7 JANUARY 2019
Bring in the experts
Jayalalithaa’s death does not deserve to be clouded by murky conspiracy theories
The philosopher Karl Popper argued that conspiracy theories are often premised on the notion that events are manipulated by sinister groups, shaped by a distrust of the notion of randomness and a yearning to explain phenomena in terms of an underlying or intentional order. From the birth of history, the death of famous people has provided a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Clearly, the unfortunate and untimely passing away of Jayalalithaa has become a playing ground for such ‘theorists’. Astonishingly, more than a year after she died, two Tamil Nadu Ministers have called for a probe into her death by a special investigation team. Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice (retired) A. Arumughaswamy, constituted in September 2017 to probe her illness and death, is well into a third extension of its tenure. If it sometimes appears as if the Commission is shooting blindfolded in a dark room with blanks, that is because it is unclear if its principal focus is the issue of the “circumstances and situation leading to her hospitalisation”, “subsequent treatment” and “unfortunate demise” or a larger conspiracy into her death. Both issues could be related, in theory. But if the main task is to determine whether the former Chief Minister received adequate medical attention before she was admitted in hospital and during her 75-day stay there, then this can only be settled by independent medical experts.
The corporate hospital she was treated in has filed a petition before the Commission seeking the constitution of a medical board comprising experts in a range of specialities to examine the case records and the interventions made by its doctors. This is an eminently sensible suggestion, given the complex and debilitating matrix of conditions that Jayalalithaa suffered from. Only a complete understanding of her overall medical condition can result in a fair conclusion about the treatment she got. The importance of doing this is all the greater, given reports of critical errors in the recording of depositions of doctors before the Commission. One of them has gone as far as to say his application to correct errors has failed. The conspiracy angle has been given a new and perplexing lease of life with the Commission’s counsel accusing the hospital and the State’s Health Secretary of “conspiracy” and “collusion” in providing “inappropriate treatment”. It would be improper to suggest that the Arumughaswamy panel is conducting the probe in anything but a fair manner, but it is essential that it also gives the impression that it is doing just that. After all, there is no getting away from the fact that the setting up of an inquiry commission had a clear political motive — it was a condition that needed to be satisfied to unite the warring AIADMK factions. Chasing elusive conspiracies will not enhance the Commission’s image; taking the help of competent experts will.
The private member’s Bill aimed at protecting literary freedom from threats is welcome
Literary freedom is taken for granted in democracies, but forces that threaten or undermine it are always at work. Each age has to fight the battle afresh. In recent times, several attempts to get books withdrawn, pulped or sanitised of offending content have achieved full or partial success in India. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History was withdrawn from circulation, and A.K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ was dropped from a Delhi University syllabus. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan was withdrawn by the author under mob pressure but resurrected by a Madras High Court verdict. Public order, national unity and social or religious harmony are the principles commonly invoked against the practice of literary freedom. Threats to free expression, especially artistic freedom, in our times mainly come from those claiming to espouse the interests of a particular religion or social group. It is in this context that Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and writer, has introduced a private member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to protect freedom of literature. Its objective — that “authors must be guaranteed the freedom to express their work without fear of punitive action by the State or by sections of society” — commends itself to any society that upholds liberal values. It seeks the omission of three IPC sections, including 295A, in effect a non-denominational blasphemy law, as it targets deliberate or malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.
Section 295A is a grossly misused section, often invoked in trivial ways to hound individuals, harass writers and curtail free expression. It deserves to be scrapped. Sections that relate to the sale of obscene books and uttering words that hurt religious feelings are also sought to be omitted. However, it is unclear why Section 153A, which punishes those who promote enmity between groups on grounds of religion, race or language, and Section 153B, which criminalises words and imputations prejudicial to national integration, do not draw Mr. Tharoor’s attention. In the process of proscribing a book, he proposes a tweak in the form of a 15-day prohibition. Thereafter, the onus should be on the State government to approach the High Court to seek a permanent ban. It favours the scrapping of the provision in the Customs Act to ban the import of books, but makes a public order exception. It wants to limit the bar on obscenity in the Information Technology Act to child pornography. Private Bills rarely become law, but they are useful in highlighting gaps in the body of law. Seen in this light, Mr. Tharoor’s initiative is most welcome as a step towards removing or diluting penal provisions that inhibit literary freedom.