It is not unusual for the home ministry to make headlines. A behemoth with six departments and more than three dozen divisions, it is intricately involved with the lives of all Indians.
Recently, three very diverse issues saw the ministry hogging the headlines. The detention of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai caused a furore. She was working on the site of a coal mine being developed by two multinational companies in Madhya Pradesh. Pillai was not allowed to board a plane to London, where she was going to testify before the Indo-British All-Party Parliamentary Group. She was restrained on the basis of a lookout notice issued by immigration authorities a day before her flight. Pillai claims she wrote to the ministry but got no reply. She did, however, give her testimony and petitioned the Delhi High Court for redressal. The court said the restraint order was invalid and rejected government arguments that she would project a negative image of the country, which would affect foreign investments. The court agreed that the government had the right to restrict foreign travel, but only through procedure established by law. In this instance, the action taken had exceeded the ambit of reasonable restrictions stipulated by clause 2 of Article 19 of the Constitution. For the home ministry, this judgment means a further restriction of its executive authority and highlights the need to reassess procedures.
The second issue arose with BBC acquiring India’s Daughter, a documentary made by British Academy Award-winner Leslee Udwin. Based on the Nirbhaya rape case, it carries interviews with convicts, their families and lawyers.
Intellectuals, activists and the media took up the cause with alacrity. Female members raised the issue vociferously in Parliament. The home minister promptly made suo motu statements in both houses. The Delhi Police obtained an order prohibiting the exhibition of the documentary on the grounds that the content was offensive and derogatory to women, and was likely to cause an atmosphere of fear and tension. While many have decried the documentary, many argue that it shows and reflects the thinking of many of our countrymen. The Delhi High Court was promptly moved to permit the screening of India’s Daughter. The court disallowed the request, saying it should await the hearing and decision on the appeals of the convicts in the Supreme Court. The media, which earlier had a self-imposed code of not reporting sub judice matters, has now thrown it to the winds. Media trials have a tendency of creating pressure subconsciously. The home ministry tried to cover up the faux pas committed in July, 2013, when permission was granted to Udwin to interview the convicts in Tihar Jail. Its prompt action succeeded in silencing protests, but the documentary is on YouTube. A lesson that needs to be learnt is that the social media has become a tornado and cannot be curbed or curtailed.
Yet another controversy was the release of Masarat Alam Bhat, who had orchestrated protests in Kashmir in 2010 leading to the death of over 100 people. Detained under the Public Safety Act, he was released by the Jammu and Kashmir government. The prime minister and the home minister were held accountable by the opposition within and outside of Parliament. Though the decision was within the authority of the state government, the Union government became vulnerable because of the coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Peoples Democratic Party. The waters were muddied by Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's statement that the release was in consonance with the common minimum programme. It was clarified only later that there had been administrative lapses and Alam’s detention was no longer valid under law. As he had been in prison since 2010, it is doubtful whether there would be justifiable grounds for detaining him further.
Thus, it would be noteworthy here to mention that the responses by the home ministry, both on political and administrative levels, should always be calibrated and based on facts. Ignoring facts and a lack of application of minds will always add fuel to fire. So, wait for a while before responding to an issue.
Bhagat is a former director of the Intelligence Bureau.