“Ashwatthama Hata:ha Iti, Narova Kunjarova?” generally translated as ‘Ashwatthama is slain, whether human or elephant?’ is arguably the most celebrated statement on the power of (in this case, contrived) silence in the scriptures of ancient India.
The power of silence came to mind while watching Karan Thapar interviewing Satya Pal Malik. It was not so much what Malik was silent about but more about what he was told to be silent about! While speaking about the ghastly incident at Pulwama in February 2019, Malik says that when he told the prime minister that the incident had happened due to failure on our (the home ministry’s) decision not to provide the CRPF aircraft to ferry their people, he was told by the prime minister, “ये सब मत बोलो, ये कोई और चीज़ है हमें बोलने दो … (Don’t say all this, this is something else, let us speak).”
Returning to the Mahabharata, the situation, briefly, is that during the epic war, the Pandavas were finding it difficult to counter Dronacharya who was fighting on the side of the Kauravas. It was strategised that if he were told that his son, Ashwatthama, had died, he (Drona) will lose heart and give up fighting. Killing Ashwatthama was not easy, so Bhima killed an elephant named Ashwatthama and it was conveyed to Drona that Ashwatthama had died. Not believing this and having faith only in Yudhishtira (who never would tell a lie) Drona asked Yudhishtira if Ashwatthama had died. This is when Yudhishtira is supposed to have responded with this celebrated statement “Ashwatthama Hata:ha Iti, Narova Kunjarova?” The legend has it that when he said “Narova Kunjarova”, Krishna blew his conch loudly so Drona could not hear the last part of Yudhishtra’s statement, and thinking it was his son who has dies, threw his weapons down and was killed.
As compared to the above, rather old, instance of the power of silence, a very recent one is found in a Supreme Court judgment of March 2, 2023, in what has come to be called the Appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners case (Anoop Baranwal vs Union of India, WP(C) 104 of 2015). The Supreme Court, in paragraphs 211 and 212 of the judgement, enunciates the “Principle of constitutional silence or abeyance”. The following quote captures the essence of the principle, “What remains unwritten and indeterminate can be just as much responsible for the operational character and restraining quality of a Constitution as its more tangible and codified components” (Paragraph 212). Substitute the words “unwritten and indeterminate” with the “spoken word”, it is possible to paraphrase this quote to mean “silence speaks”. What is left unsaid may sometimes be more important than what is said.
Why the focus on silence?
Malik, meanwhile, in his interview goes on to say, “डोवाल ने भी मुझे कहा कि ये सब मत बोलिए, आप चुप रहिये … वो मेरे क्लास फेलो हैं, वो मेरे से कुछ भी बात कर सकते थे(हैं) उन्होंने कहा सतपाल भाई ये मत कहो (Doval also said to me, do not say all this, you keep quiet … he is my classmate, he could speak to me on anything, he said Satya Pal bhai do not say this).”
Listening to the interview gives a fair idea of what Malik was being asked to be silent about, but what is of great concern is who asked him to stay silent and what could be the implications of his staying silent and not staying silent. The concern arises because the sweep of implications could be very wide, ranging from national security and the state of democracy in the country, though these must, out of necessity, stay in the realm of speculation.
Corruption and silence
Another major issue that arises out of the bid to enforce a silence is that of corruption. While responding to questions relating to corruption during his tenure as governor of Goa, Malik says, “मैं safely कह सकता हूँ कि प्रधान मंत्री जी को corruption से कोई बहुत नफरत नहीं है (I can safely say that the Prime Minister does not hate (or dislike) corruption too much).” Malik gave examples from his tenures as governor in J&K and Goa to substantiate his statement, including mentioning names of specific persons whom he said were very close to the prime minister. He went on to say that the result of his bringing out the corruption in Goa was that he was transferred from there within a week of sharing information. He says that though there were no flights from Goa, a special almost broken-down Indian Air Force Avro was sent to move him out, which took the whole day to reach from Goa to Gauhati.
The propensity for silence on corruption brought out by Malik has had earlier manifestations. The most prominent one is electoral bonds. The entire system is silent about who gets how much money from whom except one agency, the State Bank of India. And the State Bank of India can, and does remain, silent for everyone except one entity, the Government of India which, in real terms, means the party in power at the Centre! It is the power of silence that keeps the electoral bonds scheme going.
Another manifestation is in the form of PM-CARES Fund. The address of its website is https://www.pmcares.gov.in/. The inclusion of “gov.in” in the address is under normal circumstances a dead giveaway about its status, and the website says “Prime Minister is the ex-officio Chairman of the PM CARES Fund and Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Finance, Government of India are ex-officio Trustees of the Fund.” Despite all this, the Government of India says in a sworn affidavit in the Delhi high court that the fund does not come under the purview of the Right to Information Act. Not giving information under the RTI Act is another form of trying to enforce a silence.
Malik also comments on the silence of the prime minister on the Adani affair and says that this silence is not helping the prime minister in any way.
Who is Satya Pal Malik?
According to Wikipedia, Malik was born in a village in western Uttar Pradesh, and began his political career in 1968-69 as the president of the students’ union of the Meerut College, Meerut, from where he obtained his B.Sc. and LL.B. degrees. The first public office he was elected to was as a member of the UP Legislative Assembly in 1974 from the Baghpat constituency in Uttar Pradesh when he contested as a member of Charan Singh’s party, Bharatiya Kranti Dal. Later, when the Bharatiya Lok Dal was formed in 1974, he became its general secretary.
He entered national politics in 1980 as a member of the Rajya Sabha from UP and remained in the Rajya Sabha till 1989. From 1989 to 1991, he was a member of the Lok Sabha having been elected on a Janata Dal ticket. He contested the 1996 Lok Sabha election from the Aligarh constituency on a Samajwadi Party ticket but lost, coming fourth with only 40,789 votes. In 2012, he was appointed as the national vice-president of the BJP.
He was the Governor of Bihar from September 30, 2017 to August 21, 2018, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir from August 23, 2018 to October 30, 2019, Governor of Goa from November 03, 2019 to August 18, 2020, and Governor of Meghalaya from August 18, 2020 to October 03, 2022. This makes him special, if not unique, amongst governors, to have been the governors of four different states during a standard tenure of five years.
The messenger vs the message
It is clear that Malik is no run-of-the-mill politician, having been a member of five political parties till date, and having been governor of four states during a usual five-year tenure. The fact that he continued to be a governor, though shifted from state to state, for the entire five-year tenure despite making statements seemingly not to the liking of the powers-that-be, is worth noting; as is the fact that he was the governor in office when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was ended by reading down Article 370 on August 05, 2019.
This brings up the standard question of the messenger and the message: Should we focus on the ‘credibility’ of the messenger, Satya Pal Malik, or on what he is saying?
It is worth asking what Malik did after he brought situations to the attention of the prime minister and was asked to keep quiet. Did his responsibility as a constitutional authority end with bringing these things to the notice of the prime minister and keeping quiet as he was told to, or did his oath under the Constitution require him to do something else, even at that time?
While the above questions are valid, what is equally, if not more, valid is the veracity of what he has said. The questions he has raised need answers, never mind his ‘credibility’.
Will those answers be forthcoming or will Tum Ab Chup Raho, or the silence prevail again? Only time will tell.