//where would you rather be arrested? India or China?

where would you rather be arrested? India or China?

Peter FosterPeter Foster was formerly the Daily Telegraph’s South Asia Correspondent based New Delhi from 2004-2008. He later moved to Beijing in March 2009. In a recent article published in Telegraph, he shares his experience about human rights abuses in India and China.

I came across this Indian blog which links to the video of a Financial Times correspondent being accosted by local government thugs while trying to interview the parents of Sichuan Earthquake victims. Look closely at the faces of the men who surround and peer into Financial Times correspondent Jamil Anderlini’s car in Sichuan, when he went to interview the mother of a child who died in last year’s earthquake. They represent, in sum, the ugly face of China. Watch the video, and repeat three times after me: ‘China is an emerging superpower!’ Incredible!’

I guess we all deal in stereotypes, but this view of China is one that I heard commonly expressed during my time in India.

It smacks of moral superiority and underpins the complacent assumption – widely held among Indian elites – that the lumbering Indian elephant will over take the Chinese dragon in the end because India is a messy, health democracy and China is a corrupt, inward looking autocracy.

A democracy India may be, but when it comes to police brutality, India keeps some dirty secrets which, in my experience, receive nothing like the attention that China’s human rights transgressions do, particularly in the Western media.

This is not to justify Chinese abuses for a second – they are rightly condemned – but merely to contextualize them against the ground realities in India, as opposed to the stereotype of India as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ which – while it may not be able to build roads, power stations and ports or prevent malnutrition in 40 per cent of its under-5s – at least guarantees the basic human rights of all its citizens.

A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights in June last year, ‘Torture in India 2008: A State of Denial’ calculated that, on average, four people died every day in police custody in Indian between 2002-2007.

I suspect that many British readers would be surprised to read that statistic. ‘Much more the kind of thing you would expect from China, but surely not India,’ they might say. They’d be wrong.

They might be equally surprised to learn that India didn’t sign the UN’s Convention Against Torture until 1997 (China signed it in 1988) and still hasn’t ratified the convention today, while China did so in 1988.

India also holds the dubious distinction, according to ACHR, of refusing an invitation the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture for the longest period of time since 1993. By contrast, Pakistan (1997), Nepal (September 2005), China (November 2005) and Sri Lanka (2007) have all invited the Special Rapporteur.

It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to corruption – one of the single biggest destroyers of quality of life for ordinary people wanting access to their rights and entitlements – India (85th in 2008) scores worse than China (72nd) on the annual Transparency International Index rankings.

If you are stopped in China for a traffic offence, I’m told you wouldn’t dream of offering a policeman a bribe. But in India the process is so routine it’s a national joke – especially round Diwali when the cops were out for present money.

As for the ‘ugly face of India’, you only have to read the Indian newspaper for a few days to realize that the kind of thuggishness seen on the video linked to above is but mild compared much of the violence committed by Indian land mafias, corrupt policemen and the henchmen of criminal-politicians.

And does anyone remember the video which the Indian news channel NDTV screened a few years back of the Bihari policeman chaining a petty thief to his motorcycle and dragging him round the streets while the crowed bayed in appreciation?

Or the story of the drunken Indian policeman who threw two young boys into a swollen river because he caught them stealing from an orchard?

All this leads me to pose a hypothetical question which I throw open to floor for debate.

If it were possible to complete a free and fair survey of the citizens of India and China, asking a representative sample who had a better experience of daily interaction with their respective police forces, whose would come out on top?

Perhaps they are all as bad as each other. But stereotypes aside, I’m not sure I’d be confident in predicting the result.

The Telegraph, May 12, 2009