“Journalists” writes Markandey Katju, with little sense of irony, “comment on everything under the sun.” He goes on to say that when the shoe is on the other foot, when someone comments on journalism, it is misconstrued as an attack on press freedom. That when he announces he is appointing a committee to explore whether journalists require a minimum qualification to practise, he is interested more in regulating than controlling the media. That, just like law or medicine, journalism is learnt in the field but requires certain basic principles that can only be taught in the classroom.
A lot has been written about Katju’s prescriptions on media education, just as a lot is written about anything he says in public. It would be fair to say that no previous chair of the Press Council of India (PCI) has attracted the public gaze as much as he; in fact, one would be hard pressed to remember the names of previous chairs of the council. In his two years in the post, however, Katju has commented on matters germane to his charge and otherwise, and has been praised and criticised in equal measure for doing so. “I have been described variously,” he writes, “as a megalomaniac, a crank, a maverick, a publicity seeker, a wild man, a loose cannon, and even a dog (by a chief minister), who ‘comments on everything under the sun’.”
That last quote is from a column Katju wrote on New Year’s Eve as a clarification of his views, which he insisted “are consistent, coherent, and directed to one single aim: To help my country become prosperous with its people having decent lives”. His weltanschauung, such as it is, is this: (1) the Industrial Revolution can provide everybody’s basic needs, but 80 percent of India’s population remains poor, (2) scientific thinking is the solution to that poverty and its associated issues, (3) a vast majority of Indians “are intellectually very backward, their minds full of casteism, communalism, and superstitions”, and therefore, (4) his effort is to combat regressive thought, which requires a long effort of patiently explaining the truth to that majority, so that the nation sees the light. He rejects suggestions that he chases controversy for publicity, but that he finds it impossible to remain silent when “I see my country going downhill”.
Katju’s outspokenness in his role as PCI chair came under heavy criticism in February when he wrote a newspaper column in which he compared the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002 with the Kristallnacht, the 1938 attack on Jews in Germany that was characterised by the Nazis as a spontaneous reaction to the killing of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish youth, but was actually orchestrated by the Nazis themselves. Agreeing with Ramachandra Guha’s article questioning Narendra Modi’s claims of development, he had asked whether the malnourished children of Gujarat should “eat the roads, electricity and factories which Modi has created”. He responded to the criticism by claiming his right to free speech and insisting that he is an independent statutory authority rather than a government official and that there’s nothing in the rules that prevents him from speaking out. But BJP spokesperson and PCI member Prakash Javadekar feels it does not behove the holder of such a post to make political statements. “If he wants to enter politics, we don’t have a problem,” Javadekar says, “but he shouldn’t say these things while holding a quasi-judicial post. It doesn’t matter whether he can be legally stopped from making statements or writing articles; he cannot juggle two identities and sometimes say he is speaking as a private citizen and at another time say he is speaking as the PCI chair.”
Katju’s perennial speaking role in the national drama didn’t come about after he took the helm of the PCI. In a 40-year legal career, he was often in the news for a number of landmark judgements and observations. But the storied law career almost never happened. In 1967, when he finished top of his class to get his LLB from Allahabad University, instead of becoming the third generation of his family to enter law — his grandfather had gone on to become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and law minister in Nehru’s cabinet, while his father was Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court at the time — Katju chose to work as a schoolteacher in a village. “He wanted to work for the good of society as a teacher, rather than follow in his father’s footsteps,” says VS Singh, senior vicepresident of the Allahabad High Court Bar Association, who practised law with Katju. “Later, he felt that he could better serve society by practising law.”