JS Verma, Illustrious Allahabadi and a Standard By Himself. Tribute by Rohit Bansal

23 Apr,2013

By Rohit Bansal

 

In the middle of 2008, the chase for ratings had forced yet another low in the quality of television news stories. Correspondingly, there was the fear that government may slam a content regulator. To stay a step ahead, the then triumvirate of News Broadcasters Association (NBA), G Krishnan of TV Today, Samir Manchanda of TV18, and KVL Narayana Rao of NDTV, proposed that we should have a regulator of our own.

 

The board latched on to their idea immediately.

‘Who’ was the next question.

 

The required credentials were simple enough. The man – actually, Justice (Ms) Ruma Pal’s name came up too! – was expected to carry the kind of credibility that government would have no option but to slam the brakes on its own plans.

 

I remember the short discussion on who the first call should go to. Rao, if I remember correctly, suggested Justice JS Verma.

 

I do remember hinting to the triumvirate and the others – Chintamani Rao of Times, Barun Das of Zee News, Shazi Zaman of Star (Ashok Venkatramani replaced him in the coming weeks) – that Justice Verma won’t just torpedo the government’s designs. He’ll set us right too!

 

Everyone laughed, but that’s what happened.

 

When the draft of the News Broadcasting Standards, rules by which NBA channels would agree to regulate themselves, authored by Arnab Goswami and fine-tuned by legal eagle Harish Salve, and his own terms and conditions were delivered to Justice Verma for consent, he made only two corrections: a salary of Rs 1 per month instead of Rs 1.5 lakh that was being offered, and the power to issue notices ‘suo motu.’

 

Delighted that we’ll be saving Rs 18 lakh per year, we saw the other condition as a non-issue. But it is these two ‘corrections’ that gave the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) its social contract. The chairman could walk away any day; and he needn’t wait for someone to make a complaint after paying Rs 1000, the amount prescribed under the rules. A walk in the park could be a sufficient trigger.

 

Justice Rajinder Sachar did that to us in India TV. He mentioned to Justice Verma that Farzana Ali, a US-based researcher known to him had been wronged by the channel; linking her to the CIA, when she, in fact, was with Rand Foundation. Also, that the comment made by Ali on the 9/11 attacks was to the Associated Press, but India TV had para-dubbed the quote and, allegedly, passed it off as their own.

 

Bang came Justice Verma’s notice! I wrote an elaborate defence, but the judge refused to grant us a hearing. Everyone, including those who didn’t quite like us or the story, confessed that Justice Verma was wrong. That the ‘right to be heard’ was, well, our right! But Justice Verma was unrelenting. Not only did he fine us Rs 1 lakh, in my book his way of asserting the freshly-minted NBSA’s writ, he also issued a long clarification citing case law that if a judge is convinced, he doesn’t necessarily have to hear a defendant!

 

India TV resigned from the NBA. The press splashed the story. Is this the opportunity that government had been waiting for? I remember the stormy exit meeting where Annie Joseph, our faithful secretary-general who also serviced the NBSA, confided how she had taken my petition to Justice Verma’s rented home in Noida. But the judge virtually shut the door on her, saying there was no need for him to read anything more!

 

A brouhaha followed. India TV went public on questioning the judge. Krishnan didn’t want the government to take advantage of NBA’s shattered unity. He and Rao organized a ‘peace meeting’ at The Chambers in the Taj. Justice Verma showed up. He was respectfully briefed that the channel had remitted the fine and deferred to the apology prescribed by the NBSA. Would he hereon close the chapter? I was advised not to say anything, much less state that we should’ve been heard! I didn’t have to. For I was privy to what was perhaps the only weak spot this judge ever had! In one word, it was “Allahabad.”

 

“Allahabad,” said with a deep sigh, is a synonym for large-heartedness and camaraderie of an innocent India that’s past us by. It binds those of us associated with the university town, me via my father.What nobody in our Board knew was that Justice Verma and he were classmates! Both would talk a few times in the year of circa 1950-1953 when they had both immigrated to study under the feet of the masters. In one such nostalgia meeting, when it fell upon me to go and pick up my father from the judge’s residence, Justice Verma shared, “the meaning of Allahabad.” As the incoming chief justice (CJ) of Madhya Pradesh, his relations with the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh were frosty. “So much so that in the swearing in, I didn’t even plan to smile! This was bad news for the prosecution! But just as I was walking, the wily CM got the better of me. He had a group of students organized to meet me. I was breezing past them, when one of them shouted, ‘Sir, we are from Allahabad!’ I couldn’t help but stop…and I did for a long time…and I smiled a lot at the CM thereafter!”  So, at The Chambers meeting, the right hand came on my shoulder fleetingly, a glint in the eye reserved for fellow Allahabad is followed, and the ghost of the Farzana Ali episode was buried!

 

Large-heartedness following a sharp rebuke were Justice Verma’s middle name. So was the narrative that he never had money to buy himself a home. The image got Manish Tewari, the minister for information and broadcasting, to come calling at the judge’s rented quarters within a few days after swearing in. It gave Uday Verma, the MIB secretary, an experience of a lifetime, following someone bright idea during the Raj Path protests after the Nirbhaya rape that NBSA must caution member channels not to criticize the government. “Pray, why?” the learned judge is believed to have asked the secretary. “Sir, they are at Raj Path, wanting to enter Rashrapati Bhavan. What would you do if you were the President?”

 

“I would open my door and step out to meet the children protesting on my door,” Justice Verma replied. It is this no-nonsense approach that got Sonia Gandhi to telephone him to apologize for the late-night knock on the door by a messenger carrying the Congress’s suggestions on rape laws. RIP, Justice Verma. May your tribe increase.

 

The writer is a former editor and NBA Board member. He is CEO & Co-Founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting. Email: rohitbansal@post.harvard.edu.

 

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