When M.K. Gandhi started publishing Indian Opinion in South Africa, he went on pouring his personal money into it. He hoped that soon it would earn profit and his worries would be over. But it continued to incur losses. His associate Albert West sent a report that was alarming: “I do not expect the concern to yield the profit that you had thought probable. I am afraid that there may be even a loss… But all this need not alarm you. I shall try to put things right as best I can.” Gandhi has written, “Mr West might have left when he discovered that there was no profit and I could not have blamed him. In fact, he had a right to arraign me for having described the concern as profitable without proper proof. But he never so much uttered one word of complaint…I now realise that a public worker should not make statements of which he has not made sure. Above all, a votary of truth must exercise the greatest caution.”
Rahul Gandhi’s statement that the Supreme Court also found that “chowkidar chor hai (watchman is the thief)” should be seen in the light of Gandhi’s philosophy on why a public worker must not make any statement without verifying the fact personally. Gandhi had assured West that the magazine would start earning profits soon. It was based on the assessment of one Madanjit. The assessment was wrong but trusting him, Gandhi told West that it would earn profits soon. So, Gandhi was not lying but was credulous, and West also took him to be so. But Gandhi had a guilty conscience though he did not lie. It is just that he should have been more circumspect with regard to the assessment.
Deriving any inference from a court’s judgment is a fiddly work. One cannot attribute something to the decision of the apex court in order to score political brownie points. Rahul Gandhi knew full well that the Supreme Court had just agreed to examine some new documents in the Rafale case rejecting the government’s plea, but he camouflaged the catachresis of chowkidar-chor with judicial seal. He has got a battery of eminent lawyers. Either they misled him or he distorted on his own taking the Supreme Court for granted. He should know that catafalque cannot revive the corpse.
After prevaricating and beating about the bush for long, Rahul Gandhi has finally tendered an unconditional to the Supreme Court for his jibe. Even after the contempt proceedings were initiated, he refused to apologise and expressed regret which was not straight either as “regret” was put within a bracket. He agreed to tender apology only after the Court displayed its annoyance at his temerity, and finally he did so.
He is no ordinary leader; he is the president of a national party that was once headed by Mahatma Gandhi and has ruled over the country for decades. That’s why the Mahatma’s standard of truth becomes relevant. How can Rahul Gandhi show such gross disrespect to facts and use lies to infill his political holes? He is guilty of spreading fake news, and that too quoting the apex court. Freedom of expression is a hard-earned right that a modern democratic society cannot afford to lose. But this right is not for abuse. However, it has been abused in the shabbiest way possible. It is good that the matter was brought to the notice of the apex court that started contempt proceedings. Many leaders lie with impunity and go scot-free as nobody arraigns them. Arvind Kejriwal levelled wild allegations against many leaders. When they dragged him to court in criminal defamation, he tendered unconditional apologies.
Falsehood is the staple of politics and it is not new. However, this kind of levity is not acceptable. In Britain the Licensing Order of 1643 reinstated stringent censorship provisions of the 1637 Star Chamber Decree including pre-publication licensing, registration of all printing materials with the names of author, printer and publisher in the Register at Stationer’s Hall, search, seizure and destruction of any books offensive to the government, and arrest of any offensive writers, printers and publishers. Actually the government apprehended that the invention of the printing press had made the dissemination of false news much easier, and so the permission was required from the government before printing anything. The apprehension was not unfounded but it was an attack on the freedom of expression and it was giving a long rope to the government who could use and abuse it at its sweet will. John Milton fulminated with his famous polemic Aeropagitica that was an appeal to the parliament to rescind it. Actually, he had personally suffered censorship when he tried to publish his tracts in defence of divorce that was considered something revolting at that time. However, the Licensing Order was allowed to lapse in 1694 after the Declaration of Rights, a gift of the Glorious Revolution, bequeathed many rights and ushered in a more liberal society.
In the US, John Peter Zenger was acquitted by the court on the basis of Aeropagitica. He was a German immigrant printed a publication called New York Weekly Journal. It inveighed the royal governor William S. Cosby and exposed his corruption. It also charged the government with rigging elections and allowing French enemy to explore New York harbour. Though Zenger was just a printer, he was arrested and sent to jail. The authors were anonymous and Zenger refused to name them. In 1773, he was accused of libel that then meant publishing something opposed to the government. So, truth was not a defence. Andrew Hamilton, the most celebrated lawyer of the time, came to his defence and pleaded for his release, “It is not the cause of one poor printer, but the cause of liberty.” He quoted from Aeropagitica which impressed the judge and Zenger was set free even though the freedom of the press was not a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right then which came with the First Amendment later on.
In Britain, the rivalry between the Whigs and the Tories took the hideous form of character assassination, spreading of fake news, and demonising the rivals. Equivocation was another form of spreading falsehoods. Freedom of expression is non-negotiable but the right also bestows a responsibility to use it with responsibility. Rahul Gandhi demeaned himself by making a false claim attributed to the Supreme Court. Many other leaders are also disseminating fake news and it would be good for democracy if the aggrieved parties drag them to court.
The writer is a senior TV journalist and author