Shakti Mills re-visited: Is it wrong to turn a rape survivor into a hashtag?

With that attention-grabbing headline, Sonia Khan writes for GRISTmedia what could be the definitive insider account of the intern who was gang-raped inside Shakti Mills. Definitive because the survivor has not written anything and Khan has written it with her permission.

Sandip Roy August 19, 2014 15:35:22 IST
Shakti Mills re-visited: Is it wrong to turn a rape survivor into a hashtag?

“That hashtag was my colleague.”

With that attention-grabbing headline, Sonia Khan writes for GRISTmedia what could be the definitive insider account of the intern who was gang-raped inside Shakti Mills. Definitive because the survivor has not written anything and Khan has written it with her permission.

It makes sense to revisit that story. It’s been almost a year since the crime happened and the three adult accused have been found guilty and sentenced to death, the first conviction of its kind since the rape law was amended by Parliament.

What Khan has written is in some ways as much a story about the actual rape as it is a story of a rape by media.

Every few minutes, someone’s phone buzzes with a call, or a text message appended with a sheepish, “When is a good time to call?” Never, I say to myself. But we can’t afford to miss a call from the cops, so everyone installs the TrueCaller app on their phones.

Neha, the photographer, is fending off calls in her gentle but firm way from a senior editor at DNA, whom she knows from before. Now he calls her to say that he couldn’t sleep all night because he has a daughter the same age as our hurt colleagues. Then, he casually attempts to get some details about them.

As a journalist, it makes you cringe reading it not just because it’s insensitive but because it could so easily be you. Rape is news and news has to be reported. And when the news happens to someone in the community, someone to whose colleagues and friends you already have access, the pressure to get the story becomes that much higher. “The system will not spare you even if you’re part of the system” laments the introduction to the story. But then again, should it? The system, even if it is an unfair one, should not have two standards – one for journalists and one for the other “Nirbhayas” out there.

That unseemly scrum of photographers trying to get a shot of the survivor as she gets into a police van is ugly but it comes as no surprise. It’s true for any news story that catches the public’s attention. The media is an easy target for vilification. The image of the pushy reporter sticking a microphone in some bereaved mother’s face and saying “How do you feel?” is all too familiar.

Shakti Mills revisited Is it wrong to turn a rape survivor into a hashtag

Journalists protesting the Shakti Mills gangrape. AFP.

But it is also true that media coverage of rape has improved - moving away from the good-girls-don’t-get-raped paradigm. At one time Suzette Jordan of the Park Street rape case in Kolkata would have had to undergo a trial by media for being a mother of two, out drinking with strange men in a nightclub late at night. And she got those comments but from politicians and policemen, rather than the media. The December 16th Delhi bus gang-rape media coverage interviewed the victim’s male friend but did not turn his presence that night into a question mark on the victim’s character.

Of course, the pressure for that scoop, that exclusive is always there. But the question is does it make all journalists assholes for pursuing every possible strand of the story. Is that not part of their job?

It’s not just journalists anymore. A story like this, or even more pertinently the Tarun Tejpal case, takes on a life of its own in social media, tweeted and retweeted until it becomes virtually impossible for the evening news to ignore. Sometimes that cycle is a vicious cycle carelessly anointing rumour as fact. But sometimes that attention is what prevents a story from disappearing into a black hole. It is what holds a police force’s feet to the fire and ensures that fast track trial. As Khan herself recalls “The cops are working non-stop. There’s too much media attention, and too much heat to nab the assaulters.”

Let’s face it, if the goal is timely justice, every hashtag can help. There are probably many rape survivors and many families of dead rape victims languishing out there, waiting interminably for justice, who wish their stories too had become hashtags. And it’s not just rape. If Ferguson had not become #Ferguson, chances are it would be just another black kid shot by the cops in some kind of mistaken encounter in America – a story that is all too distressingly familiar. The obnoxious journalists who will not take no for an answer have helped to keep pushing that story forward despite arrests and teargas. They are just doing their job, not being heroes.

Of course, this does not mean there are no lines. Reporting on rape is especially tricky in India because the law demands that the identity of the victim not be revealed. That has indeed led to media trying to push the line as far as possible – obeying the letter of the law but defeating its intent. Khan writes about a reporter who climbs 16 flights of stairs to avoid the guarded elevators to try and get into the intern’s hospital room. The Times of India decided to go and interview the watchman of the intern’s building and her neighbours. These are clear violations of privacy.

This concealment of the victim’s identity is a double-edged sword. Bachi J. Karkaria called it a “veil of misplaced disgrace” that aggravates the stigma around rape, making it a sort of exceptional crime. ““To bang on about protecting identity endorses the social assault on the raped woman,” wrote Karkaria in TOI. But as I wrote at that time on Firstpost:

(T)o interview the night watchman at the building where the Shakti Mills rape survivor lives, a man who did not know about the incident until the reporter went to him, is hardly an act of sensitive empowerment. There is a very big difference between “coming out” and “out-ing”.

In fact this line, while not bright, is nowhere as fuzzy as the media would like to pretend. First off, did the survivor or the family expressly give permission? If they did not, and the details being revealed – the housing society, the publication she works in, the names of colleagues - help identify the victim by narrowing it down to what Khan calls a “pool of one” then yes, the reporting is indeed subverting the intent of the law and grossly violating the privacy of the victim. But trying to look for the human angle or find out what’s in the police report does not have to be vulturine per se.

In some ways what Sonia Khan has done is also what perhaps some of those reporters were trying to do – tell the human story behind the hashtag.

She does not explain why she chose to share this story now. But presumably she thought there was some social good to be done by putting it on the public record. And she is right. The story is an eye-opener but not just because of the media circus she documents. I knew about the indignity of the two-finger test but I had no idea about the ordeal of the identification parade.

Here is the routine of the identification parade that Megha is told to follow. There are separate line-ups of seven men, and the survivor has to pick the accused by touching him on the arm. She then has to go to a corner of the room, and announce loudly what the suspect did to her.
And this is what Megha does on September 4, in a room full of men that include her attackers, without any women officers present to aid her. She touches the men on the arm to identify them, and then says, Isne mera balatkaar kiya (He sexually assaulted me). She repeats this four times over.

The reporter who tried to sneak into a guarded hospital room pretending to be family was clearly breaking the law. But this is official procedure, sanctioned by law. Now that is truly shocking.

Read the entire story by Sonia Khan on GRISTmedia.

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