An interesting case of Flat Earth News (i.e.: news that isn’t), has been making the rounds in papers last week.
On July 7, a few publications, apparently relying on PTI copy, had picked up as news what looked like a headline from late 2013. The Asian Age wrote, “Law intern yet to join A.K. Ganguly probe”, citing a home ministry letter of July 2 to BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, which read –
“Delhi police has further informed that inspite [sic] of repeated requests, the woman complainant has not joined the enquiry and hence no further enquiry into the incident of alleged unwelcome behaviour of the former Supreme Court judge was possible.”
The Delhi police reportedly told the home ministry that “available material” in the public domain was not sufficient to take suo motu cognisance of an offence under Section 154.
Firstpost went with “Law intern, who levelled charges against former SC judge, yet to depose”, while news website, OneIndia, did not mention Swamy’s involvement in its story headlined “Law intern refuses to record statement, Delhi police say can’t register case against Ganguly”, failing to explain why a story and angle that was more than six months old had been inexplicably resurrected.
The Hindu‘s and the Times of India’s Kolkata bureau picked up the story on July 10 (respectively – “No formal complaint against Justice Ganguly” and “’No case against Justice Ganguly‘ – The ministry of home affairs (MHA) has cleared the air about Justice (retd) Asok Kumar Ganguly, saying there is no case against him”).
On July 11, the Times of India headline writers upped the stakes with “Ganguly gets Centre’s clean chit in intern case”, also asking Ganguly whether he would now also file a defamation case against the intern, following the example of former Supreme Court Justice Swatanter Kumar. Ganguly told the Times , “I shall think about that later. I have no comment on the matter now.”
The ANI caught up on July 12 with an ostensibly heavily fact-based five-paragraph story that the home ministry “has cleared” Ganguly “of any wrongdoing in connection with a sexual assault case” in which “the intern has refused to record her statement”. That was headlined in the Business Standard with “Home Ministry gives clean chit to former SC Judge Ganguly in sexual assault case”.
Admittedly, the phrase “clean chit” has become somewhat meaningless when it’s bandied about by politicians or headline writers.
But a simpler problem with this story is that, except for Swamy receiving a letter from the ministry, the story of the police investigation hadn’t moved an inch since 2013. Mail Today on November 28, 2013 wrote – “Delhi Police claim ‘harassed’ law intern ‘is not cooperating’”; PTI copy on December 6, headlined in the Economic Times – “Delhi Police asks law intern to register complaint”; and The Telegraph on December 18 – “Police renew plea to intern”.
Apart from merely having been rather short of a news angle, the media coverage last week also displayed selective amnesia, readily buying into Swamy’s apparent attempt to bolster the narrative of a witch hunt against Ganguly (which he first began implying December of last year) and hounded into a resignation by an “uncooperative intern” as the media rode roughshod over legal process.
The reality is rather more mundane – the story has been over for a long time and there’s no new angle here.
District Commissioner of Police (DCP) in New Delhi, SBS Tyagi, was in charge of the criminal complaints in the intern matter since last year.“Concerning the intern issue, there is nothing pending in New Delhi district”, he told me on the phone yesterday. It is understood that the Delhi police had not been asked to give anybody a clean chit in the matter but that the investigation had closed and was not pursued further because the intern had not made a formal complaint.
“Concerning the intern issue, there is nothing pending in New Delhi district,” he said.
This confirms what the home office apparently told Swamy. But it doesn’t look at all like the story that the newspapers and wires managed to make out of it, particularly if you remember the background.
Cast your mind back to November 2013, when India was shocked by the allegation of a former intern that Justice AK Ganguly, who was not identified at the time, had sexually harassed her after he retired from the Supreme Court and was working as chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC).
Much media attention (and circus) ensued. The Supreme Court promptly started an internal three-judge probe into the allegation and investigated, advocate ML Sharma tried his obligatory contempt petition (which was dismissed) and several well-meaning third parties filed first information reports (FIRs) to the police – one by a former Delhi University prof, the other by activist lawyer Nutan Thakur.
Those FIRs were pretty much entirely based on the intern’s original blog post and Legally India’s interview with her, since the intern was fairly unequivocal in her original blog post and interview that she did not intend to pursue the case legally or ruin the Ganguly’s life (he was at that point still anonymous, while the intern wrote under her real name):
“I bore, and still bear, no real ill-will towards the man, and had no desire to put his life’s work and reputation in question. On the other hand, I felt I had a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation. But I have been unable to find a solution that allows that. Despite the heated public debates, despite a vast army of feminist vigilantes, despite new criminal laws and sexual harassment laws, I have not found closure. The lack of such an alternative led to my facing a crippling sense of intellectual and moral helplessness.”
Perhaps somewhat naively, she never expected Ganguly’s name to become public or for it to spiral into a national debate as it did, but, being a lawyer, she would have suspected better than most how slowly the legal system moves and how slim her chances of closure would be in a case of her word against the word of a former judge, heard before his peers and quite possibly defended by more than a dozen senior lawyers (as did happen barely two months later in Swatanter Kumar’s case).
Nevertheless, almost immediately there were calls for the intern to “woman up” and cooperate with the criminal inquiry already (for the sake of harassed women everywhere) or to shut up, not dissimilar from the media circus around and similar pressures on the accuser of Tarun Tejpal.
A few days after the story broke, DCP Tyagi had called me on his investigation, since I was, for a while, the only journalist to have spoken to the intern. He requested me to ask the intern to give a full report to the police, in part because after a celebrated early-November 2013 Supreme Court judgment, the police could get punished for not following up on cognisable FIRs within 7 days.
I did pass the message on, but I also told him that in light of the Supreme Court having constituted an internal inquiry into the matter, which the intern was cooperating with, it seemed unlikely that she would want a parallel investigation to upset the precarious constitutional balance even further at such a delicate time.
I understand that there had been two brief email exchanges between the intern and the police about figuring out a time to talk, but that fizzled out some time six months ago.
Meanwhile, as seen in the headlines above, media coverage over lack of the intern’s cooperation with the police was subtly spun as a sign of the intern’s guilt, or at least, of her extraordinarily obstinate nature.
Finally, on the eve of a presidential reference to remove Ganguly from WBHRC, which would have started another Supreme Court judicial inquiry to examine evidence of “proved misbehaviour” (including the intern’s video and written testimony, three witness statements, an alleged SMS apology by Ganguly and call records), the circus ended as suddenly as it began.
And so the intern and Ganguly continued their lives, both again out of the public eye (albeit one dented and one without a full-time job), as the news cycle quickly moved on to another similar allegation by another former intern against another former judge.
The Swatanter Kumar story hit the headlines in earnest on January 10 (incidentally, nearly a month after the first report by Mail Today on the same complaint had been roundly ignored) but this time around the media was rapidly stopped in its tracks by Kumar’s 100 crore defamation action against the intern, TV channels and Indian Express.
Ironically, that complaint had been made by the second intern through official Supreme Court channels, rather than a blog or the media; that case is still dragging its way through the Delhi high court and Supreme Court, with little hope of speedy resolution.
If nothing else, that is perhaps a vindication of the first intern’s choice not to press a legal case or cooperate with the police.
Instead, she saw potential vindication with a pending presidential reference and a resolution of sorts with Ganguly’s resignation, which, many things considered, actually seems like a rather proportionate outcome for most of the parties involved.
However, re-angling the lack of a criminal prosecution, which the intern never even wanted and supported, into a complete exoneration of Ganguly after seven months, is, at best, wrong.
At worst, it’s downright dishonest.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @kianganz