There were many things that caught me off-guard during the screening of Cobrapost’s latest sting operation, Black Rain. I’ll begin with the pleasant aspects, for there’s very little that’s pleasant about the rest of the story.
First, IST, for a change, actually meant Indian Standard Time and not Indian Stretchable Time. The screening began at sharp 3 pm as promised in the invite.
Second, there was no pretense of being politically correct. In the post-screening panel discussion, the panelists spoke their minds. They questioned the lack of transparency in the country’s judicial machinery – usually a holy cow. In fact, much of what was said would perhaps amount to “contempt of court” (whatever that means), but there was (gladly) no attempt to sugarcoat the criticism.
However, what was not so pleasant, and rather startling, was the fact that more than a few journalists — so-called writers of the first draft of history — present seemed to believe that caste-based discrimination in India was more of an anomaly. “Why is it being projected as a case of caste-based violence? Violence has no caste,” remarked an agitated freelance journalist, upset that the sting portrayed his caste (Bhumihar) in a bad light.
In the unlikely event that you consume your news exclusively from the English mainstream media (which chose to largely ignore the story), the Cobrapost sting was about “the perpetrators of six major massacres of Dalits in Bihar between 1994 and 2000, confessing to their involvement in the mass murders”. The six massacres being referred to took place in Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe, Shankar Bigha, Miyanpur and Ikwari in central Bihar.
All the men caught on Cobrapost’s hidden cameras belong(ed) to the Ranvir Sena – an organisation that the South Asian Terrorism Portal describes as a “private army of upper-caste landowners known to be operating in central Bihar”.
The reporter, K Ashish, had posed as a documentary filmmaker who wanted to make a film on the Ranvir Sena. The men Ashish approached, it appears from the sting’s footage, were more than happy to oblige. The men – two of whom have been acquitted by the Patna High Court after being convicted by the district court – nonchalantly own up to orchestrating the attacks. Along the way, the men also claim to have been supported by a “former prime minister” and a “former finance minister”, as The Indian Express and Huffington Post chose to call them but The Hindu in their report went with the names taken in the Cobrapost sting.
According to one of the men, the former prime minister had helped them procure modern weapons the Indian Army had rejected, while the finance minister apparently had assisted with finances. The men also claim that retired and on-leave Indian Army personnel had helped them execute the attack by training the foot soldiers. You can watch the entire operation here.
Now, the question that is asked of Aniruddha Bahal, Editor of Cobrapost, each time the organisation comes up with a nuke like this: Why now? Is it a ploy – releasing stories about forgotten incidents at a time when people are bound to take notice? “The elections haven’t even been notified,” he told me, almost amused.
When I asked him why he didn’t pursue the story further since the men caught on the cameras dropped big names, and even suggested that certain soldiers from the Indian Army had helped them, Bahal said the reporter did corroborate the versions recounted by the men he met. “There’s no reason not to believe them; they are almost reliving their experiences by sharing them with the reporter and all the references add up,” he told me.
Is it disappointing when stories with such incriminating evidence are not taken up by investigative agencies? “Yes and no…we live in a time where people’s attention span is really short.” Bahal said bigger news organisations would have to follow up on stories like these for more noise to be created. “TV news editors who take a high moral stand have no right to do so, considering their choice of stories.”
The screening was followed by a panel discussion. Moderated by Bahal, the panel comprised journalists Siddharth Varadarajan, Manoj Mitta, Urmilesh, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and activists V Ramesh Nathan and Asha Kowtal. Quoting statistics, both Nathan and Kowtal contended that justice paralysis when it came to Dalits and lower castes was an institutionalised feature.
Bhushan was even more scathing in his critique of the Indian justice system. “It is an illusion that the country works under a system of law – there is a deeply entrenched caste/class bias,” he said. Bhushan lamented that no one spoke about judicial reforms or questioned the selection process of judges.
Varadarajan said the sting operation “ought to be seen by everyone of voting age”. Speaking about the ethicality of stings, he said public interest should be the only yardstick. Mitta recounted the story of the Karamchedu killings in Andhra Pradesh – which was similar in the way that it had casteist overtones and the High Court had acquitted the perpetrators after the trial court found them guilty. (The Supreme Court then overturned the High Court’s judgment and convicted 31 people.) “I hope a public interest litigation is filed in the Supreme Court and the case is reinvestigated as it was in the Karamchedu killing, and justice is served,” he said.
Urmilesh then narrated from his experience as a reporter in Patna incidents about how the Bihari media for the longest time refrained from reporting on caste-based violence. “The media just looked the other way when it came to Dalits who were often referred to as ugrawadis [extremists]; only that these ugrawadis had no food to eat even, forget guns,” he said.
Not everyone was convinced by the sting and the panelists’ dissection of it, as was evident in the press conference, which turned out to be a stormy affair. “Violence is just violence; it has nothing to do with caste or religion,” claimed a person who described himself as a journalist. Another complaint that people had was with the timing of the release of the sting. “The idea of it is to vilify the Bharatiya Janata Party,” another journalist said visibly agitated. Fair point?
Well, not really as Varadarajan patiently and eloquently explained: the sting dedicates a fair amount of time to expose the fact that an enquiry commission set up by the Rashtriya Janata Dal to investigate the killings was disbanded by the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance government. In fact, the footage has Justice Amir Das (who was heading the commission) himself claiming so. So, the sting is bound to hurt the JD(U) as much as the BJP – and the two are direct competitors in the upcoming elections. The RJD, too, would have to explain the rationale behind allying with a party – JD(U) – that allegedly conspired to sabotage justice. In short, the story would hurt every party.
Why would journalists, seemingly well-versed with the realities of the country, be so defensive about the role of caste in society, though? After all, the Ranvir Sena was quite unabashed about it being a group of upper-caste landowners. Have we then finally become desensitised towards the idea of caste? Journalist Manu Joseph, who had been sitting through all of it quietly in a corner seat in one of the back rows, said people still definitely believe in caste. “People are pretty aware of caste…only when you are in McDonalds that you don’t think about caste,” he told me. Joseph said he wished the panelists had been more direct about the question on the relationship between the killings and caste.
Joseph was also surprised by the English mainstream media’s reluctance to cover the story. “Is it because the BJP is mentioned? If yes, then in the next two-three years we’ll have to rethink the idea of English TV channels representing the mainstream media,” he said.
Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association calls the refusal to acknowledge the role of caste in the killings “willful manipulation”. “Their own questions reflect that they know it’s an important factor — why would they bring it up otherwise? Cobrapost never talked about Bhumihars or any particular caste,” she said.
The Ranvir Sena is accused of killing almost 150 people, many of them women and children, in a series of violent massacres. Its very foundation is based on the idea of upper caste supremacy – and unapologetically so.
The killings carry a very strong subtext of caste bias for all to see. It is strange that some journalists present at the conference refused to even see the caste bias in Ranvir Sena’s ways when they should be calling it out. To not acknowledge a problem, when there is clearly one, is not only ignorant but also massively insensitive. But then sensitivity is not the preserve of the fence-sitter in any case.
In case you are wondering, most English prime-time news channels last night broadcast a speech being delivered at the Dubai Cricket Stadium in the United Arab Emirates. Far away from central Bihar.