When a young man suffering from mental health issues and living an impoverished life in the forest stole some rice last week in Kerala, the response was anything less than compassionate: he was questioned, tied, beaten with sticks. His assailants recorded the attack and he eventually died on the way to the hospital.
But the murder of 30-year-old Madhu has pushed indigenous people across Kerala’s Palakkad district to demand dignity and justice for themselves. They blocked the ambulance that carried Madhu’s body for post-mortem, demanding immediate arrest of his assailants.
Even though 16 people were arrested on grievous charges, people across Kerala came out into the streets, shocked at the ability for such brutality as well as waking up to the socioeconomic status of indigenous people who are often faced with defending their meager livelihoods with the loss of their ancestral land to government and industry.
The history of indigenous people in India – like in other parts of the world – is too similar, in the ways in which they are stripped of their forest-based livelihood. According to one report, Attappadi’s high infant mortality rate had led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to compare Kerala – ruled by the Communist Party – to Somalia during Kerala’s 2016 Assembly Election campaign.
Despite the actions being taken by the state government, the issue faced its death when news trickled in two days later of the death of Indian actress Sridevi in Dubai. At a considerably young age of 54, social media was abuzz with rumors of the actor’s alleged tryst under the knife.
As the circumstances leading to her death were not clear — she died in the bathtub of the hotel she was staying in — news media in India recreated speculative segments that led acclaimed journalist Barkha Dutt to scream out the absurd via #NewsKiMaut or “Death of News.” In the rush of TRP – masked as the shock of the death of the beloved actor – broadcast journalists jumped into bathtubs with their microphones. Other channels had visuals of her bathroom with a glass of wine, while others openly questioned her consumption of alcohol.
Of course, when Sridevi’s body was brought to Mumbai for last rites, the city’s infamous traffic took a further hit when photographers and camerapersons from news channels, as well as her fans, gathered to get a final glimpse of the actress. Newspapers were flooded with obituaries about her finesse as an actress.
Prima facie, there is no connection between the two deaths that took place in the same week, and which shook the nation. However, the ways in which the news media chose in priorities during the week further revealed the ways in which journalism in India fails to live up to its role as one of the essential pillars of democracy. Journalism has always prioritized certain stories over others, of course; some deaths matter more than others. But the over-indulgence in visual effects has only resulted in a cacophony of gore that leaves the citizenry numb, ultimately unable to demand more from Indian journalism.