Fugitives seek to tell their side of the story on television before police lay their hands on them.
4 June 2006
In deposing live on TV, a new trend emerges
New Delhi: From Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole and Costa-Gavras's Mad City to the Amitabh Bachchan-Shabana Azmi starrer Main Azaad Hoon, the parasitic nature of the media's quest for `exclusive' access to the scene of a tragedy or crime has been widely documented in the West and even in India. Not as well documented is the quest in reverse, when a fugitive seeks desperately to tell his side of the story on television before the police — with their infinitely less gentle inquisitorial methods — get their hands on him.
Friday night's "exclusive" pre-surrender televised deposition by Rahul Malhotra, Tishay Khanna and Karan Ahuja — the three young men who were with Rahul Mahajan on the fateful evening the aspiring BJP politician collapsed — was followed on Saturday by Sahil Zaroo, the fourth house guest, meeting the press before handing himself over to the police for questioning. All four men had been sought by law enforcement since Friday morning. Their absence fuelled intense speculation what it was that led to Mr. Mahajan and his late father's secretary, Bibek Moitra, being taken to hospital in a comatose condition. Throughout the day, dark rumours swirled around Delhi about big political money, foul play and murder. Before the day was out, however, the three young men appeared on NDTV to narrate a less sensational if equally sordid tale of drug abuse.
On his part, Mr. Zaroo, who saw himself emerging as the fall guy in the entire escapade and carries the additional burden — in these paranoid times — of being a Kashmiri Muslim, also preferred to submit himself to the media first before bowing to the inevitable.
Last November, in the eye of a storm generated by the oil-for-food scandal, Delhi-based businessman Andaleeb Sehgal too chose the television studio route to claim his innocence before turning himself over to the Enforcement Directorate.
The closest filmic account of this trend of wanted persons using the media occurs in the climax of Rang de Basanti when Amir Khan and his friends take over All India Radio in order to confess to the assassination of a corrupt defence minister live on FM.
In many ways, these high-profile "confessions" and "surrenders" tell us as much about the narcotic value of "breaking news" as they do about the reputation of the Indian police. Simply put, public confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of law enforcement is so low that any individual with knowledge of a crime that intersects with power politics and big money would be unlikely to want to get in touch with the police.
Indeed, so large is the credibility gap that often the police themselves stage televised confessions. Soon after Mohammed Afzal was arrested in connection with the December 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, the Delhi Police Special Cell paraded him before reporters and prompted him to not only confess but also implicate others. And when the cameras recorded him saying something that ran counter to the police version of events, all the reporters present agreed not to broadcast the `offending' sound bites.
Sometimes, televised confessions can also have the effect of muddying the waters or weakening a case. When the Punjab police allowed Maninder Singh Kohli — wanted in Britain for the rape and murder of a young girl — to make a televised confession while he was in their custody in July 2004, the British government reportedly told the Punjab authorities that such public confessions could actually hamper the progress of the case.