Perhaps he didn’t think through the implications of what he said or maybe he said more than he intended but, whatever the explanation, Kiren Rijiju’s recent comments about not asking questions are not just thoughtless and silly but dangerous and indefensible. The possibility that many may agree with him doesn’t change that one jot. Whilst the fact he spoke as minister of state for home affairs makes it, arguably, worse.
“It is not good to raise questions on security forces dealing with terrorists just on the basis of videos,” he said. “We should stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities and police. Facts will come out,” he added.
This could be the personal morality of an individual because everyone has the right to decide for himself and draw his own red lines but as advice to the media or an injunction in a democracy it’s wholly mistaken. Asking questions is the only way of getting to the truth. Deliberately refusing to raise them permits falsehood to continue and get accepted as fact.
In a democracy, with guarantees of freedom of speech, asking questions can never be anti-national. Refusing to answer them could be. This means we have a right to question whether an encounter was real or false, whether the claim the police have shot a terrorist is genuine or cover for killing an innocent, whether a terrorist attack was made possible because of security lapses and whether claims that surgical strikes achieved significant results is accurate or exaggerated. But not just that. We also have a right to know about the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi’s health, who is paying for their treatment, how much and what is the prognosis. Once they become leaders, with our future in their hands, they forsake a substantial part of their right to privacy. Our need to know takes precedence.
Let me be yet more specific and even blunt. In a democracy we have the right to question our army. It’s not a sacrosanct institution that must be placed on a pedestal and protected from questioning or investigation. And let me add the army wouldn’t want this, either. They have nothing to hide and everything to be proud of. This is why they would welcome questioning. And I say that as an army son who knows what he’s talking about.
Mr Rijiju’s claim “it is not good to raise questions on security forces” is actually demeaning of our army. It suggests it cannot stand up to scrutiny. That it needs protection. Therefore, our silence is its defence. No self-respecting soldier would accept that. Indeed, many would view it as an insult.
Nonetheless, the limits to questioning are obvious. The only thing is they’re imposed by ourselves, not politicians. You know when a question is appropriate or prejudiced. You sense when it could be a wrong moment to ask. And your interlocutors can often intuit the motive behind your asking. These are the reasons why we sometimes hold back. But they’re limitations we impose upon ourselves.
Finally, I don’t deny journalists can sometimes ask questions and get them wrong but that’s always preferable to not asking questions and letting others get away because of your silence. A free press may sometimes be wrong. Freedom permits others to point that out and make the necessary corrections. But a press that doesn’t ask questions allows wrongdoing to continue and proliferate. The silence that follows always undermines our freedoms and our democracy.
The views expressed are personal