Gurgaon gang rape: Let me tell you all about this girl...

News coverage of most rape cases focuses almost entirely on the victim, even as her attackers recede into the background into anonymity. Why is that?

Lakshmi Chaudhry March 13, 2012 14:02:02 IST
Gurgaon gang rape: Let me tell you all about this girl...

Here's what we know about the woman who was allegedly gang-raped in Gurgaon. She is 28-years old, married, and has a three-year old son and fifteen year old brother. She worked in a pub at the Sahara Mall, and there is some debate about exactly what her job entailed. She told the police that she was in charge of "seating arrangements," but the DCP Maheshwar Dayal told reporters that her job was to help single men enter the "couples only" pub.

The latest news breaking on the wires claims that while the medical test reveals rape, there is no evidence of gang rape.

Here's what we know about her attackers: there were six men who the victim claims knew her friend.

So what's wrong with this picture? Here's a clue: Section 228 A of the Indian Penal Code. India has one of the strongest rape shield laws in the world thanks to our Supreme Court which prohibits identifying the victim even in court judgments. Here's what the bench proclaimed back in 2006:

Keeping in view the social object of preventing social victimisation or ostracism of the victim of a sexual offence for which Section 228-A (of the Indian Penal Code) has been enacted, it would be appropriate that in the judgments, be it of this Court, or lower courts, the name of the victim should not be indicated.

As with so many of our laws, it is either routinely violated or reduced to a technicality in practice. The cops in Noida released the name of the victim in their press release, no less, claiming later that it was "a clerical mistake." Omar Abdullah had to offer an abject apology for releaasing the names of rape victims and their home addreses in the J&K legislature.   

Gurgaon gang rape Let me tell you all about this girl

Even when the name is not released, news coverage of the case routinely violates the intent and spirit of the law. Reuters

Even when the name is not released, news coverage of the case routinely violates the intent and spirit of the law. Media activists Sameera Khan and Kalpana Sharma point to the far-too-typical case of the rape of a foreign student in 2009:

In the TISS rape case, although the name of the victim was not reported, there was plenty of material that clearly revealed her identity. Details like the institution where she studied, the course she attended, her course supervisor, the hostel where she lived, name of her close friend, etc. These details identified the victim to those in her immediate environment and with whom she regularly interacted – precisely the people she did not want to be outed amongst. Was giving any of this information relevant?

Nope. These details make the headlines not because they are relevant but because they are sensational. They feed the relentless need to milk every rape story to its last eyeball-catching detail.

The news cycle in a rape story unfolds something like this. First comes the wire story with the barest details. By day two, the headlines are all about the actual circumstances of the crime, the identity of the victim, and inevitably, "inconsistencies" in her statements to the police. The attackers soon recede into anonymity, and its the victim who is front-and-centre, now unofficially on trial. What did she say? What does the evidence indicate? Did she do anything to "deserve" it?

Most of us who watch the news would agree this is reprehensible. So why does it happen, over and again?

We can start with the obvious culprits, ie the journalists who produce these stories. Are they all women-hating misogynists? Not quite, but they are middle class professionals working in a 24X7 news cycle, a beast that has to be continually fed. Any detail is a way to push the story forward, finer points of ethics be damned.

A news story is defined almost entirely by its sources, which in rape cases are primarily those associated with the investigation: the policemen, doctors, labs. Access to the victim is limited, and usually offered under duress, in reponse to negative coverage. As for the suspects, well, tracking them down is hard work, and who would want to mess the kind of men accused of gang-rape. As a colleague remarked, "There is a kind of fear in these cases" because the attackers are either wealthy and well-protected, or dangerous street thugs.

Besides, why venture into hazardous territory when chatty cops are eager to supply a wealth of information – however dubious – on and off record. Take, for instance, Noida superintendent of police Anant Dev who told reporters that the victim "willingly went" with the accused "because she wanted an alcohol party from the boys," helpfully adding, “She even mentioned she wanted vodka. She was involved in a physical relationship with more than one of the accused.”

As Ranjana Kumari, the director of the organisation Centre for Social Research, told the Hindustan Times, the Indian police are the “only force in the world” that directly blames the victim. Their first instinct is not to investigate the attack but to put the victim's charcter on trial.

Almost all the information "released" in the early days of the investigation seems designed to raise doubts about the victim – as opposed to identifying the attackers. We move quickly from "How awful she was raped" to wondering, "Maybe she is lying." It's one reason why Mamata Banerjee so easily dismissed the Kolkata rape case as a political conspiracy. The climate of skepticism created by the police sources was such that she thought she could get away with it.

What should make us pause is that this dynamic rarely plays out with other kinds of violent assault. The media rarely put the victim on trial if a man is beaten, maimed or killed. But with rape, it's always the woman who first has to prove that she is indeed a victim – and one worthy of sympathy and support. And each such case that makes the headlines sends a clear message to all future rape victims: the only guarantee of anonymity is silence.

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