Valson Thampu

Valson Thampu

Human nature is inherently partial. Hence it happens that when an issue, even of negligible significance, surfaces it lends itself to polarization in public responses. The merit of this ‘natural’ disposition is that it lends interest and intensity to public debates. Its flip side is that it obfuscates the educational scope of the debate or controversy in progress.

It is in light of the above that the value of the services rendered by the media fraternity to a democratic society needs to be understood. Objectivity and freedom from bias are the hallmarks of journalistic professionalism. Journalism ceases to be itself, and deteriorates into propaganda, when this objectivity is compromised. Journalists, as watchdogs of a democracy, are involved in the serious business of educating public opinion. The greater the influence of public opinion on a society, the higher must be the journalistic commitment to educating public opinion without fear or favour.

Of course, there is a price to be paid for objectivity; especially in a communally volatile situation. As passions mount and advocacies become inflammable, the middle ground of neutrality shrinks. As a result, those who endeavour against all odds to be non-partisan, begin to be despised and targeted. It is not surprising, therefore, that journalists in Kerala have come under attack in the prevailing explosively emotive situation; condemnable though it is. The open hostility to the media fraternity, at least from one of the quarters, is an acknowledgement and a tribute to their impact and objectivity.

But mere neutrality is not enough; especially when confrontations are created and sustained by a wilful misunderstanding for political-cum-propagandist purposes. Journalistic objectivity, in such situations, entails a great deal more than professional punctiliousness. It comes under the added duty to put situations and issues in right perspectives. Journalism, then, must not only speak ‘truth to power’ but also to make truth accessible to the common man. The task, I must clarify, is not to preach the truth to the common man, but only to make the truth ‘accessible’ to him. Educating public opinion is not a matter of spoon-feeding the people with ready-made opinions and interpretations. Spoon-feeding caricatures education. What, then, is the difference between the two? Fortunately, the Sabarimala issue affords a valuable illustration of this distinction.

Consider, to begin with, the two blocks in conflict. The government of Kerala deems itself duty-bound to implement the verdict of the Supreme Court. What is being overlooked – or is willfully obfuscated – by the opposite camp is the fact that no government has the right or authority to ‘judge’ the merit of a court judgment. The executive cannot determine for itself the rightness, or otherwise, of a court decision.

Now consider the plight of judges. No judge has the authority to decide on the rightness, or wrongness, of any of the Constitutional provisions or of laws enacted by the parliament, after they become part of the legal code of the country. The court can, however, strike down legislations proved to be violative of the essence of the Constitution. Judges are obliged to understand what is right in light of applicable laws, and not with reference to any other code. The moment a judge begins to debate the reasonableness or rightness of any of the laws in force, he destroys the basis on which his authority rests. Laws can change. They change to be in tune with changing needs and social realities. But so long as they stand, judges have to accept laws as binding on their work.

A constitutionally mandated government is as duty-bound to implement court orders as judges are obliged to apply laws, free from personal bias or choice, to adjudicating justice. It is true, alas, that track-records of governments in implementing court decisions leave much to be desired. By being slack on this count, the executive discredits the very system from which it derives its own authority. For a government to be little the authority of the court is, therefore, to weaken its own authority.

Now consider the stand of Sabarimala protagonists. They swear not by the law of the land but by the ultimacy of religious rites or aacharangal. What has been completely overlooked is the oddest aspect of the present scenario: the Sabarimala protagonists are ‘dogmatic’ about aacharangals (rites); whereas rights, unlike dogmas, are liable to change. Religious rites are, in this respect, more like codes of secular law, amenable to change from time to time. It is not given to a judge, for example, to stand inflexibly on a law and insist that it should not be amended. Nor can he invoke and apply an obsolete law to adjudicating a matter, just because he feels personally partial to it.

Now we come to the very crux of the matter, which involves a crucial difference between the religious law and secular law. In the former, there is no accredited interpreter -the counterpart of a judge in secular law- of dogmas and rituals. Historically, this function has been usurped by priests. But there is nothing in any scripture, in any religion, that provides for it. Priests have come to exercise in religious matters a function analogous to that of the judge in secular law. There is no divine sanction to the custom that in ritualistic matters the priest -call him by what title you please- has any supernaturally sanctioned authority.

The priest doubling up also as legislator-cum-judge does not precipitate serious problems so long as religious issues are confined to the private sphere. But when the authority of the priest – in the present case, of the tantri – is invoked in litigations and in public debates, it begins to be seriously problematic in a secular democracy predicated on the supremacy of the Constitution in civic life; and reason, not faith, in public discourses.

This, I submit, is the crux of the present crisis. It is necessary that we, as citizens, understand this pattern aright; failing which we could, albeit unwittingly, become party to undermining our shared heritage of religious harmony, social sanity and democratic morality.

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