Bhanwari devi and the character of the media
While I have not written about Bhanwari devi here, I have been following her story for a while now. One of the main reasons I have not written is that I depend on media for an idea of the situation, and the media is a hall of mirrors on this one, so my information could not be trusted to have a realistic picture.
However, one story did catch my eye. NDTV ran a report “Bhanwari Devi was determined to live a life less ordinary”, which you can read here.
The report describes Bhanwari Devi’s life and appears to create a backgrounder for her murder, except that it seems to deliberately paint a sordid character of a person born in poverty who it seems commits this crime of wanting to go beyond her circumstances. It describes her music videos and entry into the circles of the political powers and mentions her as a person who liked the good things in life (I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t – though goals may vary).
There is a subtle buildup of character as a person who paid attention to her looks “few bottles of perfume, some blunted lipstick” on dressing table (not comb, for example) and establishes her misuse of her clout at work – or rather rarely “showing up” for work except to sign register for attendance and collect salary.
Then it establishes her as a blackmailer around the time she disappeared and projects her husband as this brave person valiantly trying to get the murderer to justice and struggling with the “impossible task of shielding their two children” – erm… if she was all that useless, surely he was used to it by now?
It makes so many assumptions about who Bhanwari was, or what she thought or wanted, for example “Bhanwari Devi wanted more than the small towns she was born or married into” – I dare say this is true of the journalist as well, if she would…. say quit writing for NDTV if the Guardian asked her to report for them? It is certainly true of me. I would love to have a huge house in Mumbai, servants to do all the work. If wanting is a sin, show me the person who can throw the first stone.
The report ends with “The circumstances of her death – and it is increasingly unlikely that her story will end any other way – she was determined to make less ordinary” – a line that is true for any dead woman… and man, if you replace the feminine pronouns with masculine.
What is notable about this report is that it reports less facts and more the reporter’s imagination of what and who Bhanwari was, and it is abundantly clear that the reporter sees her as a condemnable person.
It would have been extremely easy to write a compassionate report – heck check out some of the reporting of women from Afghan prisons, check out news stories of bona fide prostitutes – it isn’t content that makes a story sordid, but the eye of the beholder. Compassion is a way of being, not a multiple choice option that some deserve and others don’t.
Of course, there is the other speculation that NDTV as a whole is in bed with the Congress. If not officially, then a sympathetic affinity – for want of a better word. The victim being set up to be stripped of compassion in this story is a victim of Congress ministers.
Pankaj Pachauri recently (about two months after this story was printed) became the communications advisor in the PMO. Not implying that this was deliberate at all, but saying that there were communication lines open and favorable with one side of the issue, while the other was difficult to identify with. There is a natural tendency to discredit what shows them in bad light (most of our newspapers are guilty of this, though this instance is NDTV) – so it may be an unconscious political or professional influence. It can simply be a woman low on compassion and high on moral judgment too – though this becomes difficult to believe seeing as a journalist and editor both cleared it. Simply saying that many lines converge here. Unlike the journalist, I will not report my imagination as fact, simply point out the various coincidences.
Most people are not looking at the extraordinary silence around this story and character assassinations such as this serve to muddy water further by encouraging more people to dismiss the victim as not important or not of good character – not someone who was wronged – not said directly, but the overall feel of the article. I am not the only one saying this. Barkha Dutt got solidly trolled by people who normally don’t do such things too over this, in an attempt to draw attention to how the character of a murder victim was selectively reported to make her look bad.
Many people were outraged over this report that speaks less about the injustice done to her and more about how she was not such a great person anyway – as though justice for murder is less important if the person is of low character or something.
I had tweeted several times to NDTV to withdraw their report. It got taken up by several people. Many drew Barkha Dutt’s attention personally to this report – which I think is a bit unfair on her, since she can’t be expected to defend the sins of everyone, just because she is within reach, but it is also a matter of trying to reach who they could and who they thought might take notice and correct this slander. I don’t know if and what she said on the issue, but I do admit that this put her in a tough spot.
Unfortunately, nothing happened. The report is alive and well, and it turns out, a fellow tweep, Sudhir Kumar had formally written to NDTV complaining about the report, and as happens in organizations determined not to learn – the person to attend the complaint seems to be the person complained about (by criticizing the story she edited and approved), who simply said she was right. The report was asserted as appropriate and necessary or whatever. Reproducing the two emails below. Understand what you will.
From Sudhir Kumar to NDTV
Can you guide me on who the point person is for this article on NDTV website, on Bhanwari Devi?
Bhanwari was determined to live a life less ordinary
This article is so full of insinuations and doesn’t match any standards of decency. For example – “She liked dressing”, “She came only to collect her salary” – how fair is it to write such stuff about a person who is not alive?
How fair is to interview her 7 year old son too? Will they like it, when they see this article? A more detailed critique by a blogger is here ( please read it – she is not a troll nor is the language abusive)
I’d appreciate if one of you replies to me, advising how this can be taken forward.
The Reply from the Editor who edited the report the journalist filed and approved for publication:
Dear Sir: Thank you for taking the time to offer this critique.
The reporter who filed the story has been given a byline which is clearly mentioned. I edited the story.
As with all our reports, the information was based on facts. There are no insinuations.
Our report preceded the India Today cover story and many many others which followed a similar line of investigation.
While nobody can overlook the tragedy of Bhanwari Devi’s death, her life and death – as are now abundantly clear – came wrapped in all sorts of complexities which make a character study of her personality not just preferable but essential.
The CBI chargesheet in the case of her murder calls her a social climber with big ambitions. As though she died of it.