The Tail has Begun to Wag the Dog
LAST WEEK brought a hard moment of reckoning for the Indian media.
At first, as the country watched the horrific sight of a young girl being brutalised by a mob in a busy Guwahati street, it seemed the reckonings were about something else. What bestial gene do we nurse amidst ourselves? What atavistic hatred of women? What putrid, misplaced sense of morality that can drive one to savage another human being like this? And what fear of reprisal from the perpetrators that cars could whiz by, bystanders could watch, and almost no one intervened for 45 minutes?
The brutalising of women is not a new story. It is as old as history itself. Every day, the papers are rife with stories of women’s heads chopped off, bodies found in drains, faces drowned in acid. But in a modern democracy, should there not at least be a fear of being caught? What have we unlatched ourselves from as a society that even that minimum deterrence seems to be fraying? Why are acts that at least happened in the shadows of the night, in isolation, with the dread of being found out, increasingly being played out in brazen public view?
Some months ago, TEHELKA had published a sting investigation on the attitude of cops in Delhi and its neighbouring regions to rape. Several officers on the tapes had said that women who wear revealing clothes, drink, or have boyfriends, basically ask to be raped. Disturbingly, this regressive belief that women are the crucibles of social morality, that it is not men who must refrain but women who must not provoke, is voiced not just by the fringe but increasingly by India’s institutions as well: political leaders, teachers; commentators; panchayats; the keepers of law, and most shamefully, by members of the National Commission for Women as well.
This attitude is the real monster. The horror in Guwahati was merely the continuum. But for the toss of a coin, this incident could have happened anywhere in the country. It is not sporadic eruptions of crime, therefore, that is the real danger; it is that as a society, we no longer feel enjoined to talk even the baseline language of modernity.
But as this story unfolded, an even darker strand emerged. What role had the television camera played in the Guwahati outrage? Instead of being the vigilant eye, the watchdog whose arrival should have scared the mob, why had the camera melded insidiously into being a part of the circle of violence, completing its circuit with the girl trapped inside? Why had the molesters smiled brazenly into it and repeatedly tried to yank their victim’s face up so the lens could have a full gaze? Why had the camera’s presence prolonged the girl’s humiliation? Why had it turned what should have been fear and shame into