When The Tribune broke the story of how Aadhaar details of over 1 billion Indians can be bought by gaining admin access for as cheap as Rs 500, the Unique Identification Authority of India followed it up with an FIR against the reporter of Chandigarh-based English daily for exposing the massive security threat.
So can law be broken for a legitimate investigation that is in public interest?
Thirty-five years ago, Arun Shourie, the then executive editor of The Indian Express, the largest circulating daily, asked the court when one of his reporters Ashwini Sarin bought a young woman, Kamla, in the Dholpur flesh market at the tri-junction of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, and brought her to Delhi April 1981, to expose the large-scale trafficking in women in the Agra-Morena-Mainpuri-Etah area.
The memory was dusted by Shekhar Gupta, the former Editor in chief of Indian Express and founder of online news portal Print, during a Twitter debate on whether UIDAI was justified in filing a case against The Tribune reporter.
Sarin had sniffed out a story that could hit the authorities hard and rake them over the coal. But he and his editors knew that if you want and slap authorities out of slumber and leave the readers goggle-eyed, garden-variety story-telling wouldn’t work. So the 29 years old reporter decided to buy a woman from the area.
Sarin, who posed as a doctor and frequented the area to gain the people’s confidence, took possession of Kamla in exchange for Rs 2,300.
His series began: ''Yesterday I bought a short-statured skinny woman belonging to a village near Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh for 2,300 rupees. Even I find it hard to believe that I have returned to the capital this morning after buying the middle-aged woman for half the price one pays for a buffalo in the Punjab.''
“In the course of his investigation, Sarin said, he learned that trade in women was widespread, with some sold as servants and others as prostitutes. He said prices ranged up to 21,000 rupees, or $2,800, which was asked for a 15-year-old girl.”
"There were not many customers for Kamla so I decided to emancipate her," he had said.
“Sarin escorted his purchase to his house in New Delhi, and Kamla soon found herself in security. She left it reluctantly to go to the Arya Samaj Women's Home; said Sarin’s wife Uma: "She even asked me how much I had been bought for and why we two women could not live together, as Sarin already paid for me."
The front page exposure proved that authorities then and haven’t evolved in how they react when they are exposed.
Just like how the police, based on UIDAI complaint, filed a case against the Tribune reporter for “breaking the law”, albeit in national interest, the police in 1981 too filed a case against Sarin.
“The day after the initial article appeared, the police in the town where the sale was negotiated said they were filing a case against the reporter for dealing in women. The Delhi police then went to the orphanage and whisked Kamla away, asserting that she could become an important witness and needed their protection.
In the case of Aadhaar story too, the police was informed by the UIDAI official that the correspondent of The Tribune, posing as a buyer, had purchased the details. The FIR mentions the names of the journalist and the people the reporter reached out to purchase the Aadhaar data, but they have not been shown as accused, the police said.
Shourie, under whose watch the expose was conducted, said: "We will ask the court if the law can be broken for a legitimate investigation and afterwards approach the court with a request to initiate steps to mitigate the evil laid bare by the investigation and thereby enlarge the scope of the citizen's rights."
In the Tribune case, public interest certainly doesn’t appear to be retro-fitted to the story to defend themselves in court during an expected criminal proceeding.