all its sleuthing skills and legal eagles, could not suspect it; when in fact, the paper actively considered that possibility and jettisoned it in favour of Sehrunissa's sob story? How were they to know it when the NHRC was none the wiser about it, and even the Citizens for Peace and Justice were blissfully clueless about it? How were they to know a "fact" that could only be unearthed by deploying a crack team of Tehelka commandos, ably assited, possibly, by a couple of prostitutes as well?
* * *
Therefore, assuming that Indian Express is a newspaper of conscience; and also that Tehelka, its "journalists", its hired team of prostitutes if any, are up to no dirty tricks, we arrive at the following balance sheet:
1) Indian Express gullibly swallowed Zahira and Sehrunissa Shaikhs' mischievous claims.
Let us put that in different ways. Shekhar Gupta and team were manipulated by the Shaikhs. They were fooled, scammed and defrauded. Indian Express allowed itself to be made a consummate clown of by a couple of semi-literate women.
Mr Gupta and team must no doubt have felt deeply, deeply embarrassed at this farcial turn of events. Just as embarrassed as the editor of NYT must have been when he learnt that Jason Blair pulled a fast one on the paper, making it a target of public ridicule.
2) By hawking vigorously as verified, confirmed fact that which now transpires to be a misplaced personal belief in the Shaikhs' claims, the paper led its readers up the garden path.
Put in other words, Shekhar Gupta and team, albeit unwittingly, fooled their readers.
3) Launching a campaign for a retrial of the case outside of Gujarat on the basis of the fradulent Sehrunissa Narrative, the paper has cast aspersions on Gujarat's judiciary.
Put in other words, Shekhar Gupta and team have liberally slung mud on Gujarat's judiciary.
* * *
So how did these fellows react when wisdom dawned on them that they were manipulated by Sehrunissa Shaikh and her daughter? Surely, they must have cringed in embarrassment, and profusely apologized to the parties they wronged through their foolishness: their readers, and the courts of Gujarat? Surely, once bitten, they must now have vowed to do solid homework henceforth before peddling as valid another set of politically charged claims in the Best Bakery case?
We turn our attention to these questions next.