In conversation with NDTVs Sonia Singh,Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta responds to the debate triggered by this paper’s report on Army troop movement towards the capital one foggy January night.
Sonia Singh : Our top story is a story from The Indian Express which has the nation talking,if not spooked. The Prime Minister said today the Army Chiefs is an exalted office and that we all have an obligation to do nothing to lower its dignity.
Thats how he responded to the reports of growing friction between the government and the Army Chief. The Prime Minister also called The Indian Express report alarmist and said it shouldnt be taken at face value. Defence Minister A K Antony made the point that nobody can question the patriotism of Indian troops.
Joining me tonight is Shekhar Gupta,Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express,and also a journalist on this story.
The story has your byline Shekhar. Just to hold up this headline: The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt. Many have said while the story may be valid,this paragraph makes the point that: To be fair,the MoDs considered view now seems to be it was a false alarm Is the headline misleading? Has it actually sent out a message it was completely wrong?
Shekhar Gupta : Well if that was the case,the story would not have run. We are not non-serious journalists. MoD can have its point of view. We have to report that point of view. We also have to report the facts and the reader has to arrive at a judgement in view of the facts. So the fair thing to do is to put all facts in the front,and all facts are in the front and you can draw your own pictures of it.
Sonia Singh : Have the facts been misinterpreted? In recent times,I have not come across a story that has been so divisive in terms of reactions that have come in. The Indian Express has been called a traitor,catering to a particular lobby
Shekhar Gupta : Either people call you a traitor,or people say it is a government plant These are facts. Facts dont hurt anybody. We are journalists,we look at facts,we check them,we assess them then we put them out in public domain We put our necks on the line. This is not a blog under a funny name like kaala kutta or safed billi this is a genuine newspaper story it is not just under my byline. Look at the other bylines. These are formidable reporters. They are the best reporters you can get A lot of work has gone into it. We are quite happy to put facts like this in public domain. Let them be scrutinised.
Sonia Singh : When you talk of assessment of facts many have questioned the use of the word spooked,alarmist bells rung is there an implication that the Indian government possibly thought it was a coup? You have been very careful to say the only C word in the article was curious. Is there an underlined message that the Indian government was worried about a coup?
Shekhar Gupta : What is the story? The story is that night,lots of important people in our armed forces and our political leadership were very worried. Its a story that needs to be told to our readers.
Sonia Singh : Were they worried about a coup?
Shekhar Gupta : I never said that. They were worried about something odd happening. They were confused. The rest is just a recounting of what happened.
Sonia Singh : But spooked about what?
Shekhar Gupta : Spooked about these units do we know about them,do we not know about them? You said this story is very divisive. The fact is,these times are very divisive. When was the last time a serving chief went to the Supreme Court against the government? When was time a serving Cabinet Secretary went to court against the government? When was the last time a serving home secretary,a defence secretary went to court against the government? This is a very divisive moment. Even when he (Army Chief) goes to court,he doesnt say the issue is settled. He said the court hasnt taken a call on my date of birth,but now I am settling it. And then,there are letters and controversies These are very unsettled and divisive times. Journalists will fail in their duty if they hide in some bunker and run away from these facts. These facts have to be found,they have to be aggressively investigated they have to be brought out in public debate.
Sonia Singh : Given these are unusual times,is it fair to take events which the Army maintains are routine movements does it take it out of context?
Shekhar Gupta : What the Army said is in the story. If you look at the denials today,there is no denial that is not carried in the story. There will be denials Thats the hazard we journalists have to deal with. Then we see over a long period of time the strike rate. We have a very good strike rate. Id rather say look at our track record,look at our strike rate. There will be denials,but nobody has questioned,either yesterday or today,any of the facts in the story. It is a complex story that has nuances,that has to be told carefully. Questions about style and display are different but questions about substance,questions about facts? No,thank you very much.
Sonia Singh : Do the facts add up to what the headline seems to imply?
Shekhar Gupta : The headline doesnt imply. The headline states. The headline states people were alarmed,people were worried,many things were done the story is very well checked out.
Sonia Singh : Alarmed by what? Would anybody have been alarmed if this happened before the tension with the Army Chief?
Shekhar Gupta : That is hypothetical. I can only guess. I am the editor of the paper,but in this story,I am a reporter. I am happy to be back as a reporter. I can tell you what happened that day. Our journalists are working on the story. Hopefully,they will find something else.
Sonia Singh : Today the MPs panel brought out this report on the Standing Committee on Defence Both the Vice Chief and the Defence Secretary said the report was baseless. Defence Secretary said he didnt come back from Malaysia. (Following the troop movement,Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia. He returned).
Shekhar Gupta : We are journalists. We cant go by whispers. When we have hard facts,we counter them by hard facts Defence Secretary came back from Malaysia We have also said what he did in the evening. You have to either deny specific facts or you can say everything is baseless. Everything is alarmist. Thank you. If you choose to be alarmed,what can I do? Everything shouldnt be taken at face value. Fair comment. Army Chiefs is an exalted office. Nobody should bring down its reputation,Very good. It is like motherhood. Who can speak against it? That applies to everybody to the Army chief,to the Minister of Defence to one who is challenging this Army Chief,people filing legal challenges against the next Army Chief. This is a very murky environment. Media would be doing a great disservice to India if they either stay out of it or if they start picking stuff from the lobbies including the government.
Sonia Singh : 12 hour later no regrets for that story?
Shekhar Gupta : Express has been branded anti-national,traitor,scoop that never was etc. Have been called anti national; traitor,govt stooge,pro corrupt.
When we took our unconventional stand on the nuclear deal,the Anna movement,and now this story last two intellectual arguments were won. I am 100 pc sure factual argument on this will be won as much as intellectual argument which is,the govts handling of this higher defence command has been very poor Had a situation like this in the early 60s. But it was fixed by 3 PMs Nehru,who corrected mistakes by bringing in Chavan as Defence Minister; Shastri and Mrs Gandhi. Chavan,Jagjivan Ram were the finest defence ministers.
Sonia Singh : Many have asked if it could have been solved if the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister picked up the phone to VK Singh.
Shekhar Gupta : That is not my call. We journalists are not even flies on the wall. We wish we were but let me say,if people didnt do silly things,interesting things,how would our lives be so much fun?
Sonia Singh : How would we get the headlines? This headline has caused a huge reaction. Let us see what the headline is tomorrow morning Shekhar,thanks for joining us in staunch defence of that story which had the nation talking today.