07 August 1999

War and the dharma of a journalist

7 August 1999
The Times of India

War and the Dharma of a Journalist

By Siddharth Varadarajan

What does a journalist do when his dharma as a journalist comes into conflict with what the State holds to be his dharma as a patriot? Such a moral dilemma -- which could arise at any time -- is especially acute during war.

Even though the conflict in Kargil was not one which jeopardised the very existence of the country, the fact that young soldiers were fighting and dying placed a heavy moral burden on the rest of society. In the interests of national solidarity, virtually everyone compromised on their svabhava and svadharma. The businessman curbed his natural urge for maximum profits and donated a small part of his earnings for the welfare of war widows. The mothers of slain soldiers held back their tears whenever TV cameras intruded into their private moments of grief and bravely declared that they would send all their sons to die at Kargil. In such a situation, it was inevitable that journalists would also be affected by the national mood.

Had the journalists confined themselves to donating a day's salary, the question of conflicting dharmas might never have arisen. However, as purveyors of information, the media soon got
caught up in what the State called `infowar'. Journalists had to grapple with a moral dilemma as intractable as any: Was it justified to compromise one's fidelity to the truth in order to further what the State defined as the `war effort'?

Two weeks into the conflict, the country was appalled to learn that the bodies of six Indian soldiers had been returned by Pakistan in a severely mutilated condition. Virtually every
newspaper carried the gory details -- as supplied by the Army to UNI -- without waiting for independent or even official confirmation. Strangely, such confirmation never arrived. The
details revealed by the foreign minister, though horrific, fell far short of what was originally alleged. Today, in fact, even though the government has stopped referring to the case as one of
`mutilation' and chooses instead to call it `torture', the allegation of brutal mutilation has stuck. During the war, at least two newspapers received information that the allegation had been
highly exaggerated; it was said that only one of the six bodies had shown signs of mutilation. Yet, the journalists who received this information chose to remain silent.

As the battle progressed, at least one newspaper and one magazine also received reports from correspondents at the front of incidents where Indian soldiers had mutilated the dead bodies
of Pakistani soldiers. After a heated editorial debate, the decision was taken to `kill' these stories, at least till after the fighting was over.

In the Mahabharata, there are several instances where the imperative of truth-telling clashes with other obligations. In once incident, Arjuna decides that he must obey his vow to kill anyone who insults Gandiva, his bow, even though this means he must slay his elder brother Yudhisthira. Fortunately, Krishna intervenes and counsels Arjuna that his duty to avoid
fratricide must take precedence over his duty to be true to his word. Promise-keeping and truth-telling could be compromised, said Krishna, if lives could be saved as a result. He narrated the story of Kaushika, a hermit who always spoke the truth. One day, some merchants passed by. Soon thereafter, a gang of robbers arrived and asked Kaushika where the merchants had
gone. Kaushika truthfully gave them the information they needed, with the result that the merchants were robbed and killed. Since his act of truth-telling led to the loss of innocent lives, Kaushika was punished by the gods and denied heaven after death.

As the late philosopher B K Matilal argued in an essay on moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata, Krishna believed that ``under situational constraints, there might be stronger grounds for rejecting truth-telling as a duty and accepting the stronger duty of saving an innocent life.'' Acknowledging that dharma cannot be known by us as universally fixed, he nevertheless adds: ``But the acknowledgement of possible flexibility does not mean that the fixity and universality of ethical laws will be entirely negotiable...Krishna allows for flexibility of dharma but this
flexibility never means the `anything goes' kind of morality.''

Does Krishna offer the Indian journalist a way out of his moral dilemma during war? He certainly does. The journalist must abide by his dharma so long as nothing he does leads to the loss of an innocent life. To reveal crucial details of strategy when the war is being fought would be an act of moral stupidity equal to that of Kaushika. But the suppression of the truth about certain unpleasant incidents and the dissemination of half-truths and innuendoes alluded to above did not save lives. All it did was to undermine the reputation of the Indian media.

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