By Rajdeep Sardesai:
Editor’s note: On Sept 18, criticising the recent series of events in Maharashtra, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai wrote an open letter to Mr. Devendra Fadnavis about his “misplaced priorities”. On Tuesday, Fadnavis replied to Sardesai calling his letter an example of a misinformed media that is bashing the Government “with an agenda”. Here is Sardesai’s response to Fadnavis’s letter, originally published on his website.
Firstly, I wish to thank you for replying to my open letter and creating space for a public debate. This is a sign of a truly healthy democracy and is rare for a politician in this day and age. I truly appreciate that a big politician chooses to reply to a humble columnist: doesn’t happen too often in an age where the media is a soft target. However, while I do not wish this to become a tu-tu main-main, I must reserve the right to reply.
Sir, there are four basic issues that I raised in my original letter to which you have responded. Firstly, the meat and beef ban in Maharashtra. On the beef ban, the fact is that your government has imposed a statewide ban in a unilateral manner with no attempt to engage with the stakeholders. The results are there for all to see. Thousands of people associated with the cattle trade have overnight been rendered unemployed. They are all citizens of this country, many of whom voted for you in the last election. I haven’t heard a word of empathy for their plight ( a number of them belong to the minority community but let’s not go down there for now). Should I not ask as a journalist what useful public purpose has been served by this ban? Or does asking questions make me agenda driven?
The issue of a meat ban has a more chequered past. Yes, previous governments of the Congress-NCP, be it at the state or municipal level, have sought to impose bans on meat sale during the Jain festival. Under pressure from the Jain community, attempts have been made by your predecessors (and I mention this in my article without citing the dates) in 1994, 2003-04 and 2014 through government resolutions, but these were never widely enforced (the 94 order, for example, was never carried out), were often driven by a spirit of voluntarism (an “appeal” was made to close meat shops) and nor did they initially last beyond two days (although the August 2014 Government resolution did seek to extend it to four days). It is only this year that the BJP dominated Mira-Bhayandar municipal corporation imposed an unprecedented eight day ban on meat sale and strictly enforced it. Taking a cue, a group of BJP MLAs, councillors and Jain community persons met the municipal commissioner and sought to extend this to Mumbai city and have a similar eight day ban on meat sale across the city. It is only when the Shiv Sena and MNS opposed this, that your local leaders were forced to back off because they couldn’t muster a majority.
The message is clear and this was the point I was making: the state BJP wanted to impose, indeed was pushing to impose, a ban much wider in scope and ambit than in the past. And if I ask questions in this regard, am I agenda-driven or pseudo-secular or simply reflecting the concerns of a large section of the population who do not appreciate the ban culture, be it by a BJP government or a Congress government?
Let’s turn to Rakesh Maria and the musical chairs played with the police commissioner’s office. You claim that his sudden transfer was necessitated by the rush of festivals: a new man was needed to oversee the festival arrangements. Truth is, almost no senior police officer I have spoken to is willing to buy this theory. Those who have retired have openly scoffed at this explanation, those in service are naturally hesitant to speak out. The conjecture is that Mr Maria’s transfer has something to do with the ongoing Sheena Bora investigation or a personal animus. You seem to suggest that his role as commissioner in a murder case was purely supervisory. Maybe it was, or should be. But the fact is, your government after transferring him to DG Home Guards in the morning, the very same evening claims that he will continue to oversee the Bora investigation. This, even as a new police commissioner and another fine officer Ahmed Javed takes charge. Can there be anything more confusing? Then, to compound the confusion, your government now decides to suddenly hand over the Bora case to the CBI. The Mumbai police claimed in court that it had clinching evidence while seeking remand against the accused; then why is the case being transferred out? Is the Mumbai police incompetent, is there a cover-up, or is the case throwing up new dimensions which perhaps might need fresh investigation? Is a journalist not to ask such questions without his motives being questioned?
Let’s turn to the issue of sedition and a government circular. You claim that the circular is a routine translation from Marathi of an order passed by the previous state government. Your reply seems to suggest that the role of the present government is little more than clerical that requires no application of mind to a serious issue. Well, all I can say is that on Tuesday, the Mumbai high court gave a very different spin to this issue: on a petition by cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, they have asked your government not to implement the circular for now and asked you to reply by the 20th of October. Since the matter is now before the esteemed court, maybe we should wait to see how they interpret the government circular: clearly, this round has been won by those who are worried that the circular can be misused by the police. Also, if you are not in agreement with the sedition circular why did your government not withdraw it? `Sedition’ is hardly a weapon to be used in the armoury of a democratic government which should welcome debate and disagreement. Why did your government re-issue this circular? And if I point to this potential for misuse, am I being agenda driven or simply doing my duty as a journalist?
The fourth issue is one which is dear to your and my heart: the plight of the farmers, especially in Marathwada at the moment. As a politician from Vidarbha, I know you empathise with farmers issues; I am aware that you took a lead role in exposing the irrigation scam when in opposition. And I am also aware of your efforts through the Jal Yukta Shivir Yojana to try and improve the situation on the ground. The facts though are that 729 farmers have committed suicide since January in Marathwada alone, more than any other part of the country, and tanker mafias and usurious money-lenders continue to rule. Yes, this is an inherited legacy (and I refer to the irrigation failures and comments made by previous ministers in my original letter), but on the ground there is hardly any evidence of the situation showing any marked improvement. Maybe, if your micro-irrigation schemes do work, then, in the long run, there will be change. But for now, there is a deepening crisis. Should I not be asking you, therefore, to prioritise farm relief above all else? And should I not also ask what happened to the election promise of ensuring that those involved in the irrigation scam are punished? Or is asking hard questions in this age of cheerleaders and unbridled Bhakti, no longer acceptable?
My final point sir: in your response, at various points you call me a ‘leftist’, `pseudo-secular’, and ‘biased’. You also rather derisively placed the word senior, as in senior journalist, in inverted commas. Personal attacks are now par for the course; 27 years of journalism have helped me acquire the skin of a rhinoceros. Over the years, I have been attacked by one and all: in 1992-93, Sharad Pawar, also a former Maharashtra CM, threw me out of a press conference because of the questions I asked on the Mumbai riots. Ten years later, my coverage of the 2002 riots led to my being attacked again. I have stood up against all forms of extremism, Hindu and Muslim, and am suspicious of all dogmas, be it of left or right. I have exposed Congress corruption (as editor of a news channel, I supervised the path-breaking investigative story on the Quattorochi accounts being defrozen), and sangh parivar hate politics, Mulayam’s goondaism (for which I was summoned to the UP state assembly) and Mayawati’s disproportionate assets (for which our OB van was burnt). Please do go through my columns over the last two decades, especially on Maharashtra politics, a state whose social and political decline I have observed with dismay.
I am happy to introspect, be corrected, but dislike being pigeonholed in any manner, except to say that I do believe in the spirit of a liberal, plural India that strives to provide equal opportunities to all its citizens. Does that make me a “Leftist?” as you appear to caricature all dissenters or questioners? If I question any form of bigotry, does that make me pseudo-secular? In my view, it makes me a proud, humane Indian.
Post-script: I must also thank all your followers who ensured I trended all through Tuesday on twitter. Their constant abuse gives me strength. Look forward to meeting soon! Jai Maharashtra, jai Hind!