Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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World Press Freedom Day:Taking the people for a ride

Rachna Vinod

The United Nations General Assembly declared May 3rd as World Press Freedom Day in 1993 which was first proposed in 1991 by a group of African journalists who had gathered in Namibia for a UNESCO seminar on promoting an independent and pluralistic press which was later endorsed by UNESCO’s General Conference. Since last 30 years, it is celebrated on every 3rd May. This year’s theme for the Day is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights” Coinciding with 101 birth anniversary of Sh. Om Prakash Saraf, an embodiment of simple living high thinking and an apostle of freedom of expression, this write-up written by him 33 years back still relates to the present scenario. It is reprinted here as a humble tribute to the legendary public figure.
There is hardly anybody in Opposition who does not swear by decentralisation of power. But once in the saddle, the best democrats do not infrequently betray the concept. Not to speak of sharing power with the common folk, the tallest in the tribe have succeeded in reducing the legislatures and cabinets to one-man shows. I know of socialists proving false to their ideals without the least sense of shame if it satisfied their instinct of self-aggrandisement. The situation was undoubtedly at its worst before Independence. For, the rulers then were under no constitutional obligation to observe democratic norms. Even when forced by circumstances to part with some power, they would not miss an opportunity to snatch it back most arbitrarily. An interesting example I have recently come across, illustrates the point.

An event of historic importance just crosses my mind when all-powerful Maharaja Hari Singh found himself in state of utter helplessness at the hands of that great democrat Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister of India. It is well known that the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession with India under compulsion. There was, however, no end to his misfortune. Eventually, he was advised by Sardar Patel to stay away from the State temporarily for reasons of health. After expressing his “sense of keen disappointment and bewilderment at having been called upon to make such a sacrifice of prestige, honour and position’ the Maharaja wrote in his letter to Sardar Patel on May 9,1949: For everybody in bad health, Kashmir is considered to be the best health resort and it will look certainly strange if I went outside the State giving out that I am doing so for reasons of health’.
“I appreciate what your Highness says in regard to the reasons for your remaining outside the State” stated Sardar Patel in his reply dated May 23,1949, adding “but I feel that it would be just to say that Your Highness has decided, after the strain of the last so many months and continued ill-health, to stay out of the State for a few months. The actual period need not be stated”. What a quirk of destiny? A lie had to be created to uphold the national motto of Satyamev Jayate (The Truth shall prevail). The die was cast. The Maharaja signed the following Proclamation on June 20,1949:
“Whereas I have decided for reasons of health to leave the State for a temporary period and to entrust to the Yuvraj Shri Karan Singhji for that period all my powers and functions in regard to The Government of the State.
“Now, therefore, I hereby declare that all powers and functions whether legislative, executive or judicial which are exercisable by me in relation to the State and the Government including in particular of my right and prerogative of making laws, of issuing Proclamations, orders and pardoning offenders, shall during the period of my absence from the State be exercisable by the Yuvraj Karan Singhji Bahadur”.
Sheikh Abdullah did play a crucial role at a critical juncture. So did the Maharaja. We are perhaps too close to events to dispassionately assess their roles in the history of what is still called J&K State but virtually torn into pieces. Let it, however be said that the change of rulers from His Highness to Sher-i-Kashmir did not at all result in extension of democratic rights of the people. For, Sheikh did not prove a genuine democrat. He seemed more obsessed with looking big rather than behaving big. His egoistic inclinations took the better his pro-people professions. He destroyed even his party. He gave us first rigged elections and fathered the theory that every Muslim adversary was a Pakistani and every dissenting Hindu, an RSS activist. He was capable of taking rational view but only when it didn’t endanger his position. Freedom of Press did not mean anything to him. He declared even Nehru to be “After all a Kashmiri Pandit” and yet welcome an opportunity to identify himself again with him and years later with his daughter as an ‘act of faith’ after remaining in wilderness for more than two decades, as his top lieutenant Mirza Afzal Mohd Beg put it. This is certainly not to deny several beneficial measures he initiated for the poverty-stricken people. Yet he did not take a single step to ensure that the people have right to disagree with him.
I have before me a judgement of the full bench of the State High Court dated April 5,1952, which significantly testifies that even after five years of his total power, he had not cared to favour the people with any fundamental rights. The suppressive laws continue to be the same as in the Maharaja’s time. Their Lordships while dismissing an application against a Government order inter alia observed: “There is no doubt that the right to freedom of discussion and the liberty of the press are the fundamental doctrines of democracy…if section 10(1)(d) of the J&K Press and Publication Act is invoked for the stifling fair comments or criticism or for preventing the ventilation of genuine grievances of the public on the ground that they are likely to create feelings of dis-affection against the Government in the minds of the public. Such an unfortunate happening this court will always consider its duty to prevent. But at the same time, the court has to construe the act as it is. The Court is bound to give effect to the language of the Act so long as it is in existence even though it thinks that the provisions of the Act have not kept pace with the changed time”. Alas the time had changed for Sheikh Abdullah alone.
This brings us to the current controversy of Article 370. This Article was designed to reassure the people of Jammu and Kashmir State against any encroachment by the Centre as in the case of all other Princely States which had however, subsequently chosen to subject themselves to The Constituent Assembly of India whereas J&K State had not surrendered its right to be internally governed by a constitution of its own. There was nothing wrong about it, it simply safeguarded the internal autonomy of the State. It was a device to quote Sardar Patel, to continue the existing relationship of the State with Union of India. Unfortunately, however, Sheikh Abdullah equated Sheikh’s internal autonomy with his unbridled authority to crush all dissent. He never cared to make the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh partners-in-power. He would often say that he would not allow the people to be used as sheep and goats but felt no qualms of conscience to treat them so and did nothing to develop them as a self-reliant and self-respecting community. No wonder, the demand for abrogation of Article as well as its retention lost all significance. In the last general election, the abrogation slogan could not help BJP leaders even to save deposits in both Lok Sabha constituencies in Jammu region. In Kashmir Valley and Ladakh, the people do not even talk about Article 370, It is as good or bad as within J&K. The Kashmiri rulers must share the blame for making a mockery of internal autonomy. Is then the future of democracy bleak in J&K as outside? This leads us to another question: Can India survive without a vibrant democratic system? Well, I must say that the present tribe of politicians does not inspire such hope. Most of them are so uncertain of their Assembly or Lok Sabha constituencies. How can our democracy be safe in their hands? And, where are the people who are willing to play their part even outside the Legislature as harbingers of much needed social change? The one redeeming feature is that many friends in the Press and Judiciary are still ready to hold on their own in order to wholeheartedly support all those who stand for dignity of a democratic way of life.

(The author is a Trustee JDGD SARAF Trust founded by late Lala Mulk Raj Saraf, Father of Journalism in J&K and Late Mr Om Prakash Saraf, veteran journalist)

(Disclaimer: The views, observations and opinions expressed in above write up of Scoop News are strictly author's own. Scoop News does not take any onus or liability for the veracity, accuracy, validity, completeness, suitability of any of information in the above given write up. The information, facts or figures appearing in the write up in no way manifest the position, standpoint or stance of Scoop News and the Scoop News does not assume any encumbrance or answerability of the same. All disputes are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of competent Courts and Forums in Jammu City Only)

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