‘“The queen had only one way of settling all difficulties great or small. Off with his head,” she said, without even looking around’
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
There is a serious crisis in media, both print and TV. This crisis has to do with presentation—sorry, shouting—of biased opinions. Investigative reporting, the bread and butter of good journalism, is now only selectively undertaken.
Consider the case of Lalit Modi as fugitive, as claimed by the Congress and most sections of motivated mainstream media. Indulging in a bit of extra hyperbole, former UPA minister Jairam Ramesh opined thus: “This has never happened in independent India before where a former chief minister and leader of opposition has batted for a fugitive.” Even BJP MP RK Singh confidently stated (and he should know, he was a former home secretary), “If anybody helps a bhagoda (fugitive), it is wrong. This is wrong legally as well as morally.”
Leading journalists and anchors (opinion leaders or opinion-makers) have joined the politicians in coming to extravagant conclusions. However, both decency and common-sense requires that a prior question needs to be asked (sorry, but can you keep the stone-throwing till after you have heard the argument?): What is the evidence that Lalit Modi is a fugitive? If he is, then no question that we should stone him and all who have supported him—if not, should we not stone the opinion-makers?
Prime-time “crimes”: External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj informed the British government that the current NDA government would have no objection for Lalit Modi to travel outside England; a clearance from the Indian government was deemed necessary because the UPA government had denied Modi his citizenship rights of travel.
Denial on what grounds—unknown. Maybe a case of a man who knew too much. The UPA reason: Modi travel outside England would “adversely affect bilateral relations!” Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s alleged crime was that she signed a letter, in 2011, in support of family friend Lalit Modi’s application for immigration to the UK.
If Lalit Modi is not a fugitive, then it is almost required, and certainly expected, that friends would help him out.
Even that is not necessary since the state should not be denying citizenship rights to any individual without cause. So was (is) Lalit Modi a fugitive or is this just a figment of a fertile prime-time imagination? The simple answer, from all the available data, is No. (Two websites—right-wing Swarajya and left-wing Scroll—reach the same conclusion.)
The legal definition of a fugitive is “an individual who, after having committed a criminal offence, leaves the jurisdiction of the court where such crime has taken place or hides within such jurisdiction to escape prosecution.” Hence the two prerequisites to being a fugitive are (1) being charged with committing a criminal offence, and (2) being unlawfully at large in order to avoid prosecution (or arrest or imprisonment).
Was Lalit Modi charged with any crime? No—but three “fugitive crimes” deserve mention. First, Lalit Modi may have received illegal money; in this regard, he has been sent not one but 15 show-cause notices under the Foreign Exchange Management Act—but no proof, or judicial decision, to date. Second, one of Lalit Modi’s companies was involved in investment, loans and overvaluation of shares in Niyant Heritage Hotels, a company owned by Vasundhra Raje’s son, Dushyant Singh. These transactions occurred seven years ago, in 2008. If this is a crime, and Lalit Modi a fugitive, then what does that make Robert Vadra and others with similar “crimes” to their name? Third, there is a cheating case filed against him in Chennai by former BCCI president N Srinivasan. This case was filed in 2010 and, to the best of our knowledge, is lying idle.
So, where’s the beef? Many innocent people have cases filed against them, but the mere case of filing does not a crime make, and certainly does not a fugitive make. It may be that future events will “prove” that Lalit Modi did commit these or other crimes—even if that does happen, it does not mean that either Swaraj or Raje did anything wrong, because at the time of their “friendship” acts, Lalit Modi had not been charged with any crime, hence not a fugitive.
So why have the politicians/media concluded that Lalit Modi is a fugitive? It appears that their overly hasty conclusions rest on two very shaky foundations. First, the revocation of Lalit Modi’s passport on the orders of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), and the “fact” that a blue corner notice was issued against him. Citing “public interest”, the ED asked the regional passport office to revoke Lalit Modi’s passport in March 2011 under Section 10 (3)(C) of the Passport Act. While his passport was revoked, it was later reinstated. In May 2014, a two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court chaired by Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed concluded that the public interest argument “importance of cricket in India” used by the UPA government was invalid. Lalit Modi got his Indian passport back, after the passing of the judgment, in August 2014.
UPA government ministers have spoken with forked tongues. No blue corner notice was ever issued to Lalit Modi, as confirmed by the Interpol itself. Confronted with this fact, the UPA spokespersons have changed colour—it was a light blue notice. The latter is only applicable in India and, in any case, has to do with collection of information. The blue notices are just a blue herring—they’re misdirections when it comes to fugitive status.
Another prime-time story making the rounds is that Lalit Modi refused to be questioned by the ED. The refusal never happened. Lalit Modi contended that he feared for his life if he came back to India but was more than happy to meet the ED in England or on Skype. There is some truth to the claim that Lalit Modi had genuine reasons to fear for his life. The cricket world is murky with several high-profile accidental deaths—Hansie Cronje died in a small plane crash in 2002, Bob Woolmer, English coach of the Pakistan cricket team, died under mysterious circumstances in the West Indies at the time of the cricket World Cup in 2007, and tragically, Sunanda Pushkar, wife of Shashi Tharoor, was found dead in a New Delhi hotel room in 2014.
So Lalit Modi had good reasons not to come back to India as per the request from the ED. Justice Ahmed’s judgment also demolished the legal basis of the ED’s demand for a personal appearance. “A request for an alternative mode of examination under video-conferencing was certainly an option available with the Directorate of Enforcement and should not have been simply shrugged aside,” the court said. In addition, in the case of Aditya Khanna vs Regional passport office (2007), the ED had already set a precedent of travelling to London for interviews. Given this precedent, it is surprising, nee shocking, that the ED did not travel to London to expedite the “case” against Lalit Modi.
If Lalit Modi is a fugitive, then the champion propagator of this illusion needs to answer a prior question: What was the Congress doing in not bringing Lalit Modi to justice? Dal mein kuch kala hai, zaroor hai. The simple conclusion is that Lalit Modi is not a fugitive. Therefore, what Swaraj or Raje did in support of his application for immigration or travel was neither ethically, or morally, or legally wrong. To conclude otherwise would be to support a witch hunt.
Surjit S Bhalla is contributing editor, The Indian Express, and co-author with Ankur Choudhary of Criconomics, now available on Kindle. Kirtivardhan Dave is a summer intern at Oxus