A critique of tabloidization of law: A Guest Post

We are pleased to publish this guest post written by Pratiksha Baxi, Assistant Professor, Centre for Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

While Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article has attracted immense discussion, the disturbing issue is not so much that it generated an intense debate about whether he offers an affirmation of Narendra Modi and his fascist government. Nor do we need to labour the fact that Professor Mehta’s legendary broad shoulders enable a critical engagement with his views, unlike other contexts where academics take critique personally especially where academic hierarchies mime judicial hierarchies. Rather there is something extremely provocative in the discussion Professor Mehta’s piece generated which I wish to gesture towards.

First, it is interesting to me that we continue to believe that court reporters are “credible” and therefore, when any one of us makes an honest mistake in believing a journalistic report, we are rightly dismayed beyond words. The genre of court reporting however is important as an object of research precisely because the court reporter records courtroom speech which often does not translate into the legal text. This process of translating at times produces, circulates and displays a ‘tabloid’ picture of law as versus jurisprudential pictures of law framed by “rule of law and cause of truth”. It blurs the distinction between fact and propaganda. Hence, this case acquired a value since it presented an opportunity to convert a specific template about the “fraud” of the activist [used by the Gujarat government counsel] to the universal yet spicy “Truth” about the suffering of Gujarat 2002. Dhananjay Mahapatra’s stories in the Times of India about the SIT Report are an example of the established genre of tabloidization of law. And our writing is already framed by a certain kind of complicity in the tabloidization of law, certainly to the extent we must refer back to the terms of discourse the tabloidization of law forces us to engage with.

Second, the secret document [SIT Report] offered was an irresistible resource to enacting a public dénouement, which could be certified as the Truth in the shadow of the courtroom. Hence, not only was Teesta Setalavad [and all NGOs] guilty of cooking up macabre tales of violence, but Mr Mahapatra also claimed that the SIT report has denied the exterminating sexual and reproductive violence on Kausar Bano among other cases of mass crimes documented extensively by activists. To my mind it is not so important to point out the obvious that the SIT report, a police investigation report, which will lead to several charge sheets, is not the Truth about the event which is yet to be adjudicated in the designated fast track courts in Gujarat. Rather, what is important to ask is why would people believe that the accounts of sexual and reproductive violence which found extensive documentation are an outcome of a pornographic politics of activist [read: feminist] fraud? There is enough writing on how the suppression of the testimonies of sexual and reproductive violence on women’s bodies is manufactured through the very process of state law whereby the riot machinery erases evidence of gendered violence. This has been the biggest obstacle to prosecuting such crimes in Independent India.

We must ask ourselves whether the tabloidization of law rests on extinguishing women’s voices, by making a spectacle of our bodies, and treating our suffering as a myth?

Third, what is it about the Best Bakery trial that haunts every discussion on Gujarat? What does it symbolize? Indeed, how does Teesta Setalavad, the person as versus Teesta Setalavad, the icon interpellate different discourses within “legal struggles” that work towards the “cause of justice” in Gujarat? The answers are too complicated to explore here; however one clear anxiety among academics and activists is how to resist the iconisation of survivors or those who represent them? These questions were especially pertinent since there was no witness protection program available to the survivors: indeed Teesta’s role in proffering a space to Zahira Sheikh was made vulnerable in the first place due to the structural failures of the legal system.

When we gathered support for our petition to the President to release Zahira Sheikh during unjust incarceration for contempt for one year the question that was raised was: what kind of responsibility do activists bear towards traumatised survivors who cannot carry the unbearable burden of courage imposed on them? The critique was directed at those who believed that Zahira Sheikh was lamentably seen as a “bad victim” who deserved severe punishment. This included the media, the court, activists and academics. We were worried about how Zahira Sheikh’s voice was extinguished in different ways.

Is the onus then not upon us to develop a nuance of how the iconisation of victims or those who represent them serves the tabloidization of law? While we need to have a vibrant discussion on the ethics of activists and academics, it will be a sad day if this is framed through the terms of reference of tabloidization of law, thereby forcing us to inhabit inane positions such as pro-Teesta and anti-Gujarat/anti-national; or anti-Teesta and pro-Gujarat/Modi.

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  • Possibly the only thing that is ‘alive’ in the bodies of living victims of Gujarat 2002 is the intent to see justice – justice which remains so inherently contingent on fragile ‘evidence’. To publicly deliberate on the ‘truth’ of such evidence on the basis of ‘tabloidsay’ and that too in newspaper opinion columns and blogs is to perhaps engage in a witting or an unwitting deformation of the legal and political process. I understand Pratiksha Baxi as rightfully pointing to a (natural) moral duty on all of us to desist from holding forth on the ‘politics’ of the evidence till the courts have processed the (evidence) information and weighed it judicially – surely this is a requirement of ‘rule of law’, or is it not?

  • Sad to read. “Law will take its own course” and unfortunately the route is takes is very far from justice. I dont think I will see anyone being convicted in my lifetime. No precedent will be set so that the future generation don’t indulge in such horrific acts.