Media,Law & the case of Roys

The editorial “The Morning Knock”  in The Indian Express (June 7, 2017) on the CBI raid NDTV founders Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy was disappointing. The newspaper failed to make a fair assessment. The editorial raises the issue of media-transparency – the “why” behind the editorial – and the need for accountability on the part of the media itself.

The editorial, correctly stated that the “media house is not expected to be above the law” but proceeded to invoke the epithet “caged parrot” for the CBI and draw upon the “relics of a dark time to which no one wishes to return”. The illustrations given would have been justified if the facts of the case in question showed that the raid was unwarranted. The newspaper, however, chose not to commit to this position yet suggested the possibility of raid being of questionable intent! Any search for information which confirms one’s preconceptions is nothing but cherry picking – using information which confirms one point of view while ignoring all data which can contradict it. And having itself acknowledged that “ownership of most media today is defined by vertiginous web of cross-holdings involving corporates and entities for whom media is not primary business” the newspaper would have done to maintain the difference between the interest of the media from the commercial interests of the media owners which it chose not to do.

The editorial raised what it called “disquieting questions”. The CBI, it said, stepped in seven years “after the event”! “Event” is a value neutral description and is inapposite considering the subject of the editorial. It is interesting to note the absence of any word (criminal?) modifying the noun “event” and attributing to it any quality  (crime?) as to justify initiation of an investigation. If it was an “event” seven years is a long period of time for it to be worthy of interest or attention but if the event was a “crime” the passage of seven years is irrelevant and the more disquieting issue is its being hidden for the period.

The editorial next regrets that “there is no original investigation”. Investigation, however, follows and does not precede registration of information concerning commission of an offence. And if “original investigation” is the key how can the newspaper without even touching the facts of the case leave aside investigating the same call the initiation of the process “disquieting”?

ICICI, the editorial says, has not complained and the loss is described as a “private loss” to be decided by the “law of torts” with which the government is not expected to “weigh in”. Firstly, the concept of locus standi is alien to criminal law and anyone can put the criminal law into motion unless contra-indicated by the statute. Secondly even private banks perform public duties and their officials can be prosecuted for corruption or otherwise abusing their authority. Thirdly, even torts can be simultaneously be criminal wrongs and there is no bar to proceed under the latter. In fact as banks have the power to create money, shape economy and manipulate investments the need for accountability and control is higher in “events” involving banks which consequently cannot be called “private wrongs” to individual victims (to which law of torts applies) but “public wrongs” which need to be prosecuted on behalf of the society and placed clearly in the realm of criminal law.

The editorial contradicts itself by saying, “disputes concerning defaults bigger by order of magnitude are being heard by courts and the government has made no attempt to short circuit the process by letting the CBI loose.” The grievance thus shifts from an “event” to a “private wrong” to eventually a wrong which many others have also committed a plaintive attempt following this change in perception at seeking parity in illegality and perpetuation of criminal order – something which does not behove a newspaper which proudly proclaims “journalism of courage”. The newspaper should be more concerned about those left out rather than those reined in. Besides how can the newspaper complain simultaneously about “letting CBI loose” AND its being a “caged parrot”? Did the newspaper want the CBI to be caged in rather than being free to investigate the wrong. Does this not entail conviction being replaced by preferences and position on principles shifting with the personalities involved creating the very crisis of credibility for the newspaper which it apprehends is being faced by the CBI? Besides “disputes” of “bigger defaults” are weasel words stripped of specifics which can be manipulated according to one’s biases and written without threat of contradiction with no means of knowing which disputes and defaults the editorial had in mind to test whether its opinion was in fact correct.

Any tampering of information by the government is wrong. However a correct portrayal of it by the media is as equally mandated. And both need to be wary of giving it a spin manipulate opinion rather than inform it and allow it to reach its own conclusions about the issues which confront it. The case of the Roys is a test not only of the “commitment” of the CBI to investigate fairly as the editorial rightly opines but its reporting by the media is equally a test of its commitment to transparency and reliability of information purveyed by it.

The “SPECIAL” Coal Case – Ministers and Scamsters!

The judgment rendered by the Special Court betrays complete ignorance of the constitutional fundamentals of a Parliamentary form of Government.

A minister is responsible to Parliament for whatever goes on in his department, whatever the extent of delegation and whether he is personally involved or not. It is this accountability, which provides legitimacy to governance and justifies retention of confidence of the Parliament and consequently consent of the governed. It is thus the minister alone who is the final decision making authority and remains liable to account to Parliament for all mishaps and operational failures of his ministry.

There cannot, therefore, be a presumption that a Minister does not know what is happening in his ministry. The presumption, in fact, is to the contrary because his office is predicated on the affirmation of the principle of accountability, which negates the supposition that he need not know the affairs of his ministry. And an emphatic reiteration of this principle arises where power is exercised by the minister personally as in that event there is no displacement of authority to take decisions and of the consequential liability for the same.

In the case where the Coal Secretary has been convicted, he merely recommended allocation of coal blocks but the eventual approval was granted by the Minister of Coal who also happened to be the Prime Minister.

Yet the Special Judge records in his order, “there was no reason in the facts and circumstances of the case for the Prime Minister as Minister of Coal to presume that the guidelines issued have not been complied with. It is not only apparent from the record but it is certainly permissible to draw a presumption in the overall facts and circumstances of the case that Prime Minister as Minister of Coal proceeded to consider the recommendation of the Screening Committee on the assumption that the applications must have been checked in MOC for their eligibility and completeness or that the guidelines must have bee duly followed even by the Screening Committee.”

Moreover he conflated the PM with the Government of India. He framed an issue thus: “Whether dishonest representation continued before the PM and thereby cheating Government of India.”

The PM is NOT the government of India and the comment betrays complete lack of understanding about what the government is.

Even where functions entrusted to a minister (or PM) are performed by an official there is in law no delegation because the official’s act is constitutionally that of the minister.

And should an official may act in a manner the minister disapproves, the minister has then to act to show his disapproval of the same and should he choose not to so act despite having the opportunity, the reason and ability his omission becomes part of the blameworthy act itself. In the instant case the minister did not so act. If the civil servant is culpable so will the minister.

Thus not the secretary alone but he along with the Prime Minister can be liable to the Government of India.

In fact in the instant case the responsibility was more onerous on the PM for the Special Judge himself records that “the fact that the then Prime Minister of the country Dr. Manmohan Singh thought it appropriate to retain the charge of Ministry of Coal with himself only, clearly shows as to how important the work of said Ministry was.” If it was admittedly very important for him how can it be presumed in his favour that he left it to the discretion of the Screening Committee to make recommendations and then blindly follow them? The presumption would be that he was alert and was fully informed!

The wrong becomes more significant still as the concerned minister was also the Prime Minister. Mr Parakh, however, has written that “on the 20th August 2004, the Prime Minister approved allocation through open bidding. He wanted a cabinet note on this. After the Prime Minister’s approval, we received a note from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), enumerating the possible problems in moving to open bidding. It is understood that this note from the PMO was based on an unsigned note given by the MoS to the PMO.” Instances such as these are cited to prove The PM’s innocence – the fact that he was helpless. This reputation enabled him to a get relief from the Supreme Court too. However no matter how good a person one is, if the act (or omission) is criminal goodness of disposition provides no amnesty from prosecution. The fact remains that the PM did not remove the minister, who he was entitled to do, and altered the decision to align with that of the minister! Apart from the fact that omission to act, being intentional, had a behavioral dimension, which took away from it the badge inactivity and firmly attached it to the unfolding criminality of conduct, the issue transcended from one of individual ministerial responsibility to one collective responsibility of the council of ministers for which, again, the PM is ultimately responsible.

If the secretary, as the head of the permanent civil service can be prosecuted, the PM who heads the political executive cannot be immune. In matters of policy the responsibility is always of the political executive. And where the political executive allows faulty implementation of policy, the wilful failure to act will make its liability joint with the civil servant. Let there be nothing arbitrary in drawing the bounds of criminality and never play favorites with the accused. Law after all is not to be like “a spider-web through which big flies pass while the little ones get caught.” Once the political executive is reigned in the permanent civil service can never go astray. If however law provides possibility of wagering a chance to defeat the system immunizing some and randomly targeting others it will remain a failure both instrumentally and normatively and the systemic rot will remain endemic.

(THIS HAS BEEN PUBLISHED AS AN OPINION IN BLOOMBERGQUINT   ON 28TH OF MAY, 2017)

The Case for KOHINOOR

The statement made in the Supreme Court of India on the Kohinoor diamond is astonishing and is contrary both to history and law.
Kohinoor was part of loot not “gift” and the very circumstances surrounding the Last Treaty of Lahore by which it is claimed that the diamond was ceded to the Queen of Victoria – the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed immediately after the Second Anglo-Sikh War and Duleep Singh who handed over the diamond was but a child – showed that the “gift” was anything but voluntary! And the law too permits the making and enforcing of the claim for return of Kohinoor to India.
In Resolution 3187 of 1973 The General Assembly, deploring removal during colonial or foreign occupation of objects d art, declared that  “the prompt restitution to a country of its objets d’art, monuments, pieces, manuscripts and documents […], is calculated to strengthen international co-operation inasmuch as it constitutes just reparation for damage done”.
The Resolution recognises the customary rule of prohibition against the use of force recognised in several instruments of international law commencing from the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815 to the Hague Conventions, UN Charter and the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and subsequent developments.
Opponents of the restoration of cultural artefacts rely on the fact that East India Company was a private corporation and India was not a colony of the British at the relevant time. They also rely on the principle of inter-temporal law according to which the issues should be assessed not on the basis of existing international rules but law in force at the relevant time.
Neither submission can prevail.

The site of the Parliament of UK has a section Parliament and Empire. It records that East India Company Loan Act and the East India Company Regulating Act made it possible for the government in Britain o extend a loan to the Company in exchange for recognition of the British state’s ultimate authority over the Indian territories.It leased to the Company continued political control of its Indian territory in exchange for a payment of £40,000 every two years. It also established the post of governor-general who, with a council of four members, was to have overall authority over the Company’s territories. More government control came with the India Act of 1784, under Prime Minister William Pitt. This created a committee of six government appointees, known as the Board of Control, who were to monitor and direct the Company’s policies. The government was also to have the final decision on the Company’s nominations for its officials in India. This and a further new law passed in 1786 greatly increased the authority of the governor-general over other Company officials. The ultimate control therefore lay with the government itself and liability cannot be disclaimed on the ground that East India Company, which in any event was established by Royal Charter, was merely a private company.

The inter-temporal principle cannot apply to human rights obligations. Cultural artefacts are part of the nation’s heritage and constitute its identity and the right to this cultural patrimony both tangible and intangible is basic to human dignity and indispensable for social and cultural progress. The very moral dimension of it makes it a human right. The instruments dealing with this subject, therefore, could not be said to define the norm but merely declared what already existed as an autonomous and binding principle.

It is sometimes also said that there can be competing claims by the Iranians or Afghans whose rulers held the diamond at different times. The diamond however came from the Kollur mine in Andhra Pradesh, India which was the only one to produce it at that time. As right to cultural artefacts is an imprescriptible human right and there is an obligation to return on all who may have acquired this physical cultural artefact by force the diamond has to eventually return to Indian territory no matter how many hands it may have passed through. Such artefacts are not considered private property and there is an obligation to preserve them within the territory to which they belong.

Interestingly the statement reportedly made by  in the Supreme Court was “If we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us. There will be nothing left in our museums.” Ironically David Cameroon had used almost the same words when he came to India in 2010; he said,”If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put”. 

It is not a question of which museum gets empty. Its the issue as to which museum is the right custodian of the artefact. And Kohinoor belongs to India.