I’ve always felt that Indian news channels were a bit rubbish but I didn’t know they were positively lethal. However, according to the police in Varanasi, that’s precisely what they are.
According to them, reporters from two news stations, IBN7 and Star News, along with local politicians incited a group of disabled roadside vendors to consume poison to protest the district administration’s decision to clear the sidewalks they’d claimed for themselves. Two arrests have already been made and an FIR lodged against the two television channels.
On the face of it, this is a situation right out of a bad Hindi movie (Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, anyone? Who knew that piece of crap was actually an exercise in prophecy?). But it’s not to be imagined that the police would be allowed to walk away with their side of the story unchallenged when the mainstream media has been placed in the dock.
And thus, NDTV reports that the public suicide attempt was hardly a bolt from the blue and local news reports had stated quite clearly, at least two days in advance, that a group of men were planning to commit suicide. The police had ample time to intervene. The scene as they describe it, sounds quite macabre:
“[T]he municipal officer said even if you poison yourself we will not listen and we will demolish your shops. So to give them a little happiness we consumed poison,” said Tribhuvan.
A few hours after he said this, Tribhuvan died in hospital.
In a public display on Tuesday in the crowded heart of the city, the 12 men poisoned themselves by swallowing pesticide.
Everyone watched and no one intervened. Half an hour later the police arrived.
On Wednesday morning, five men died and seven are struggling for their lives.
The city administration would beg to differ:
”We talked to them and came to an understanding. Then why they took this drastic step, I don’t know. It is certain that someone instigated them,” said Veena Kumari, DM, Varanasi.
”We think some media people and local politicians egged them on. It seems they told them that if they took these medications they will be unconscious for some time and then recover,” said C P Shirodkar, SSP, Varanasi.
The whole thing then descends into a he said-she said-I said-you said with everybody chipping in with their side of the story. While the authorities stick to their guns, the reporters say they behaved professionally and are being used as scapegoats. When interviewed, Ram Lal, the trader upon whose evidence the FIR was lodged, disavowed all knowledge of the allegations attributed to him: he says he’s illiterate, has no idea what he fixed his thumb print to, and he didn’t see the mediapersons do anything. The “local politicians” turned out to be two local traders-cum-union leaders who are yet to issue a statement.
Leaving aside all questions as to the apportioning of blame, there are so many things about this story that gross me out.
The fact that 12 men can stand in the middle of a town, announce they’re about to kill themselves, attract television cameras and union leaders/politicians – and still not find a single human being willing to dissuade them is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever heard. I don’t live under illusions of human nobility or anything but for heaven’s sake these men were going to kill themselves! And “everybody” just watched? What the hell is wrong with the people in Varanasi?
And talking of people, let’s talk about the reporters there: what exactly does “professionalism” dictate in cases like this? I remember more than one lecture about objectivity from journalism classes but where does one stop reporting and start acting like a person confronted with a horrifying act? Would those reporters have acted in the same manner in other situations? A rape? A robbery? Murder? I can’t imagine standing in front of a man about to pour pesticide down his gullet and calmly training my camera on him. Maybe my problems with journalism run deeper than my reluctance to write a boring, to-the-point header.
Then there are the vendors. Could they be more melodramatic or foolish? I understand they’re disabled, that without their tiny business they might well starve, that some asshole in authority made a flippant remark that was the height of insensitivity. But what bright brain came up with the brilliant solution of suicide by pesticide? It not only defeats the purpose but it’s surely one of the most unpleasant ways to off oneself, about a rung or so lower than setting oneself on fire.
Makes me wonder if they were all really that stupid or if somebody was actually banking on that pesticide being less potent. And who that somebody was.
[Alternate version published at Desicritics]