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Guwahati shame: The media and cops could have acted better, they didn’t

In November 2007, Laxmi Orang, a tribal girl, was stripped naked by a mob in Guwahati and beaten up mercilessly. The terrified girl escaped the murderous mob by somehow disentangling herself from its clutches and running to safety naked in full public view. The reaction to the incident followed the pattern which is familiar by now - expression of shock from all quarters, call for the people of Assam to introspect and beginning of an elaborate blame game. The case faded in public memory in a matter of weeks. The case of the teenager thrown among the wolves outside a Guwahati pub is likely to go the same way.

There are a few nasty takeaways from the unfortunate episode and its aftermath. There were people who could have acted to protect the dignity of the girl but didn't. Nobody involved in the episode—the general public, the police and the television channel which shot the incident—come up in edifying light. What we have now is clever spins to the incident from the latter two aimed at making them look better than what they were on Monday and afterwards.

Alka Lamba, a member of women commission, brings the victim to a news conference while investigating the molestation case of the girl on 9 July 2012 by a group of youth, in Guwahati on Saturday. PTI

"I doubt the channels claim that two of their reporters were trying to save the girl. Nowhere in the video have we seen them," women rights activist Sheetal Sharma told Firstpost from Guwahati over telephone. "Their camera focused on where the hands groped and how the hands slid through the girl’s dress. Their story was on what the girl was wearing and where she went… The media is showing a complete lack of sensitivity by questioning the morality of the victim," she added.

Newslive, the local channel which proudly took the credit for airing the footage and claimed to be doing a service to the society with their raw coverage of the barbaric act, would have none of it. Managing Editor of the channel Syed Zarir Hussain said the channel had telecast 20 seconds of the clipping on Monday itself and on subsequent days more of it. It took a long time for other media outlets to get out of the slumber.

"In fact, the local media did not pick up anything on the issue on Tuesday. We discussed the whole of Tuesday morning whether to telecast it further or not and finally went for it. We also had talk shows on the incident. Even then there was no response neither from local nor national media. It was only on Thursday night that NDTV picked up the story and they contacted me. Friday was crazy as you saw it. But you should remember it was a Monday incident," Hussain said.

There’s no clarity yet on what the channel was showing on Monday and after that and what the clippings were exactly about. In any case, if those were even close to Sheetal Sharma's version then the lapse is unpardonable.

Asked whether he expected a backlash for the fact that his reporters went for shooting the incident instead of saving the victim, he said it was expected. "We did anticipate such reaction. It is for my crew that we have the faces of the culprits. Our video can show you that my reporters indeed attempted to stop what was happening. But they cannot handle a mob on their own. I completely stand by my crew. Had my crew not shot it, the criminals would have gone scot-free and raped 20 more girls."

Meanwhile RTI activist Akhil Gogoi at a press conference in Guwahati on Saturday claimed that Newslive reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog was behind the whole incident. He also claimed that he had proof to corroborate his claims.

"We submitted a CD with to DGP Jayanta Narayan Choudhury and urged him to take action," Gogoi said.

However, Hussain refuted the charges.

"The Newslive reporter was at the spot by chance. The footage we have makes it clear that our staff not tried to protect the girl but also called the police," the Newslive managing editor Hussain said.

Anjuman Borah, Associate Professor with the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University, is not convinced. "This is an unbelievable incident. May be it is time we think how we cover news. I am not sure whether Newslive was expecting this kind of reaction. They were caught in a spot leaving them with hardly any choice but stand by their staff. The role of the bystanders is a telling tale of our society."

Did the reporters inform the police immediately or they were too busy summoning cameraman and recording the incident? While they say they indeed informed the police, the latter say no. The reporters could have done journalism a service but the moral question still remains.

How do the police stand in the entire episode? Discredited. The girl was tortured for close to 30 long minutes. They reached the scene of the crime too late. And we had this strange explanation for the delay from DGP, Jayanta Narayan Choudhury. On Friday, he had said the police cannot be expected to be as ATM and land instantly at a crime scene.

While speaking to Firstpost, he was more careful. "The reaction of the public and the media is quite natural. With such a heinous incident people are bound to react that way. Our reaction could have been faster though," he said.

"Reaction would have been quicker from our side had there been adequate resources. In the US there are more than 400 policemen per 100,000 people but here it is different. We have only 70 personnel to take care of 100,000 people. The ratio is just 1:8 in Guwahati," he added.

Sheetal Sharma does not agree. "There is no question of lack of resources. They did not even consider the case as a crime. They did not know how to react and simply came and took the girl away," Sheetal said, adding, "Had they been sensitized enough they would have attempted to arrest the people immediately. The poor gender perspective of the police is out in the open."

Meanwhile, the one-person panel appointed by the government to probe the case has begun its work. "I have just started the enquiry. I have not decided whom to call yet. I shall call people as required during the progress of the enquiry," Emily Das Choudhury, additional chief secretary, public enterprises with the government of Assam, told Firstpost.