The government has written to the police for their opinion on withdrawal of the cases against Soorinje following an outpouring of protests, including a hunger-strike by journalists in Bangalore on January 5 and a handcuffed strike by civil liberties activists in Mangalore on World Human Rights Day on December 10.
Police sources said they would recommend against withdrawing the cases but added the government would in all probability go ahead. “There has been pressure for a while to withdraw the cases,” an official said. “Journalists have met the home minister; there was a hunger-strike too. We will give an opinion against withdrawal and the government will go ahead. That has been the procedure in all instances where cases have been withdrawn.”
Soorinje, 28, was arrested on November 7 after he had been named an absconder, accused number 44. Soorinje, of Kasturi 24 news channel, was the only reporter present during the attack at the Morning Mist home stay facility, where 14 students including five girls were celebrating a couple of birthdays. He had received prior information about an impending act of moral policing and, along with a camera crew, recorded the events from the attackers’ arrival to the assault, molestation and robbery of the students.
The recordings were later beamed by channels around the country. They carried portents of a similar attack on women at a pub in Mangalore on January 24, 2009. Then, a group of journalists tipped off earlier had recorded the assault of women by the the right-wing Sri Rama Sene, led by Prasad Attavar — who a year later was exposed by police investigations as being part of an underworld extortion racket.
Following the Amnesia Pub attack of 2009, journalists and camera crew cutting across channels had been summoned by the police but no charges were pressed. In the 2012 attack, Soorinje, the sole media witness, has been slapped a barrage of charges. Common to all 44 accused are charges of conspiracy, unlawful assembly, armed rioting, criminal trespass, voluntarily causing hurt, wrongful restraint, dacoity, criminal intimidation, assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty, public mischief, and intent to provoke breach of peace. Soorinje has additionally been charged under sections of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986.
The main attackers, including group leader Subhash Padil and six others who are under trial for the 2009 Amnesia Pub attack, too, have been additionally charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967, typically applied to terror cases.
On December 26, hearing a bail petition eventually turned down, Karnataka High Court judge K N Keshavanarayana dwelt on a point made in the chargesheet that Soorinje had done nothing to prevent the incident but asked the attackers to provide better views of the victims’ faces. This proved his prima facie participation in the attack, ruled the court, which did not uphold the argument that Soorinje was present as a whistleblower.
The state public prosecutor argued the attackers’ objective in having the visual media along was to ensure a telecast that would create an aura of fear among the public.
Justice Keshavanarayana referred to Supreme Court judgments that hold imprisonment of citizens without a trial and conviction a violation of personal liberty, but ruled that “at this stage there is reasonable ground to believe that the petitioners are guilty of the aforesaid offences”.
“Accused No 44 being a representative of the media, instead of preventing such incident, prima facie appears to have encouraged the happening of the incident and has helped in videographing the event and thereafter facilitated its telecast which has caused great damage to the dignity and reputation” of the victims of the attack.
Soorinje, for his part, has sought no leniency for himself if that would result in similar leniency for the main attackers. “If I were to be liberated at the expense of some advantage to be conferred on the assailants, then I do not want such liberation,” he told a civil liberties fact-finding committee in a statement. “No matter what punishment is given to the assailants, it will never provide adequate justice to those girls who were assaulted right in front of my eyes. Yet the assailants need to be punished. The way the assailants were manhandling the girls, if the news cameras were not present I shudder to think how much further they would have gone.” He said he “was a mute witness... feeling the guilt of not being able to do anything”.
A groundswell of support for him has arisen among the media (quietly; not clearly voiced due to the circumstances of the case) and civil liberties activists, growing along with emerging knowledge of acts of kindness he had rendered to people in Mangalore.
There is also a feeling that he may have been tricked into being the only journalist at the scene by vested interests, who may have been upset with his reports on right-wing vigilantism in the region. “It seems he may have been trapped for some of the work he has done in the past. We have heard that he is a decent person. The police were under pressure to book everyone once the judiciary took cognisance of the attacks,” a senior police official said.
What will be keenly followed is whether the BJP government, known to have loose affiliations with fringe right-wing outfits, will use the withdrawal of cases against Soorinje to seek a way out of prosecution for the main attackers. Cases against Bajrang Dal attackers on churches in Mangalore in 2008 were withdrawn after cases on Christians who retaliated had been dropped.