Empowered by Technology, Indians Fight Government Corruption

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Armed with cell phones and laptops, India's growing consumer class pitches into the battle to clean up the judiciary and police. They are leading a massive outcry over the murder of a fashion model, who was shot in a Delhi bar by the son of a politician. The killer has just been acquitted.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

India's cities have been flooded with the technology of the consumer age over the last fifteen years. The better-off have mobile phones, Internet access, and cable TV.

This new technology is now being deployed in an unusual battle: a public campaign to reverse the verdict in a high-profile murder case.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi.

(Soundbite of crowd yelling)

Ms. SABRINA LAL (Sister of Jessica Lal, New Delhi): There was this march overnight within the gates, which I went for, and we still aren't sure who organized it, but everybody just (unintelligible) that this is, you know, what we're doing. And we all lined up, and it was thousands of people there.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Sabrina Lal still sounds amazed when she describes the crowds that gathered for a demonstration a few weeks back. They just materialized in the heart of India's capital, united by the desire to express their anger over the murder of Sabrina's sister Jessica, and summoned there by SMS, mobile phone text messages.

Sabrina says a large role was played by technically-savvy students.

Ms. Lal: They'd been sending out SMS's by the thousands, you know, saying that, you know, we will do this justice for Jessica.

REEVES: Sabrina's sister Jessica was a glamorous fashion model. Seven years ago, at the age of 34, Jessica was shot in the face in a crowded Delhi bar. Many of those gathered there belonged to the capital's glitterati. The shooting was in full view. Several policemen were there.

A man called Manu Sharma was accused of killing her. He's the son of a wealthy politician. As the case dragged on, witnesses turned hostile, evidence disappeared. Last month, Sharma was acquitted, along with eight others charged with aiding him. There was, the court decided, insufficient evidence to convict.

The verdict appalled the nation. Many Indians saw it as proof that the rich and powerful are exempt from the normal rules of justice. The anger of the urban middle class was seen as unprecedented and a sign that India is changing.

Ms. BARKHA DUTT (Managing Editor, NDTV): It's a sign of so many other sociological changes in India, an expanding middle class; a more empowered middle class; a more assertive middle class; a middle class that feels like a stakeholder; a country where governments are learning to respond to public opinion. So it's such a symbolic moment.

REEVES: Barkha Dutt is managing editor of the 24-hour news television NDTV. She is also one of the country's most prominent English language broadcasters.

Ms. DUTT: Good evening and welcome to this NDTV special program. There comes a time in the life of every society, every country, when somehow one person's story touches something in all of us...

REEVES: When the not guilty verdict came through, Dutt and her colleagues quickly realized it would cause an outcry. They also knew many of their viewers are middle class and owners of mobile phones. Departing from the conventions of newsgathering, NDTV launched a protest campaign over the case, soliciting text messages from viewers, which they promised to submit to India's president.

Ms. DUTT: We say every SMS can make a difference. And you're not talking about age-old letters to the editor, it's the age of the SMS. So some people just typed in saying, Jessica, and that registered as a vote. Other people wrote long, elaborate comments on their SMS.

REEVES: The response was enormous.

Ms. DUTT: We kept the lines open for about three days, and in three days, we had more than 200,000 signatures. So that just goes to show you technology has changed the base of mobilization completely, because if this were like 10 years ago and you were going door to door collecting signatures, which would have been its equivalent, it would have taken you many more logistics, just an army of volunteers. You didn't need any of that. You needed one rallying point on television.

REEVES: It's clear the Jessica Lal case has touched a nerve. Lawyer, Kohmeni(ph) Jeswal(ph) who specializes in human rights cases, says widespread corruption and criminality among India's politicians lies at the root of the problem.

Mr. KOHMENI JESWAL (Attorney): But there's a very wide-spread phenomenon, and there you see it all the time.

REEVES: The Jessica Lal file is now open again, though it's not clear whether there will be retrial. Bakhka Dutt wants an independent inquiry that will include investigating the role of the police. She is certain the authorities won't be able to shrug this off.

Ms. DUTT: The president has got involved, Sonja Ghandi has got involved, the Prime Minister has made references, the former chief justice of India was on our program saying that he had personally re-opened (Unintelligible) cases when he saw justice hadn't been done, and it was time to reopen this. I think it's got too strong a momentum. I don't think there's any looking back on this now.

REEVES: Mobile phone shops are doing brisk business in India. There's some 18 million mobile subscribers at the last count and rising. The Jessica Lal case suggests many of these people are ready to move into the modern age in other ways. They want to bring an end to corruption and incompetence in the legal system, a system that's let Indians down often enough that they find it all too easy to identify with the frustration now felt by Jessica's sister, Sabrina.

Ms. LAL: I think that is what has actually caused so much anger in the public, it's like it could be us tomorrow and the same thing could happen; so let's back this one and nail the guy; and hopefully we can change the system to a certain extent.

REEVES: A change that may just be brought about simply by a lot of people pressing a few buttons.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of music)

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