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Media Trial “आज तक”- from Nanavati to SSR case

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Manjunath Kakkalameli
Manjunath Kakkalameli
Author is Cyber Law Expert, Columnist, Public Speaker, Media Panelist, Practicing advocate at Bombay High Court. has been delivered many Talks on Cyber law, Constitutional law.

Media- In any democratic set up, however, known to be a mirror and cloth of society, also an essential part of it. However, the media, from ink to mic, has power to build career of one’s or can assassinate character of a personality, in fact can change the government too.

The SSR case has once again brought media itself into lime light, the cause behind is “media trial”.

In India the media trial has enormous importance, it can set investigation in particular case, it can fame and defame too. Most crazy thing is that in media trial, The SSR case shows that media gets crucial evidence ahead of Investigating Officer. Today, it influences the masses by making an innocent a culprit thereby changing the perceptions. Indeed, Various Judges of Court have criticized the trial by media as it leads to psychological variation while giving any degree. Media has been termed as a magic bullet that directly hits the mind of the people. We automatically believe what media show us.

In such a background lets visit again the most famous “media trial” case- 

The Nanavati Case: I must say Indian citizens first time ever witnessed, the power of media trial, even though this was “open & shut” case, accused was known to all, still this case got famed probably this was first Indian media trial. 

The Naval commander Kawas Nanavati stormed into an exclusive Bombay flat, and shot dead his English wife Sylvia’s businessman lover, Prem Ahuja. Three shots in less than three minutes, but they created legal history and an indestructible legend.

The trial was marked by thriller-grade twists and turns, ended the jury system, called for the setting up of two Constitution benches, forced the intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and fueled unprecedented public hysteria. Those hot-blooded shots have reverberated noisily through the intervening decades, and seem to be in no mood to taper off.

The Nanavati case was not just the first upper-class crime of passion, it also set in motion the temerity with which the rich and influential would try to subvert justice. It was the first ‘trial by media’, and the first crime to get jumped up to ‘national event’. It pioneered the fail-safe trend of exploiting the uniform and patriotism for less noble ends.

Kawas Nanavati belonged to the time’s most exclusive club. He was a Bombay Parsi when this minority commanded the heights of industry, law, medicine and culture. Any shortfall was more than made up by his other sphere of influence: The Navy and its political extension.

The Commander was the blue-eyed boy of then-defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon; he pompously told The New York Times that he had leaned so heavily on the system because ‘I did not want the stain of turpitude to destroy the career of so promising an officer’. Admiral R.D. Katari flew down in an official jet to endorse his character at the sessions trial, a gesture not accorded before or since. Prime Minister Nehru himself pacified the Delhi Press baying at the unconscionable favours being granted to a convicted killer. Every decade since has been bloodied by a similar crime, or three, involving those with friends in high places, or political heavies themselves.

The badminton champion case: 

Yet another media trial was, Modi was shot dead as he was coming out of KD Singh Babu stadium, Lucknow after a routine practice. A brilliant career was cut short and a severe blow was dealt to badminton in India. A conspiracy-to-murder charge was filed against his wife, Ameeta, and her boyfriend, Sanjay Singh, adopted heir to the Amethi ‘kingdom, a friend of Rajiv Gandhi, and the Congress leader who crossed over to the Janata Dal, the BJP and back to INC. In 1990, both were forgiven; investigating officers confided that the case was ‘scuttled’. 

Even the ‘actual killer’ was exonerated. In 1991, Dev Anand made a thriller based on the murder, Sau Crore. Later, Sanjay married Ameeta; his wife Garima challenged the marriage. After lying low, Sanjay re-entered politics – and inducted Ameeta as well. She was the successful BJP candidate from Amethi in 2002, and in 2007 as a Congresswoman. Garima contested against her in 2017, and won.

Journalist Shivani Bhatnagar Case. Bhatnagar’s murder on 23 January 1999 became a scandal that reached into the top levels of Indian politics. Journalist Shivani Bhatnagar was battered to death in her rented Delhi flat. Ravi Kant Sharma, IGP Prisons, Haryana, the main accused in the case, absconded and surrendered in 2002, but was acquitted in 2011 for lack of evidence in a tardy trial. But Sharma’s wife accused BJP’s powerful and charismatic minister Pramod Mahajan of framing her husband. Since this bombshell came soon after the petrol pump and land allotment scandals, the party went into hyper damage control with L.K. Advani and even Prime Minister Vajpayee coming to the defence of Mahajan, whose resignation was demanded by the Congress. In 2006, Pramod was shot at home by his enraged brother Pravin, also believed to be a crime of passion.

The Priyadarshini Mattoo Case: She was a 25-year-old law student who was found raped and murdered at her house in New Delhi on 23 January 1996. On 17 October 2006, the Delhi High Court found Santosh Kumar Singh guilty on both counts of rape and murder and on 30 October of the same year sentenced him to death. On 6 October 2010, the Supreme Court of India commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. Santosh Kumar Singh, the son of an Inspector-General of Police, had earlier been acquitted by a trial court in 1999, and the High Court decision was widely perceived in India as a landmark reversal. This decision was overturned as the facts were not presented correctly in the lower court.

The Jessica Lal Case: A model in New Delhi who was working as a celebrity barmaid at a crowded socialite party when she was shot dead at around 2am on 30 April 1999. Dozens of witnesses pointed to Siddharth Vashisht, also known as Manu Sharma, the son of Venod Sharma, a wealthy and influential Congress-nominated Member of Parliament from Haryana, as the murderer. In the ensuing trial, Manu Sharma and a number of others were acquitted on 21 February 2006, but were allegedly silenced, and Manu was acquitted by a trial court. However intense media and public pressure forced the Delhi High Court to reopen the case, and after a 25-day fast track trial, the brattish murderer was sentenced to life in 2006. A 2011 movie on the incident was titled No One Killed Jessica.

The Arushi Talwar Case:  In May 2008, the mysterious double murder case, of a teenage girl Aarushi Talwar, 13 years old girl and a 45 years old domestic worker was murdered in Noida hit the national headlines. Her parents have been convicted for the murder of their only daughter and currently serving life term at a jail. Journalist Avirook Sen’s latest book on the Aarushi case gives a clean chit to her parents followed by Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, both in 2015. Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were acquitted in October 2017 on account of sloppy evidence.

Even though, few cases got famed, unwanted, unwarranted importance has been given to the cases which ought not too, to conduct a fair trial, a reasonable “media coverage’ is warranted through an unbiased journalism. 

The Author is Cyber Lawyer, Columnist, practising Lawyer at Bombay High Court.  

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Manjunath Kakkalameli
Manjunath Kakkalameli
Author is Cyber Law Expert, Columnist, Public Speaker, Media Panelist, Practicing advocate at Bombay High Court. has been delivered many Talks on Cyber law, Constitutional law.
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