Guwahati, Tuesday, August 04, 2009
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EDITORIAL

Parag Das murder verdict: bleeding Fourth Estate
— Saikh Md Sabah Al-Ahmed
It wasn’t the best of times; it was certainly, the worst of times. It was a travesty of justice. It was a mockery of justice. The element of equilibrium in the scales of justice seems to have vanished into thin air. The wheels of justice had come to a grinding halt. There wasn’t any ray of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of hope. Justice indeed, had been subverted. The cantankerous and murky underbelly of the underworld had their last laugh. They were unrepentant. They were brazenly blase. The straight jacketed ‘Third Estate’ (read judiciary) was taciturnly reticent. The ‘Third Estate’ had trampled upon the ‘Fourth Estate’, at least at face value.

Parag Kumar Das, former Editor of Asomiya Pratidin, had sadly died a second death once again. Parag Das was shot dead in the city’s Rajgarh Road near Chandmari in broad daylight on May 17, 1996 as he was picking up his 7-year-old son from school. On July 28, 2009, after a wait of thirteen agonisingly long years, District and Sessions Judge, Kamrup, Justice Dilip Kumar Mahanta, acquitted Mridul Phukan alias Samar Kakati, the prime accused in the murder of Parag Das, due to “lack of solid evidence”. The court also pulled up the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for not being able to back their claim by adequate substantial evidence against the accused, a surrendered ULFA militant, who was charge-sheeted by the investigating agency along with three others. Among those charge-sheeted, Biswajit Saikia alias Tapan Dutta and Diganta Kumar Baruch were killed before the charge-sheet was filed. Another accused, Nayan Das alias ‘Guli’, was killed later during the pendency of the trial. Two other suspects, Promode Gogoi and Prabin Sarma, were not charge-sheeted by the CBI for lack of evidence against them. The CBI had botched up the entire case; a sloppy investigation to say the least; a sort of procedural-legal hara-kiri. It was indeed a “terror Tuesday” for the ‘Fourth Estate’.

The ‘Fourth Estate’ it seems, is bleeding profusely; here, there, everywhere What’s even more lamentable is the fatal fact that it has been constantly in the ‘line of fire’ while diligently trying to be in its ‘line of duty’; a lamentable paradox indeed. Characterised by its perpetual vulnerability, the ‘Fourth Estate’ has had to constantly bear the brunt of saying things as it is; in an open, non-discreet and no-nonsense manner. Consequently, this ‘Trojan warrior’, in its untiring zeal to debunk a putrid coterie of spurious, self-proclaimed zealots, hell-bent on the blatant and arbitrary usurpation of power, seems to have ruffled quite a few feathers in the process. The resultant effect is not only shatteringly catastrophic, but emotionally lacerating to the core as well. This “messenger of the masses” forlornly has had to pay a very heavy price and that’s a harsh reality.

Present-day journalism has always been pretty much servile to the instruments of State power. Exceptions, if any, may vary from individual integrity to personal bravado or even to an innate penchant and an equally passionate zeal for raw investigative journalism-, indeed a rare breed in today’s cut throat world where the element of money really matters for homo sapiens, all and sundry. This apart, it’s a totally different matter that this very ‘minuscule group of exceptions’ ultimately gets pummeled and pulverised by a coterie of political mandarins, who are very much wary of them being openly exposed and then relegated to a state of eternal political oblivion.

In India, ever since the dark days of emergency, imposed on June 25, 1975, the notion of a free press has been a misnomer. Instances are galore, where hundreds of journalists, who dared to speak their mind with their opinionated writing, were ruthlessly shoved into jails. In fact, it was during this emergency period that media gagging in India reached its zenith. But sadly, even after the restoration of democracy in 1977, this brazen trend continued to rule the roost in somewhat intermittent bouts, with sporadic incidents of journalists being attacked here and there, especially between the 20 years, starting from 1977-1997. But as if this was the lull just before the inevitable storm, the capital city of Delhi was witness to a series of four gruesome murders in a span of just two years, 1997-1999. Shockingly, out of the four, three were young ladies, related to the media fraternity. On November 19, 1997, Shivani Jajodia, a young NDTV producer was murdered in her Vasant Kunj flat. On November 17, 1998, Sudha Gupta, an announcer with All India Radio widely known to her AIR listeners for the popular hindi-film based programmes Aap ki Chitthi and Aap ki Farmaish was found strangled and clubbed to death at her Park Street, Mandir Marg residence. On January 23, 1999, Shivani Bhatnagar, the principal correspondent of Indian Express was found murdered in her flat in East Delhi. On March 8, 1999, Irfan Hussain, the affable, mild-mannered editorial cartoonist of Outlook magazine was brutally killed, with 28 stab wounds, strangled and his throat slashed, while driving homewards to Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh, just beyond the capital’s eastern border. More recently, on September 30, 2008, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year old TV journalist of Headlines Today, who was earlier working with CNN-IBN, was found dead on the Nelson Mandela Marg in Vasant Kunj.

The scenario in our very own backyard seems to be more unnerving and insidious. North East, especially Manipur and Assam seems to have registered the most number of cases, where scores of journalists are being killed with impunity. The state of affairs in Assam shockingly stifles everyone to cringe in utter disbelief, as more than 20 editors, correspondents and reporters were mercilessly killed since 1987. The killing spree officially started in 1987, when Punarmal Agarwala, a correspondent of The Assam Tribune was killed by suspected ULFA cadres in Kampur, Nagaon, On August 9, 1991, suspected ULFA cadres again gunned down Kamala Saikia, Ajir Asom’s local correspondent in Sivasagar. On August 19, 1995, suspected timber smugglers killed Pabitra Narayan, the correspondent of The Northeast Times in Sonari, Sivasagar. In the same year, on September 24, unidentified miscreants killed Goreswar based journalist, Dipak Swargiary. On April 26, 1996, suspected BLT cadres gunned down journalist, Manik Deuri in Diphu. In 1997, local journalist, Panja Ali was shot dead by unidentified miscreants in Kasugaon, Kokrajhar. In 1998, suspected mafia killed local journalist, Nurul Haq in Hojai, Nagaon. In 1999, photographer Alfarid Shazad and journalist Jiten Chutiya were killed in a grenade explosion inside Sivasagar SP’s office. On December 31, 1999, suspected ULFA cadres gunned down senior journalist, Ratneswar Sarnia Shastri in Barpeta. On March 24, 2003, journalist Dinesh Brahma fell to assassin’s bullets in Dhubri. In 2003, Amar Asom’s local correspondent, Indramohan Hakasama was killed in Aagiya, Goalpara. On January 6, 2005, Asomiya Khobor’s correspondent, Prahlad Gowala was killed in a preplanned conspiracy in Golaghat. On October 29, 2006, Suwalkuchi based journalist, Kanak Raj Medhi died under mysterious circumstances. In 2007, Hojai based journalist, Mohammad Muslimuddin was killed. On April 1, 2007, Bodoland TV director Bodosa Narzary was shot dead by suspected former BLT and BPF youth wing members at Bhabanipur, Kokrajhar. On November 22, 2008, Jagajit Saikia, the Kokrajhar correspondent of Amar Asom was killed in cold blood in the heart of Kokrajhar town, just in front of his office. On March 24, 2009, Anil Mazumdar, the Executive Editor of Aji was gunned down in front of his Rajgarh Road residence as he was returning home from office. Sadly, these ‘unsung heroes’ have been relegated to mere statistics, having sacrificed their lives in the perennial search for truth.

If taken at face value, these perennial brazen attacks on the ‘Fourth Estate’ seem to be a sheer travesty; even a grotesque misrepresentation, where ‘freedom of the press’ is pitifully relegated to a mere catchphrase and nothing else. These fetid lumpen elements and obnoxious troikas of marauders, whose ‘feathers seem to have been ruffled’, much to their dismay and discomfort though, continue to bleed our civil society with effortless ease and sadly, without any condign punishment. They have glorified themselves with their unabashed acts of thuggery, but at the same time, are grossly oblivious of the fact that their misdemeanours of “shooting down the messenger itself’ would sooner rather than later, boomerang hard on them. It’s only a matter of time. After all, time, like they all say, is indeed is a great leveller! Isn’t it?