Though The Tribune trust has swiftly removed the president who ordered the apology, it has forfeited a reputation built over more than a century.
In a dramatic act of self-chastisement, north-western India’s leading newspaper The Tribune has dethroned the president of its governing board of trustees, a former high court chief justice. This is because he forced the paper to carry a craven front page apology to a leading Punjab politician, Bikram Singh Majithia, for running reports alleging his involvement with an illegal drug syndicate.
Bending over backwards on 29 October 2017 to beg forgiveness from Majithia, The Tribune forfeited, with a single stroke, a reputation assiduously built over more than a century. A handsome photograph of the former Punjab Revenue Minister accompanied the apology, which announced itself with a strikingly bold caption: “No evidence of involvement of Bikram Singh Majithia in Drug Racket.”
Given The Tribune’s vast readership in the region, it was surely Majithia’s finest hour, especially because all his earlier protestations of innocence in the last few years had made little impact on public perception.
But the paper’s editor-in chief Harish Khare was understandably livid. A journalist with a remarkably acute mind and exceptional courage of conviction, Khare has never minced his words. His philippics against Prime Minister Narendra Modi — his orations, ideology and policies — are a verbal treat to savour, even though he is a bit too harsh sometimes (and a bit too soft on Modi’s predecessor, the erudite but eternally helpless Manmohan Singh).
There is no doubt that Khare is made of far sterner stuff than the present pathetically servile condition of the Indian media would give us reason to hope for. An apology of the kind that was carried by The Tribune on 29 October, against Khare’s wishes, would suffice to bury the tallest newspapers seven fathoms deep.
The new president of The Tribune trust, N.N. Vohra, one of nation’s most redoubtable vintage bureaucrats, was no less outraged, for none of the trustees were consulted or informed by the now deposed president before the apology was ordered to be published.
The swiftness with which The Tribune has acted to redeem itself (though the apology still remains on record) bears the stamp of Vohra’s commitment to larger values. Retired bureaucrats, it turns out, are safer guardians of the freedom and self-esteem of the press than retired judges!
The gladiatorial spectacle of editors clashing with ruling trustees is not new to The Tribune. Almost 15 years before Khare joined the paper, Hari Jaisingh (of “No, My Lord!” fame) faced a similar managerial intrusion into editorial autonomy. Like Khare, he refused valiantly to yield, a fact I can personally vouch for. Unlike Khare, firmly backed by Vohra, he found no support at all amongst the trustees and decided not to seek any extension or renewal of his tenure. History, it appears, has passed on the baton to Khare, despite the long gap in between.
As for Majithia, the truth regarding the Jagdish Bhola drug case is better known to the Enforcement Directorate at Jalandhar, which has discharged the onerous responsibility of examining Majithia on the issue in the not-so-distant past. The Punjab & Haryana High Court at Chandigarh is also closely and keenly monitoring the case.
The jurisprudence of “continuing mandamus” (a pregnant and evocative phrase first employed by the Supreme Court in the Jain-Hawala case and repeated ever since) takes its own judicial time, but is not to be discounted or under-estimated. Let the media, therefore, soldier on, in search of the truth, mindless of apologies.
(The author is a senior advocate in the Punjab and Haryana High Court)