THE NEWSPAPERS AND THE TRUTH – AN UNEASY RELATIONSHIP
Maj Gen VK Singh
Twice during the last one week, the Chief Justice of India has spoken about the trustworthiness of our newspapers and news channels. There was a time before the advent of TV and smart phones, when newspapers and radio were the only source of news for the citizenry. Right up to the middle of the 20th Century, before transistors began to used, radios were expensive and could be afforded only by the upper classes. For the common man, the only source of news was the newspaper. It had the advantage of being inexpensive, light in weight and unbreakable. It was also dependable and trustworthy, when compared to news one heard from friends, relatives and shop keepers, often referred to as bazaar gossip.
In recent years, there have been several instances of fake news being circulated by the electronic as well as print media. This has severely dented their dependability and trustworthiness. Surprising as it may seem, the relationship between newspapers and the truth has always been an uneasy one. In fact, the genesis of the secrecy laws in India, culminating in the Official Secrets Act, 1923, which is still in force, was the news report in the Amrita Bazar Patrika in 1889, which led to the enactment of the Indian Official Secrets Act, 1889.
In September 1889 the Official Secrets Act was passed in Britain. It was applicable to India, but since it was considered unsuitable to the Indian legal system, it was decided to enact a separate law for India. The Army wanted certain changes to be introduced in the Indian version and a bill to ‘Prevent the Disclosure of Official Documents and Information’ was intended to be enacted separately in India. The Viceroy’s Council met at the Viceregal Lodge, Simla, on Thursday, the 17th October, 1889. After the bill had been introduced by Mr Scoble, the President of the Council, Lord Lansdowne made some interesting comments which are reproduced below:
Extract from the Abstract of the Proceedings of the Council of the Governor General of India, assembled for the purpose of making Laws and Regulations under the provisions of the Act of Parliament 24 & 25 Vict., Cap. 67.
His Excellency THE PRESIDENT said-
“Our hon’ble colleague, Mr. Scoble, on moving for leave to introduce this Bill, expressed his opinion that a measure of the sort has long been required in India. That opinion I entirely share: I have seen enough during the comparatively short time which I have spent in this country to satisfy me that, unless legislation of this kind is resorted to, the interests of the public are likely to suffer materially. It is scarcely necessary to enlarge on the consequences which must ensure if the kind of treachery which is involved in the disclosure of official documents and information, and in the procuring of such information by persons interested in publishing it, is allowed to remain unpunished; and I believe that it is absolutely necessary for the Government of India to hold in its hand a weapon which can, if necessary, be used with exemplary effect against those who are guilty of such practices.
I trust, however, that I shall not be understood as suggesting that, in my opinion, it is upon punitive measures such as this that the Government of India should rely for the maintenance of the degree of secrecy which is indispensable for the proper conduct of certain classes of public business. I rejoice to think that those whose opportunist—I mean than members of the public service—deserve, as a general rule, the high reputation which they have earned for trustworthiness and discretion. The opportunities enjoyed by such persons for obtaining access to public documents, and for making known their contents, are almost unlimited. Such information has, as all know, an appreciable, and sometimes a very high, commercial value. We are well aware that persons are at all times to be found ready to encourage breaches of official confidence, and to throw serious temptation in the way of those who are in a position to commit then. It is, moreover, a matter of notoriety that is sometimes spoken of as the enterprise of the public Press has of recent years, and not in India only, led to the encouragement of such misconduct. Under such circumstances it would be strange indeed if occasional breaches of good faith on the part of those whose daily duties afford them the means of acquiring official knowledge did not occur. This Bill will give us the power of punishing both the parties to such transaction, - the thief and the receiver of stolen goods, - and there is every reason to expect that the passage of the measure will have a salutary and deterrent effect.
I may perhaps be permitted to enforce what I have said by referring to a recent case in which a particularly scandalous disclosure of official information has taken place. A Calcutta journal, the Amrita Bazar Patrika, in a recent issue published what professed to be the text of a document described as one ‘the original of which His Excellency will find in the Foreign Office,’ and as containing ‘the real reason why the Maharaja of Kashmir has been deposed.’
The document purports to be a memorandum submitted to the then Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, by Sir H. M. Durand, the Foreign Secretary, in May, 1888, and runs as follows :-
‘To HIS EXCELLENCY, - I do not agree with Mr Plowden, the Resident in Cashmere, in this matter. He is too much inclined to set Cashmere aside in all ways and to assume that if we want a thing done we must do it ourselves.
‘The more I think of this scheme the more clear it seems to me that we should limit our overt interference as far as possible to the organization of responsible military force in Gilgit. So far we can hope to carry the Durbar thoroughly with us. If we annex Gilgit, or put an end to the suzerainty of Cashmere over the petty principalities of the neighbourhood, and, above all, if we put British troops into Cashmere just now, we shall run a risk of turning the Durbar against us and thereby increase the difficulty of the position. I do not think this is necessary. No doubt we must have practically the control of Cashmere relations with those principalities, but this we already have. Indeed, the Durbar has now, since the dismissal of Lachmun Das, asked Mr. Plowden to advise the Gilgit authorities direct without reference to them. If we have a quiet and judicious officer at Gilgit, who will get the Cashmere force into thorough order and abstain from unnecessary exercise of his influence, we shall, I hope, in a short time, have the whole thing in our hand without hurting any one’s feelings.’
“Up to this, the document is a substantially accurate reproduction of a minute actually written upon the above date by Sir Mortimer Durand, so much so that there can be no doubt whatever that it must have been communicated to the Press by a person who had had an opportunity of copying or committing to memory a part at all events of Sir Mortimer Durand’s minute. A few words only have been misquoted, but they are not of material importance. I think the Council will agree with me in considering that there is nothing in the passage which I have read which could be legitimately construed as revealing iniquitous designs upon the State of Kashmir on the part of the Government of India. It will no doubt be within the recollection of hon’ble members that, at the time when the minute was written, there had been considerable disturbances on the Gilgit frontier, that the Chiefs of Hunza and Nagar were in revolt against Kashmir, that Chaprot had been captured, and other places within the territories of the Maharaja threatened by the insurgents, who had defied the Kashmir authorities.
“These events had shown in so striking a manner the insufficiency and weakness of the frontier administration of the Kashmir Durbar, that proposals were submitted by the then Resident for the purpose of coming to its assistance. With this object Mr. Plowden advised the appointment of an English Political Agent at Gilgit, and he was further of opinion that it might be desirable to send British troops into Kashmir. These were the proposals to which the Foreign Secretary, in the document of which I have just read a part, took exception, and in the passages which follow in the original minute, which I have lately examined, I find that his objections to the Resident’s proposals were throughout based upon the reason which he assigned at the outset, namely, that Mr. Plowden was disposed to rely too much upon British intervention, and not enough upon the efforts of the Durbar. Sir Mortimer expresses his belief that we should ‘be able to improve and strengthen the position of the Kashmir authorities’; that any officer whom we send up ‘should act with the consent and assistance of the Durbar’; that ‘he should not take command of the Kashmir troops or get up any military expeditions’; and he was to ‘give advice to the Governor in his present military difficulties’ only ‘if the Durbar wishes it’.
“Will it be believed that the whole of the portion of the minute from which I have taken these extracts has been omitted or suppressed, and that in lieu of it has been inserted the passage which I shall now proceed to read :-
‘Altogether I think our first step should be to send up temporarily and quietly a selected military officer (Captain A. Durand of the Intelligence Department) and a junior medical officer. Both of them will have the support of the Durbar when and where it will be necessary, and they will not display any indiscretion, so that the Durbar may not have any hint of the work they are about to undertake, and they will have to obtain the consent of the Durbar in matters concerning military difficulties. Once we can establish a belief that our undertaking is nothing but the welfare of the Durbar, we are surely to attain our object. Time will show that my view is not a wrong one. In it lies, I venture to hope, the safe realization of that object which was once contemplated in Lord Canning’s time and afterwards it was abandoned after deliberation’.
“This extract, with the exception of the first line and a half, in which it is recommended that an officer should be sent up temporarily to Gilgit, is a sheer and impudent fabrication. Not only is it not to be found in Sir Mortimer Durand’s minute, but is misrepresents him in all the most essential particulars. It has thus come to pass that, on the one hand, important passages of Sir Mortimer Durand’s minute have been altogether suppressed, and, on the other, words have been ascribed to him which he not only never used, but which convey a meaning absolutely inconsistent with those which he actually wrote.
“I have already called attention to the suppression of those parts of the minute which most strikingly illustrate the moderation of the policy which found favour with the Foreign Secretary and which was approved by the Viceroy. When we come to the passages for which the writer has drawn upon his own imagination, we find a series of unfounded statements expressed in language which those who are familiar with Sir Mortimer Durand’s style would not for a moment mistake for his, and abounding in suggestions to the effect that our policy in regard to Kashmir was governed by motives of the most sinister kind. Of such a description are the passages in which it is said that the officers sent to Gilgit are to conduct themselves ‘so that the Durbar may not have any hint of the work that they are about to undertake’, and the statement that, ‘once we can establish a belief that our undertaking is nothing but the welfare of the Durbar, we are surely to attain our object’, - an object which is subsequently described as that ‘which was contemplated in Lord Canning’s time, and afterwards it was abandoned after deliberation’.
“The newspaper version of the minute ends with the following words:-
‘Eventually Major Mellis should go to Cashmere on the part of the Durbar and submit a mature scheme for the better administration of the State, which is at present very badly managed indeed. This scheme should include the outline of our arrangements for strengthening the Government policy.
‘After the expiry of six months we will be in a position to decide whether the permanent location of a Political Agency at Gilgit, also a contingent of troops for the defence of the frontier for which the Durbar have already agreed to put their resources and troops at the disposal of the British Government.
(Sd.) H. M. DURAND,
“Upon these passages I have only to observe that the earlier portion is rendered with complete inaccuracy, Sir M. Durand never having recommended that Major Mellis should submit a scheme for the administration of the State, but merely that that officer should at a later date go to Kashmir in order to confer with the Durbar in regard to its offer of aid for the defence of the frontier. The concluding sentence is a pure fabrication, none of the words after ‘policy’ appearing in the original minute. The latter, I may add, received the Viceroy’s approval, although not in the terms mentioned in the fabricated version.
“I have shown already what were the objects with which the Government of India proposed, in 1888 to intervene in the affairs of Kashmir, and within what narrow limits Sir Mortimer Durand, with the Viceroy’s approval, was prepared to restrict that intervention; and it is unnecessary for me to point out how full of mischievous and misleading suggestion are the passages which I have quoted from the spurious portions of his supposed minute.
“The responsibility which rests upon those who are ready not only to give to the public documents which they are well aware could not have been obtained except by a distinct and criminal breach of trust, but who are not even at the pains to satisfy themselves that these documents are genuine, is a very serious one.
“In the present instance the spurious information can have been published with no other object than that of persuading the people of this country that the recent action of the Government of India in Kashmir has been prompted by motives which have been repudiated in official documents of the first importance as well as by the public statements of the Secretary of State in the British Parliament. Not content with persistently misrepresenting the Government of India, the publishers of the article have not scrupled to present to the public a garbled version of a confidential note, written more than a year ago, in order to give an entirely distorted account of the then view and actions of the Government. Neither then nor at the present time has it been the desire of the Government of India to promote its own interests at the expense of those of the Kashmir State; then, as now, it was our desire to see that State well and wisely governed, with a minimum of intervention on our part, and without any ulterior designs upon its independence. I am not without hopes that the sincerity of our motives will in process of time come to be understood even by those who have been misled by the persistent misrepresentation which has taken place in connection with these matters, and I believe that an exposure of the practices to which our critics have not scrupled to resort in the present instance may have the effect of, in some degree, opening the eyes of the public as to the methods which have been adopted for the purpose of prejudicing its judgment in regard to this important case.
“I have thought it my duty to bring this matter to the attention of the Council, both for the purpose of affording an illustration of the kind of malpractice against which the Bill on the table is directed, and also because I think it should be generally known that the new law is intended to be put in force in such cases, and that those who publish official documents without authority will come within its scope, whether the persons by whom those documents have been divulged are discovered or not, and whether the documents themselves are published in their entirety or, as in the present instance, reproduced in a garbled and truncated form.”1
1. Legislative Department Proceedings, – October 1889, No. 237, APPENDIX A35.
National Archives of India (NAI).