If Six Unarmed Protesters Are Killed, Does India Care?

June 23, 2011

I’ve worked on human rights in South Asia for a number of years and have been immersed in how the media operates, especially in India. It’s often the same story: an incident happens in Delhi and its suburbs or a couple of other “important” cities like Mumbai and Bangalore and the media covers it breathlessly on the many 24-hour news networks and newspapers.

The government is almost always to blame for this or that, calls for resignations are issued in a very serious tone. And, after a couple of days, all is forgotten.

If it’s a small town in rural Bihar where there is a human rights violation, you won’t hear much at all. If there is any coverage, it’s generated from the bottom-up and mostly stays out of the mainstream media outlets headquartered in Delhi or Mumbai.

For example, late on June 4 and early the next morning, a group of protesters in the Indian capital, New Delhi, were occupying the Ramila grounds demanding that the government end corruption. It’s an important issue that has human rights implications especially in terms of those seeking redress from an overwhelmed judiciary. The Delhi state government sent in the police to detain the leader of the protest, Baba Ramdev. The resulting police action was typical for the day-to-day excess of Indian police handling crowds—lots of brutality, including baton charges and tear gas.  Luckily no one was killed, but several people were seriously injured.

In the Delhi police brutality case, India’s boisterous media was all over the story, condemning the government and the police for what they did. There was blanket coverage. The central government was put on the defensive and questions yet again arose as to whether the coalition will last the full term before new elections.

Contrast this with what happened a couple of days earlier when a group of protesters in Forbesganj in Bihar took to the streets protesting an allegedly corrupt transfer of land for a factory owned by a politician in the ruling coalition in the state. The protests turned violent and police opened fire with live ammunition. This live ammunition resulted in the death of 6 protesters, including a pregnant woman and a 7 month child. The Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar has ordered a “judicial probe” but it remains to be seen if such a probe will lead to indictments of police involved in the shootings.

Unlike what happened in Delhi, very little was reported. Part of the problem is that Forbesganj, a town close to the Nepal border, is in India’s poorest state, Bihar and it’s hard to get to. It’s also in a state that has historically been viewed by the rest of India as “backward”. In fact, it was only after the release of a video posted by the online magazine TwoCircles.net that we see a glimpse of the full extent of the tragedy.

These incidents both highlight a troubling problem in India (and South Asia writ large)—police that are politicized or poorly trained to do what they are supposed to do—protect citizens and to facilitate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights.  There’s a story there for the media of India if they would only make the effort.

The Indian – American Muslim Council has posted an action on the Forbesganj case asking people to contact the Chief Minister of Bihar to take immediate steps to seek justice for the victims of the shootings.

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