Backstory: How the Media Makes Crimes Against Women Disappear

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Rarely does a day go by without some new information in the media on the horrific Shraddha Walkar murder case. The exceptional alertness shown to the malevolent acts perpetrated by Walkar’s intimate partner, Aftaab Poonawala, is both necessary and commendable. It has helped highlight the unsuspected depths of bestiality that often undergird sexual relationships in contemporary India. 

This reporting on the case signals something more: the coming together of criminal justice, majoritarian politics, cultures of masculinity and media attention. Have we reached a point where the universal imperatives of crime and punishment, and the public attention paid to it through the media, are now decided by factors such as who the murderer is and who the murdered was? This is an important question given how some cases receive aggregated media attention while others are simply “disappeared”.

Who are these murdered women who are “let go”? Who amongst us would know the name of the woman the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was a party in eliminating? His disciples in their hundreds of thousands don’t even recognise that such a crime had occurred. The examples of murderers and rapists escaping the full penalties of their egregious crimes are a legion and emerge from across regions and communities. Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who wore the resplendent robes of a bishop, was charged by a nun of having been used as a sex slave by him. Today, he walks free after an additional sessions court in Kerala pronounced him “not-guilty”.

Most recently, there was the case of the Haryana sports minister Sandeep Singh, who had sexually targeted a junior athletics coach. Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar government appears more than willing to go with Singh’s claim that these are allegations mounted to defame him. 

One of the biggest challenges for those fighting for justice is indifferent media coverage. There may be initial enthusiasm in reporting a crime but within a few days the story drops out of sight, testifying to how deeply patriarchal and political power influence media coverage of crimes against women.

On February 9, Delhi was witness to a unique press conference to mark the release of a fact-finding report anchored by the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, along with organisations across the country. It signalled a determination not to allow the story of Ankita Bhandari, who was sexually assaulted and killed, vanish from the public space just as she herself was when she was pushed into a nearby barrage. In the process of their fact finding, the 19-year-old came to represent the young women of Uttarakhand, desperate for employment, committed to keeping home fires burning, yet fiercely protective of their own sense of self. 

Ankita had barely got into her first job as a receptionist at the Vanantra Resort in Uttarakhand’s Rishikesh when her employers tried to force her into doing sexual favours for VIPs staying at the resort. In a WhatsApp chat with a friend, she laid bare the pressure to provide such “extra service” and how she had replied that she would not comply. As it turned out, she paid with her life for that refusal. 

If these bare facts of the story are not sordid enough, what really exposes the rot within was the way institutions meant to protect young women like her, whether they were the local police, state political authorities,  or even the State Women’s Commission, proved to utterly incompetent or deliberately indifferent. Attempts were made by those complicit in the crime to control the narrative at every stage, cloak their own involvement in the murder and destroy evidence.  

From September 18, 2022, the day she was murdered, the fiction was maintained that she had gone missing. The main accused, Pulkit Arya, the son of a powerful BJP politician and former minister, went so far as to give the local patwari a “detailed missing report”, painting Ankita as a “mentally stressed” person whom he and his friends tried to calm down.

In actual fact, the woman had been captured by this man and his associates and subjected to mental and physical torture. They later pushed her off a cliff into the nearby Chilla barrage. Meanwhile, another brazen attempt to destroy evidence in the case was the bulldozing of the resort, including the area where Ankita had her room, on the orders of BJP MLA Renu Bisht.  Projected as an act of outrage meant to “punish” the criminals, it appears to have been wilful destruction of evidence.

Some of these details had emerged in the reporting of this story when it broke last September. The point to note, however, is that those media reports were essentially disconnected and left half-told. The value of the fact-finding report produced by the women of Uttarakhand and their feminist colleagues from other states, lies precisely in its holistic treatment of the case (‘Uttarkahand: Fact-Finding Team Alleges Cover Up in Police Probe of Ankita Bhandari Murder’, February 7).

What is also distinctive is the prism of gender they used. Important aspects like the failure of institutions, the legal arguments, the need for better witness protection, and details of post-mortem findings are assembled. Questions about whether the identity of the VIP who had asked for “extra services” was being protected by the authorities were raised. But what made the fact finding quite exceptional was the careful attention it paid to the larger backdrop – from the very high rate of rape in Uttarakhand and the pitifully poor employment avenues that exist for women to the impacts of tourism and the growing demand on the women in this sector to provide sexual services.

Ideally, such fact finding should have been done by the media in real time, but perhaps that is too much to expect of an industry constantly caught up in a volatile news scenario and susceptible to pressures from powerful actors. But the least that could have been expected from the national media was focused attention to the findings of this report. That, unfortunately, was not forthcoming.

It needs a rare empathy to keep alive the memory of a woman from a mountain village. The national team that produced report demonstrated that quality in abundant measure. As the team members put it, their report was conducted to keep alive the memory of a young girl aspiring to be a worker but who lost her life because she refused to be coerced into sex work.


Siddique Kappan’s courage

Two years after a completely cruel and totally unjustifiable arrest, Siddique Kappan emerged with his spirit and commitment to journalism intact (Will Continue My Fight’: Siddique Kappan Walks Out of Jail After Over Two Years’, February 4). He had no inhibitions about telling the world just how monstrously he had been treated, right down to the denial of proper toilet facilities as a form of torture. In many ways, his story will go down in the annals of the history of journalism in this country as a remarkable one of professional resilience. A journalist got prosecuted and persecuted, not for a story that he wrote, but for a story that the State imagined that he would write; not for “anti-national crimes” that he had committed but for fake charges of “anti-national crimes” foisted on him by the State.

Siddique Kappan. Photo: By arrangement

To get a glimpse of just how outrageous this was, one just has to rewind to hotshot lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani’s arguments in the Supreme Court on behalf of the Uttar Pradesh state government against Kappan’s release:

“Kappan was in a meeting of PFI in September 2020. It was said in the meeting that funding had stopped. It was decided in the meeting that they will go to sensitive areas and incite riots. On October 5, they decided to go to Hathras to incite riots. He was funded with Rs 45,000 to create riot… He claimed to be accredited to a newspaper ‘Tejus’. We have found that he was accredited by the official organization of PFI. PFI has to be notified as a terrorist group. One State, Jharkhand, has notified it as a terrorist group. He was planning to incite riots. It’s a little bit like what happened in 1990. It is a fit case for invoking 124A also because they are creating disaffection using the rape of a minor girl.” (excerpted from an OpIndia piece).

This tissue of assertions defy all evidentiary logic, but then when have facts ever come in the way of the Uttar Pradesh government’s malicious intentions? As Kappan revealed after coming out of jail, he was tortured by the UP police to get him to confess that he had links with terrorist groups (‘Siddique Kappan Says Police ‘Tortured’ Him to Admit Links to Terrorist Groups’, February 4). They even tried to get him to admit that he ate beef (this could have only happened in UP!).

Many who have had to go through similar ordeals have chosen to keep their silence and try and carry on with their lives. Kappan, from all evidence, is not about to forget those who had accompanied him on that fateful trip to UP or indeed other journalist colleagues in jail elsewhere in the country. His priority now, he says, is to stand with them: “Journalism is in danger in India and (the State gets away with) jailing journalists because nobody dares to defend them.” 


Media and earthquakes

The quake that devastated large parts of Turkey and Syria has extracted a human cost that just cannot be quantified – over 22,000 people have died, hundreds of thousands of others injured, with cities that once vibrated with life now reduced to rubble. The images of the crumbled bodies of children are the most gut wrenching. Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu, while recalling her experience of reporting on the tsunami of 2004 (‘Reporting on loss, grief and resilience during a tragedy, The Hindu, February 10), writes that the “memories that remain are the haunting cries of parents who had seen their children being taken away by the force of the tide. One mother kept telling me how she had held on to her infant tightly, but the wave had wrenched him from her arms…”

So what are the responsibilities of journalists covering such disasters? The first is the realisation that journalism can be a crucial life-saving addition to rescue work by relaying information from ground level to the concerned agencies, affected communities and the world at large in real time. Here, the ability to understand complex phenomena, and to interpret them in a language that is easily understood, is vital. This is where adequate prepping, speaking to experts, equipping oneself, can make all the difference. 

A thumb rules of conducting oneself as a journalist in such situations is to ensure that your reporting does not come in the way of rescue work, endanger the lives of already vulnerable people, or add to the existing trauma and panic.

Video screengrab showing a damaged neighbourhood in Turkey. Photo: Twitter@abierkhatib


‘National Interest’ and media control

This column has already noted how the Information Technology Rules, 2021 is being maintained as an open platform that can be tweaked in real time to conform to the government’s requirements. Recently, in an exhibition of supposed moral panic, new guidelines were issued to get Indian TV channels to broadcast for at least 30 minutes every day “content in the national interest”.

What’s interesting here is the guidelines on what constitutes themes of national and social importance could change from “time to time” (‘National Interest Content on TV Channels: What the I&B Ministry’s New Advisory Says’, January 31). But what precisely constitutes “national interest” and how does the government ensure that what it considers as “national interest” is not foisted on channels. Is this yet another attempt by the government to get its foot in the door in editorial functioning? We need to watch this space.


Readers write in…

Rakesh Sharma’s documentary

A Wire reader sent in this mail for the information of the general public: “There is so much talk about the banned BBC documentary. However, many of your readers may be aware of an outstanding documentary by Rakesh Sharma called the Final Solution (so aptly titled) on YouTube on the same subject which can be viewed here. While Rakesh Sharma is not a brand in the sense BBC is, the message crafted and conveyed deftly is as good or even better than in the BBC documentary. Even if your readers are not struggling to lay their hands on the link to the BBC documentary, I urge them to view Final Solution. Just a word of caution – it’s very disturbing.

“Following is a description of the film (reproduced from YouTube): “Final Solution is a study of the politics of hate. Set in Gujarat during the period Feb/March 2002 – July 2003, the film graphically documents the changing face of right-wing politics in India through a study of the 2002 genocide of Moslems in Gujarat. It specifically examines political tendencies reminiscent of the Nazi Germany of the early/mid-1930s. Final Solution is anti-hate/ violence as ‘those who forget history are condemned to relive it’.”


Statement from NPC

The National Press Club (NPC) based in Washington, DC, sent in details of its statement: “The NPC statement, released here on Tuesday, identifies the Indian government’s suppression of the Modi-critical documentary as part of a larger threat Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses to Indian democracy.

“India should be proud that it is the largest democracy in the world, but it cannot hold on to that identity if it continues to erode press freedom, persecute journalists, and suppress news that holds a mirror up to its shortcomings,” NPC president Eileen O’Reilly said. “Since Modi came to power, we have watched with frustration and disappointment as his government — time and time again — have suppressed the right of its citizens to a free and independent news media.”

The NPC “strongly urge(s)” India to rescind the ban and allow Indians to “decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree with its findings,” she said.

“The BBC is one of the most respected news sources in the world and is known for its high editorial standards,” O’Reilly said. “We also demand in the strongest terms the government stop its persecution of journalists and suppression of press freedom in India.”

In the past two weeks, the Indian government has done everything in its power to prevent domestic and international audiences from grappling with overwhelming evidence of Modi’s complicity in the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002…The NPC’s stand against the Modi regime’s brutal censorship campaign joins a chorus of condemnations from global press and democratic freedom organisations, signalling growing international recognition of the grave threat Modi poses to Muslims, religious minorities, a free press, and democracy itself.


Clanger alert

Some days ago, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor protested the emasculation of South Indian names in a tweet, pointing out that Kerala and Tamil Nadu were misspelt as ‘Kerela’ and ‘Tamil Naidu’ on a MyGov Republic Day poll.  He tweeted: “All of us Dakshin Bharatvasis would be grateful if the Hindi Rashtravadis running MyGov.in could kindly take the trouble to learn the names of our states. Please!?”

I was reminded of this when I came across a line in the Wire piece, ‘Siddique Kappan Says Police ‘Tortured’ Him to Admit Links to Terrorist Groups’ which read: “He went on to say that he has been in Delhi since 2013 and has covered beats such as parliament, Congress and minorities for a Kerela-based Malayalam news portal.”

But it is not just Southern states that were mangled this time, it’s also time to correct the spelling of ‘Uttarakhand’, in the headline ‘Uttarkahand: Fact-Finding Team Alleges Cover Up in Police Probe of Ankita Bhandari Murder’. 

The desk, I am sure, will take care of these blips.


Death of the Mahatma

The special feature, ‘The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi’ (January 30), in The Wire to mark what was the 75th anniversary of post-independent India’s first and most fateful political murder, was striking in its creative use of the strengths and fluidity of the internet media. The sources drawn upon were wide ranging; the minimalist illustrations sharply poignant; the calendar of events, precise. Both the temporal and spatial dimensions of that historical juncture have been captured admirably. 

This, I believe, is an important template that could be used to map other cataclysmic developments – of the past, present and future.

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