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The Citizen

Distorting Narratives

By Jasdeep Randhawa, Contributor, MPP ‘13

I feel betrayed by every decision of the Supreme Court of India. The highest court of the land in its recent decision in Jakia Nasim Ahesan & Anr. Versus State Of Gujarat & Ors. directed the Special Investigation Team to submit its findings against Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to the trial court, for it to decide whether to initiate prosecution proceedings against the Minister. Modi is the main accused in the 2002 communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in his state, carnage so severe (over 1000 people died) that it continues to attract immense international attention. Modi’s political party wants citizens to believe that celebrations are in order, as the Supreme Court has found no evidence to prosecute its party leader.  The petitioner’s lawyer denies such an interpretation, and argues that the court has passed a well-reasoned judgment, by actually opening the channel for Modi’s prosecution. The citizens of India are left confused and bitter. Is Mr. Modi an innocent man capable of becoming our future Prime Minister? Or is the Supreme Court culpable of failing to hand out justice to those it is due? Has it not fulfilled its constitutional role as the guardian of human rights?

Exacerbating the anguish are the media reports. National tabloids scream headlines asserting the court’s decision has eased the transition of Mr. Modi into national politics. Lawyers, however, declare the judgment as legally sound. The judgment exactly answers the question that a superior court of record is supposed to: what should be the role of the Supreme Court in the area of continuous mandamus writs? This essentially means recognizing the constraints of limited expertise to conduct criminal investigation and respecting constitutional demarcation of judicial functions. The judgment correctly defers to the agency’s investigation of evidence, and the conduct of the trial in the criminal court in Gujarat. Emphasizing that the decision is not on merits, which requires a consideration of the evidence as sound.

The court is adjudicating upon the nation’s nomos, the collective identity of the citizens of India.  The court cannot be the channel for this because that is not its constitutional role. The burden then falls upon the media. The media is a powerful democratic channel that undeniably brings issues of public interest onto the national radar.

When it comes to court reporting, journalism has an even greater responsibility. The political decisions of the court provide an opportunistic moment for the political parties to distort public narrative and change political discourse, resulting misaligned governance. Even legal reporting with correct intentions may not be fully informed to provide a holistic interpretation of the judgment of the court. The court has witnessed several negative repercussions when the media has misinterpreted the court’s decisions.

As a result, a general lack of faith in the court system to mete out justice for its citizens has emerged. This has nothing to do with sensationalistic journalism. The context here is much deeper. It is the need to have a well-qualified panel of journalists who understand the justice system in the country to aid in a more harmonious democratic functioning of the three branches of the state.

In order to achieve this, there is a need to have a specialized journalism academy imparting training in court reporting. If a National Judicial Academy for training the judiciary can be set up to meet the challenges of globalization, a similar model in the media domain is not far fetched. Second, such specialists should be exclusively assigned for court reporting. Third, academia and civil society, consisting of the NGOs and think tanks that follow the Supreme Court must bring their findings to the grassroots. Such debates cannot be confined to the elite circles. Fourth, the members of the civil society that so successfully created a strong social movement against corruption must raise similar awareness campaigns to educate the common man on the decisions and working of the judiciary.

Given the pivotal role played by the Supreme Court in the lives of a nation of 1.2 billion people, and the fact that coalition politics has divided us along ethnic lines, the need to be fully informed by the media is even more imperative. Today, the public narrative of the court’s decision makes the Indians feel anguished and frustrated. If there is any meaning to being a part of the collective identity of this country, then our first inalienable right is to demand an adequate clarification. And this clarification, through substantive media reforms, will save me and my countrymen from being betrayed by our Supreme Court ever again.