Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 32-33 (April 1999) p. 131.


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The Judgement: Re-Forming the 'Public'

D Ashish Rajadhyaksha

In February 1995, the Supreme Court passed judgement in the case of the Cricket Association of Bengal versus Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Doordarshan. The issue, it may be recalled, was mainly around the CAB'S sale of telecast rights of the Hero Cup to TWI Sports, when the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd - viewed until then purely as a commercial organisation - suddenly refused uplinking facilities from India, and the Indian Customs seized 10 tons of telecast equipment imported by TWI. The CAB, backed by the Cricket Board, filed a legal suit that - had they won it - would have permitted them to sell telecast rights to whoever they wished, rather than be forcibly restricted to Doordarshan's services.

A relatively limited issue featuring sponsorship arrangements (and reported predominantly in the sports pages of newspapers) suddenly took on a new dimension when the Supreme Court chose the occasion to deliver a substantial judgement that clearly opened up a new era in the history of Indian media. Abbreviated in most popular reportage into its operative five words: 'Air waves are public property', that judgement overturned the prevailing Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, whose section 3(1) prohibited any but Central Government control over any 'apparatus' capable of transmitting 'intelligence of any nature'. This development was hailed by almost everybody across the political spectrum and subsequently became the basis for assembling the proposed Broadcast Bill, presented in draft by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry in May 1997.

Unlike the judgement, the Bill proved to be rather more controversial. The disputes around licensing policy - notably section 12/3 that 'no person shall be granted license for more than one category of service', 15/2 which insisted that 'the licensee shall carry out the uplinking of satellite broadcast services ... from India only'. Part III, which prevented existing print news services from applying for licenses, and in particular 1/d of the restrictions list disqualifying foreign equity exceeding 49% - opened up divides between the pro-nationalist left and right-wing advocates of liberalisation that had been absent in the debate around the judgement itself. Nevertheless, what was common to both debates was the abundant use of

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