Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Undeterred by malice - Reader's Digest Editor - A.S. Panneerselvan

AUGUST 01, 2015 01:32 IST
A.S. Panneerselvan
CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan
Opposition to the death penalty has been the stated policy of this newspaper as far back as the Bhagat Singh trial.

I am gnawed by the growing insensitivity that refuses to see the schizoid in mourning the death of the former President Abdul Kalam, who passionately argued against the death penalty in response to a Law Commission consultation paper, and celebrating capital punishment for Yakub Memon. The reigning idea of majoritarian jingoism that is hell-bent on destroying plural polity has unleashed the most cruel avalanche of abuses against this newspaper’s considered, well-thought-out and humane stand against the death penalty. There is a targeted attack on the Publisher, Editor and writers of this newspaper for their principle to abide by their conscience. These urban-educated hounds are baying for the blood of all those who understand the barbarity of a sentence that snuffs out life.

The tragic irony is that they expect the Readers’ Editor (RE) to fight for their case of bigotry and hatred. The RE is neither the spokesperson for the high-decibel, shrill trolling mob nor the advocate for a narrative that harms the salient features of the democratic fabric. It will become dereliction of duty if this office fails to take cognisance of any fair complaints against the paper or its writers. But, it will be unbecoming of an RE if he were to either endorse or even reproduce vitriol, innuendoes and insinuations.

The Terms of Reference for the RE clearly state that his role is “To collect, consider, investigate, respond to, and, where appropriate, come to a conclusion about readers’ comments, concerns, and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper… To seek the views and, where appropriate, the written comments of journalists whose work is the focus of readers’ concerns: to take these views into account when responding to readers, and to make critical appraisals, if judged necessary, on an objective and fully-informed basis.” The operating words and the governing phrases here are: ‘from a position of independence within the paper’ and ‘to make critical appraisals, if judged necessary, on an objective and fully-informed basis’. The position of independence within the paper does not mean undermining the editorial integrity, intellectual inquiry, quest for justice and the desire for dissemination of news and views. The critical appraisals, on an objective and fully-informed basis, mean that the issue at hand is evaluated using the yardstick of elements of good journalistic practices and not on the whims of a given moment.

Consistent position

The opposition to the death penalty has been the stated policy of this newspaper as far back as the Bhagat Singh trial. It is beyond the scope of this column to go into the merits of Memon’s trial. But, it is well within the mandate of the RE to counter one of the devious allegations — that has been repeated over the last few days — that The Hindu has taken a stand against the death penalty because of the present BJP-led NDA government. The stand was not determined by the ruling dispensation at Delhi but because the death penalty is barbaric and inhuman. The paper never condoned the crimes of the individual who faced the gallows. Nor did it ever question the need for stringent punishment for heinous crime. The number of stories, editorials and opinion articles against the death penalty in The Hindu is innumerable. Let me share a couple of interventions this newspaper made during the UPA regime.

On August 31, 2011, the paper reproduced George Orwell’s essay “ >A hanging” with a note from the Editor. The note, unambiguously, read: “The barbarity and “unspeakable wrongness” of capital punishment — of “cutting a life short when it is in full tide” — has rarely been brought out as powerfully and as movingly as in George Orwell’s 2000-word essay, “ >A Hanging”. Published in 1931 in The Adelphi, a British literary magazine, this journalistic gem describes the execution of a criminal in Burma, where Eric Arthur Blair, which was Orwell’s real name, served in the British Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927. The clinical tone of the narration of the forced march to the gallows serves as a perfect foil to the moral revulsion and horror that Orwell wanted his readers to experience. The Hindu publishes, with permission from the copyright holder, “>A Hanging” as part of its editorial campaign for the abolition of capital punishment in India. This is in the context of the scheduled execution, now stayed, of three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and the impending execution of other convicts on death row.”

When Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, the newspaper’s editorial, “ >Vengeance isn’t justice” (February 10, 2013), said: “Indians must remember the foundational principle of our Republic, the guardian of all our rights and freedoms, isn’t popular sentiment: it is justice, which in turn is based on the consistent application of principles. For one overriding reason, Guru’s hanging ought to concern even those unmoved by his particular case, or the growing ethics-based global consensus against the death penalty. There is no principle underpinning the death penalty in India today except vengeance. And vengeance is no principle at all.” 

My own revulsion against the death penalty came through literature. I had a lump in my throat more than thirty years ago when I read Ilango Adigal’s The Silapathikaram. As Kannagi was leaving Madurai after her husband fell victim to capital punishment, she wailed: “With my husband/I entered this city through the East Gate:/I now leave by the West Gate, alone.”

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/readers-editor-writes-about-opposition-to-death-penalty/article7486357.ece (Accessed on 18 December 2018)

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