Another scribe falls victim to violence
February 9, 2018

Even as India was reacting sharply to the murder of journalist-editor Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, the crime found an echo in the Northeast with the killing of Shantanu Bhowmik, a young television scribe in Tripura on September 20. Nava Thakuria reports

Gauri’s murder prompted civil society groups opposed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, against which she was vocal, to take to the streets demanding justice. Manik Sarkar who heads the CPI-M Government in Tripura, also joined in a protest programme at Agartala, earning appreciation from the country’s media fraternity. However, when Shnatanu, an employee of Bengali cable news channel Din-Raat, was brutally beaten to death by a mob in Agartala, the same chief minister remained silent. After Agartala-based journalists demanded a statement from him, Sarkar, also in charge of the Home portfolio, came out with a watered-down reaction.

The crime was condemned by national and international bodies including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Paris-based Reporters sans/without Borders (RSF) and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). A series of protest programmes was organised by various media outfits demanding justice for 29-year-old Shantanu’s mother and sister. Shantanu was covering a protest by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) against the ruling CPI (M) when it turned violent. He was capturing images of violence on his mobile phone when he was attacked.

Seeking to establish that Shantanu was targeted by IPFT supporters, state CPI (M) leader Gautam Das announced that the young reporter was a member of his party and was attacked for that reason. Das however clarified that Shantanu was a full time journalist and was not involved in any party activities. Meanwhile, the IPFT demanded a CBI probe to bring facts to light.

The Tripura Government finally decided to constitute an SIT to probe into the crime. DGP Shukla claimed that the police had identified the culprits and three arrests were made. Following demands for compensation made by Tripura-based journalists, the government announced a grant of Rs10 lakh to the bereaved family.

Shantanu was the seventh Indian journalist to be killed this year. The most recent was the murder of K.J. Singh (66), a senior scribe from Punjab, who was found dead along with his aged mother. The trouble-torn Northeast has lost around 30 journalists to violence over the last three decades.

Soon after Shantanu’s killing, various political parties started accusing each other with regard to communal violence and failing law and order. Demands were made for Sarkar’s resignation. The tiny state of Tripura will hold Assembly polls next year. The Left parties are in a comfortable position as they have 50 seats in the 60-member House. The CPI (M) and Sarkar have been in power for decades. But will the 2018 elections throw up a different result? Only time will tell.

Concern over electrocution deaths
India loses nearly 10000 lives due to electrocution annually. Taking cognizance, a civil society group based in the Northeast is demanding a review and overhauling of the power supply system in the country. The Patriotic People’s Front of Assam (PPFA) has highlighted the danger posed by faulty high voltage wiring arrangements, which takes a toll of wildlife too.

PPFA is endorsed, among others by Gandhian Natwar Thakkar, civil liberties campaigner Dr Gopal Krishna, senior advocate Upamanyu Hazarika, eminent author-journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Monalisa Changkija and Bidhayak Das. It is campaigning for the reduction of standard domestic supply voltage from 240 to 120 volts or even lower.
Although Assam’s electrocution-related casualties are low compared to many other states, it loses 50 to 90 people annually to this problem. More than 975 human lives were snatched away by electricity-related accidents in Assam since 2001, with 2016 seeing the highest number of deaths due to this in a year – 88. In the first half of 2017, around 60 people were electrocuted.

“We believe that a pragmatic action plan for the laying of high voltage but low quality live wires, timely maintenance and adequate public awareness of safely issues are the need of the hour,” PPFA said in a statement.
The organisation condemned the use of bamboo and other trees to carry electrical wires. It demanded that the Assam Power Distribution Company replace all such temporary poles across the state with posts of the prescribed material at the earliest. The forum also stressed the need to use proper fuse wires (or other protective systems) in all electrical systems. “As electrical wiring can be a public health hazard, the concerned authority must deal with the safety issue. The State electricity departments should create a responsive safety department along with trained safety officers at the earliest,” th forum leaders said.

Taking into account future energy needs, PPFA has urged the government to encourage alternate sources such as solar power, particularly in the Northeast, where high voltage wires posed a danger to wildlife. It said wherever possible, electrical wires should be laid underground instead of overhead.

“Finally India should debate whether 110/120 volts (alternate current with 50 hertz) may be an option in place of the present 220/240 volts to reduce fatalities,” it said, adding developed countries like U.S.A, U.K and Japan had already taken such steps. “We understand that it would be a major policy shift for a country like India involving a huge volume of resources with adequate preparedness,” PPFA stalwarts said, but added that the matter was worthy of debate. The organization called on qualified and practicing engineers to come out with pragmatic ideas on the subject.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Guwahati and secretary of the Guwahati Press Club.)

October – December 2017