11 OCTOBER 2018
Tamil Nadu’s Raj Bhavan must be made aware of the risks of the misuse of Section 124
Journalists have been hauled up in the past for writing allegedly objectionable articles. But the arrest of R.R. Gopal, Editor of the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, Chennai, on a trumped-up charge under a rarely used section of the Indian Penal Code is an extraordinary instance of abuse of power. The Tamil Nadu Governor’s office had complained to the police, seeking to book Mr. Gopal under Section 124 of the IPC, citing some articles published in the magazine. This section, seldom used even in colonial times, applies to assaulting high constitutional functionaries such as the President and the Governor with “an intent to compel or restrain the use of any lawful power“. It is plain as day that it was never intended to cover writing articles but rather cases where these functionaries are prevented from exercising their power though criminal force, attempts to overawe, or wrongful restraint. Whether the articles in question were in bad taste is the subject for a separate debate. The point is that, however offensive or derogatory, they did not attract Section 124. In an environment where the lower judiciary reflexively signs remand orders, the Metropolitan Magistrate in Chennai must be commended for realising the absurdity of the prosecution’s case and declining to jail Mr. Gopal.
Governor Banwarilal Purohit is no stranger to Section 124, having threatened a few months ago to use it when the DMK staged black flag demonstrations at sites where the Governor held meetings with district-level officials. It is doubtful whether a black flag demonstration can be construed as an attempt to “overawe” the Governor in a manner that restrains his office from exercising power. Overawe, at the very least, would suggest the commission of an offence that poses a real danger to the exercise of authority. Of course, to extend the meaning of “overawe” to a work of journalism is simply ridiculous. So is the claim in the police complaint prepared by the Deputy Secretary to the Governor that the offending articles express an “intention of inducing or compelling the Governor… to refrain from exercising his lawful powers”. The articles had linked Mr. Purohit’s name to the controversy surrounding assistant professor Nirmala Devi, who is in jail for allegedly trying to lure students into sex work. If Mr. Purohit believed they were unfounded and damaged his reputation, there were other forms of legal redress available to him. By citing them to seek registration of a Section 124 case against the magazine’s Editor, journalists and employees, the Governor’s office has only turned the spotlight on itself unnecessarily. He would do himself a favour by withdrawing the complaint; it is unlikely the Tamil Nadu police will take such a decision on its own.
Data on fatalities and injuries must jolt the government into action
The Road Accidents in India report of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for 2017 comes as a disappointment. By reiterating poorly performing policies and programmes, it has failed to signal the quantum shift necessary to reduce death and disability on the roads. It expresses concern at the large number of people who die every year and the thousands who are crippled in accidents, but the remedies it highlights are weak, incremental and unlikely to bring about a transformation. The lack of progress in reducing traffic injuries is glaring, given that the Supreme Court is seized of the issue and has been issuing periodic directions in a public interest petition with the assistance of the Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan Committee constituted by the Centre. Little has been done to fulfil what the Road Transport Ministry promises: that the Centre and the States will work to improve safety as a joint responsibility, although enforcement of rules is a State issue. That nothing much has changed is reflected by the death of 1,47,913 people in accidents in 2017. To claim a 1.9% reduction over the previous year is statistically insignificant, more so when the data on the rate of people who die per 100 accidents show no decline. Even more shocking is the finding that green commuters – cyclists/pedestrians – now face greater danger on India’s roads, with a rise in fatalities for these categories of users of 37% and 29% over 2016, respectively.
Road safety data is a contested area in India. The figures of death and injury from accidents are viewed as an underestimate by scholars; the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at IIT Delhi, for instance, estimates that cumulatively, road traffic injuries recorded by the police are underestimated by a factor of 20, and those that need hospitalisation by a factor of four. If this is correct, the number of people who suffered injuries in 2017 far exceeds the 4,70,975 reported by the Ministry. It is welcome that greater attention is being paid to the design and safety standards of vehicles, but such professionalism should extend to public infrastructure: the design of roads, their quality and maintenance, and the safety of public transport, among others. The Centre has watered down the national bus body standards code in spite of a commitment given to the Supreme Court, by requiring only self-certification by the builders. Relaxing this long-delayed safety feature endangers thousands of passengers. There is little chance of the NDA government, now in the last year of its tenure, making a paradigm shift. Valuable time has been lost in creating institutions for road safety with a legal mandate, starting with an effective national agency. The Road Safety Councils at the all-India and State levels have simply not been able to change the dismal record, and the police forces lack the training and motivation for professional enforcement. The urgent need is to fix accountability in government.