On Saturday, hours before hundreds of women in 30 cities across India took to streets to demand safety in public spaces, an estimated three crore people across Bihar came out for another demonstration – to form a human chain in support of prohibition.
Yet for readers relying only on English newspapers the next morning, the only gathering they would have heard of is likely to have been the women’s marches, branded #IWillGoOut on social media. Most prominent newspapers carried small single-column reports on #IWillGoOut on their inside pages. Photos of the march even made it to international publications, which mistook them for protests against United States President Donald Trump. Almost none of them mentioned the gathering in Bihar.
For the record, 3.2 crore people gathered on Saturday afternoon in cities and towns across Bihar to stand together and hold hands for 45 minutes in support of the prohibition of liquor.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had banned alcohol in the state in April with a stringent law that penalised entire families if one member possessed liquor. The Supreme Court in October stayed a Patna High Court order that quashed this law. The case is still being heard.
The Limca Book of Records has confirmed that this chain, which involved everyone from senior politicians to schoolchildren, is the world’s longest such chain at 11,000 kilometres. The record book will include it in its 2018 publication.
“I think this number is not inflated,” said Naresh Chandra Mathur, the Limca Book of Records observer who was present in the control room for the event as reports from across the state trickled in. “Even in Patna, in Gandhi Maidan, there was people’s participation. Initially, the event was confined only to students. Then slowly other communities such as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims all joined in. That was how it grew beyond earlier estimates.”
Despite all this, few English news outlets seem to have sent any reporters to cover the Bihar human chain, or covered it in their national editions. Most of this coverage was pushed online instead. The Telegraph ran a longer compilation of news reports with quotes from officials. Hindustan Times had an editorial and reports in its local editions. The Hindu also had a reporter on the ground. Most other reports were from news agencies.
What English papers missed
Hindi newspapers in Bihar, however, went to town covering the human chain. The event made for great political copy. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and alliance partner Lalu Prasad Yadav attended the rally at Gandhi maidan in Patna, as did members of legislative assembly from both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was initially supposed to be 5,000 kilometres long, but after some debate, the government extended it to 11,000 kilometres.
It was also entirely a political event, with schoolchildren across the state made to join the chain. This had some grave consequences. A 15-year-old in Vaishali district on her way to the event fell from a truck and died, after which villagers in the district blocked a national highway and protested against the human chain. Another 80 children are reported to have fainted in the heat. The record for the chain began at 12.15 pm and ended at 1 pm.
When questioned about this after the event, Kumar was reported in The Telegraph to have said, “We are here talking about children, but even trained jawans who participate in Independence Day and Republic Day functions with full training and rehearsal faint and fall down.”
Former chief minister and head of the Hindustani Awam Morcha Jitan Ram Manjhi did not participate, stating that while he supported prohibition, he did not think the government should force schoolchildren to stand for hours for it.
There were other instances of chaos. A woman is reported to have given birth in a car while stuck in traffic caused by participants of the chain in Patna. Around eight lakh people from Patna district alone had joined the chain. Human chain participants in Madhubani allegedly burnt down six toddy shops on their way home.
Not for Trump
That English media outside Bihar did not cover the chain is perhaps not surprising, given that newspapers in large urban areas are notorious for their elite bias in coverage, choosing to focus on events in cities than in states, even ones as large as Bihar and despite the government having organised it.
The #IWillGoOut marches, on the other hand, were largely spontaneous reactions to reported incidents of molestations in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve, and were organised on social media by city-dwelling women.
Without government support, the women’s marches also faced difficulties in getting police permission. The march planned for Mumbai had to be confined at the last minute to a small garden in Dadar because of the ongoing election code of conduct. The police asked organisers of the Delhi march to shift the location from Connaught Place to Jantar Mantar, before finally granting permission for the original venue.
Despite these last-minute hitches, foreign media organisations covered the event through photos as a part of their slideshows on other marches by women around the world – they mistakenly assumed that women in the #IWillGoOut marches had organised their march to coincide with others protesting the election of Donald Trump as US president.