It was alarming to hear the calls for hanging the rapists in the Delhi Gang Rape, even as it was heartening to hear violence against women take center stage for once. A year later, the alarm remains, while the hope is increasingly jaded.
There is a strange kind of feminism in the air. One that picks specific victims to hurtle into a media spotlight and hunts down those they accuse recklessly and with scant respect for women's rights as a whole. Glaring inconsistencies in our response, in my view do more harm than good. The practice of isolating women for justice is anti-feminist in my view, even if the leading culprits in India happen to be feminists.
The need is for rights to improve for all women, not just one or few we find grabbing our attention. Nor is the problem with women's rights merely sexual. I dare say that in India, domestic violence and economic exploitation are among the key areas of enslavement of women. This narrow vision and hyperbole laden public discourse is doing more harm than good by cherry picking cases with already easy access to media or enough dramatic value, while ignoring the more dreary and difficult to defeat realities.
It hardy takes a brain to say that a gang rape is evil. It does not take too much intelligence to whip up a "campaign" by forcing people to answer a question of which there really is only one answer other than claiming complete inhumanity. And the anger takes on a life of its own.
My vocal objections to media's role in the Tehelka Rape Case was born of alarm that elite feminism (and I'm using the term really loosely) seems to bypass courts of law altogether. While many criticized me for their imagined belief that I was defending Tarun Tejpal, my posts can be refered to even now. My problem was with media abandoning even a pretense of neutrality. Before the Tejpal case got heard by courts, we had Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary - among those targeted - resigned. We had the victim, her witnesses and several other journalists resigning in protest. We had about 34 staff members fired. And the case had not even been heard in a court of law, let alone judged.
The question no longer remains one of "do you think taking advantage of a girl is right?", it becomes one of "What is a suitable punishment for what degree of crime, and who determines this after determining if the crime happened?".
The case of Khursheed Anwar highlights this question even more. Accused of drugging and brutally raping and sodomizing a woman activist he invited to stay overnight, he became another overnight social media villain. Unable to bear the humiliation (presumably) he committed suicide before his reputation could even grow into full blown villain potential.
As though his suicide somehow was proof of his innocence (or perhaps the scale of social media justice meter showed "overcompensation" forcing the return of some humiliation or something), several people immediately proceeded to accuse Madhu Kishwar of provoking his suicide (she had videotaped the testimony of the rape victim - with disclosure and consent - but not released it). Some outraged people went as far to accuse her of trying to provoke the suicides of two other women whose names had been withheld by revealing their identities, while a few articles went ahead to make allegations forcing her to issue a clarification that while she was approached for help and she recorded the victim's narrative, she did nothing with it, including taking further action or discussing with colleagues, and she named more people who circulated the footage (a copy was provided to victim).
In other news, Nitish Rane has been desperately trying to utilize this high potential formula by taunting Nikhil Wagle with allegations of his misconduct with another woman, an ex-employee at IBN Lokmat. Nikhil Wagle (and the rest of the world) have ignored these allegations - for now. I suspect the lack of media interest may also be related with the main ingredient of these TRP festivals missing - a helpless woman supported by more women talking about the helplessness of this woman or women at large and so on. Perhaps he will get it right. Perhaps we will find someone else to lynch.
The main thing here is that in all these three incidents, the victim herself has not filed a police complaint, and the method of seeking justice appears to be disclosure of ordeal in social media, making it viral, counting on insecure authorities to blink first in the face of all the noise and take notice, while the publicity machine delivers its own brutal "tabadtob insaaf". At best, it is forcing the government to take sides in a case that will be tried in a court of law through sheer media manipulation, thus rendering the person to lose the media war completely delegitimized with the government itself opposing them.
This is worrisome. Not just because of the possibility that guilt or innocence cannot be decided by who can raise the loudest mob, but also because of its impact on the rights of women outside the spotlight.
More importantly it is worrisome because the courts seem to have been bypassed almost entirely as a method of justice and have been converted into a kind of additional, official punishment, that could result in another bonus punishment in jail. The primary punishment happens in destroyed careers the minute you convince media that justice must be in your favor.
And this, as we see is a game of perceptions. For example, our diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who spoke up for women's rights, but went through considerable effort to pay her babysitter a fraction of the legal minimum wage that she undertook in writing to pay. Media currently sees her as the victim, and the maid who got paid at best a third of a due, and possibly even less than that, if her working hours were more is actually seen as the person harming this innocent diplomat who has won the perception war.
If social media manipulations to influence opinions for political reasons are big business now, I guarantee that within a year or two, high profile lawyers will be engaging social media teams to get their cases tried outside courts.