Shedding tears for Haneef

BY Dasu Krishnamurthy| IN Media Practice | 01/08/2007
What ordeal is the Deccan Herald talking about? Haneef was in jail for 26 days. How long have the accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts been in jails?

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told women journalists that he could not sleep well after he had seen Dr Haneef Mohammed¿s mother¿s agony on the TV screen. It cannot be seen as private feeling because he had voiced it before senior journalists. He made it a public issue by speaking to the Australian Prime Minister seeking fair play for Haneef. Then he asked foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee to speak to his Australian counterpart. These are extraordinary steps taken in the cause of a very ordinary person whose name was not known to anyone except his neighbours. Yet in another sense, Haneef was extraordinary for Australia because he was suspected to have a hand in the Glasgow blasts. Wherever the Prime Minister goes he assures the host country that India will co-operate with it in fighting terrorism. Our way of co-operating with Australia was to doubt the fairness of its justice system.

A bit of history before we discuss our media response to the Haneef affair. We had suffered loss of life and property on a vast scale in Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Nasik, Malegaon, Jammu and Chennai; the list goes on. Australia lost 88 of its citizens in the terrorist attack on the tourist hotel in Bali. In contrast to our belated discovery of terrorist dens in our own backyard and doing nothing about them, the Australians moved fast to protect themselves from terrorism. Have the Australian police overreached themselves? Ask parents and relatives of accused in terrorism cases what they think about the Indian police who do not hesitate to plant evidence. As Australian Prime Minister John Howard had said, ?Mistakes happened from time to time and when dealing with terrorism, it was better to be safe than sorry.? Do we remember encounter deaths? Who killed Sohrabuddin and Kausar Bi?

Australia has every reason to take exception to the intervention of our Prime Minister in its justice system and to take it out on Haneef. That it has not done so needs appreciation and not apology. Australia is sensitive to terrorism because it had twice been its victim for the sin of being white and west which is the target of jehadi terrorism.

Now media. All of us know how irresponsible TV media are. But our newspapers have a two-century-old history of balanced reporting and responses which has begun to crack under the onslaught of market logic. They kept the Haneef hype alive for arcane reasons. Several newspapers wrote editorials flattering to Haneef whose only merit is that he was a terrorism suspect. The Hindu expectedly went overboard. Unlike the other newspapers which remembered other Haneefs rotting in our jails, the Hindu delivered sermons to the Australian government about fair play etc. ¿The least that Mr Andrews (Australian immigration minister) ought to do now is to revoke the cancellation of the visa with an unqualified apology.¿ Apology for what? Released him in 26 days realizing its mistake? Ask our own government why it is renewing month by month the visa of Taslima Nasreen who is no terrorist. Grant or denial of a visa is part of a country¿s sovereignty.

It is surprising that none of the editorials in our newspapers referred to our intervention in the internal affairs of another government and that too in defence of a person held as suspect in a case of terrorism. No, I am wrong there. The Hindu did. It said, ¿The Government of India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did well to voice their concern and seek fair treatment for Dr Haneef.¿ The Deccan Herald said, ¿Haneef¿s ordeal is a classic example of how governments, having arrogated to themselves extraordinary powers in the name of fighting terrorism, misused these powers to harass and intimidate innocent people.¿ Every government in the world, India including, has such powers.

What ordeal is Herald talking about? Haneef was in jail for 26 days only. How long have the accused in 1993 Mumbai blasts languished in jails? Fourteen years. At one time a life sentence meant fourteen years or less depending on remissions and other reasons. Remember that we took more time to acquit Geelani than Australia took to release Haneef. Holier than thou attitude is a common Indian trait that the media too share with the hoi polloi.

The Herald repaired this damage to itself by joining other newspapers, barring the Hindu, in drawing the attention of our government to skeletons in its cupboards. ¿But in India, thousands languish in jails for years without their case even coming up for trial. And we have looked away.¿ ¿Dealing with terrorism, as Indian authorities know, is an extraordinary high pressure job without respite,¿ said the Tribune. True, that¿s why they call for extraordinary methods and if Australia had failed in doing what it had done, John Howard would have had to account for it to his people. And, an election is around. And why are we so worked up when nothing but good has happened to Haneef? Rs 70 lakhs from Channel 9!

 The Hindustan Times rightly asked a question that others conveniently forgot. ¿What would have happened if Dr Haneef had been charged with the same kind of offence here? If one goes by precedents - and Kashmir Times journalist Iftikhar Gilani¿s harrowing seven months in Tihar jail is just one story of justice gone awry - Haneef would probably have been locked away not for 25 days but for months.¿ HT editorial gave credit, albeit indirectly, to the Australian government for realizing its mistake and releasing the suspect.

The Pioneer alone mentioned the diplomatic aberration of the Prime Minister. It said, ¿Conspiracies apart, it is particularly obnoxious that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should have announced loss of sleep over the issue and warned against labeling any community.¿ The reception that greeted Haneef at the airport and the supportive media coverage should tell the Prime Minister if the minority community had been targeted. The Karnataka chief minister went one better than Manmohan Singh by offering a job to Haneef. Are you going to give jobs to all those acquitted in terrorism cases? What madness!

¿I don`t expect an apology from the Australian government or the authorities but I would appreciate if they apologize to my peace-loving country and citizens,¿ Haneef told the media. Nice sentiment, but poor sense. The reporter who asked him if there was an Australian conspiracy because he was an Asian Muslim did not ask him how Haneef could be of interest to Australia except as a suspect.

Editorials talked of men languishing in Indian jails. What about the 6,600 Indians rotting in foreign jails, 5,000 of them in countries that enforce religious laws? Has any newspaper referred to the plight of these 6,600 Haneefs? It is better we mind our affairs letting others mind theirs. Australia is a case of once bitten twice shy. If we are not, it is our mistake.

Tailpiece: Dilip Ganguly, bureau chief of Associated Press in Kolkata, died in Kolkata on the same day Haneef arrived to great ovation. His death was extensively reported in the American media. I have not seen a word of it in the web versions of Indian newspapers.

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