Backstory: The Hathras Gangrape and Four Media Challenges 

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The coverage of the Boolagarhi gangrape yielded glimpses of what reporters could achieve if given the space and support to do stories untethered by a controlling newsroom. To say this at a time when we float in an amniotic sac of fake news and when cases of powerful television companies taking recourse to fake TRPs have surfaced, may sound rather odd.

But sometimes, unexpectedly, the possibilities of independent journalism surface – as it did in a remarkable verbatim conversation that Tanushree Pandey of India Today conducted with a policeman shortly after a hurried cremation had taken place in Boolagarhi village, a village in UP’s Hathras district (‘In UP, Maintaining ‘Law and Order’ Also Means a Secret, Rushed Cremation of Dalit Rape Victim’, October 1).

Because dead women tell inconvenient tales, the body of the 19-year-old Dalit woman, who had been gangraped by four upper-caste men, was secreted away by UP chief minister Adityanath’s police under the cover of darkness and set alight like backyard refuse. How this reporter had smuggled her way into this crime scene is not clear. But in the darkness of that pre-dawn hour, there was a reporter demanding information from a policeman, a certain Sanjiv Kumar Sharma of the Crime Branch. She asks him repeatedly, “Sir, just tell us what is burning. Did you not just say that this is not the body. If it is not the body, then what is it that is burning. Just say this much…”

Family members and relatives mourn the death of a 19-year-old woman, who was gang-raped two weeks ago, in Hathras district, Tuesday, September 29, 2020. The Dalit teen died at a hospital in Delhi on Tuesday morning. Photo: PTI

The entire might of the state will strive to suppress work of professionals like this, but their eye-witnessing cannot be swallowed up by the murky night sky. It will emerge to tell the truth in the clear light of day, providing the material that will enable constitutional bodies to function according to their mandate. It will allow, for instance, the Allahabad high court to take suo moto cognisance of the gangrape and unconscionable cremation. The court put on record its appreciation of the media: “The newspaper reports and the electronic media programme/video clippings show that the family members kept demanding for the body and also informed the authorities that as per traditions followed by them, cremation cannot take place after sunset and before day break, yet, the District Authorities got the cremation performed, contrary to the traditions which the family followed…The incidents which took place after the death of the victim on 29.09.2020 leading up to her cremation, as alleged, have shocked our conscience, therefore, we are taking suo moto cognizance of the same” (‘Allahabad HC Takes Cognisance of Hathras Case, Strongly Criticises Police Actions’, October 2).

Given the crucial role that the media are required to play in situations of this kind, let me flag four challenges in the coverage of the Boolagarhi gangrape.

Challenge One: State repression and control of information

“In Adityanath’s state, a car can be overturned any time.”

This statement in response to the Hathras events by that master of the epigrammatic, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, references the cold-blooded killing of mafia don Vikas Dubey in July. But it also signals the party’s endorsement and admiration for the UP chief minister’s rough, tough and ugly tactics.

During the Hathras developments, the media discovered how far the CM would go in using these tactics to thwart independent reportage. His toolkit included not just police brutality and blockage of access, it comprised locking up the bereaved family and filing draconian UAPA charges against a journalist who had no previous criminal record or incriminating evidence on him (‘Hathras Case: Malayalam Journalist and Three Others Booked Under Sedition, UAPA’, October 7). Every trick in the book was used; every wing of the government, weaponised (‘UP Creates Curfew-Like Conditions, Bans Protests Against Hathras Gang-Rape and Murder’, October 3) to intimidate and terrorise.

What is a new and disturbing is the way the private conversations of journalists were illegally surveilled and leaked to friendly media platforms which then spun it to favour the government stance (‘Fuelled by Leaked Evidence and Illegal Surveillance, Media Trials is the New Normal in India’, October 10).

Challenge Two: The manufacturing of a fabricated counter-narrative

The extent the Adityanath government was willing to go was also revealed by its hiring of a professional public relations firm, Concept PR, to counter media coverage. The conclusion of the UP police, after a wrong reading of the forensic report, that no rape had taken place, was immediately and widely disseminated by Concept PR, followed by the BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya circulating a video of a conversation with the victim, edited to make it appear that she had said that she had been strangulated.

Apart from the fakeness of this clip, it was a clear violation of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits the identity of the subject being made public. Meanwhile, BJP functionaries were hard at work, spreading this false information across the country, with a BJP Mahila Morcha functionary even tweeting that the sexual assault was “only a fiction of Lutyen media’s imagination.”

All it needed was just one substantive story, like the one The Wire carried, ‘Exclusive: Aligarh Hospital MLC Report on Hathras Victim Shatters UP Police’s ‘No Rape’ Claim’ (October 3), to be take apart this tissue of lies.  Similar attempts were made to spin the cremation story, with the false claim made that relatives had presided over the cremation.

We have not seen the end of this vicious, multi-pronged, no-holds-barred strategy to build a counter narrative framing the whole incident as a family feud, a conspiracy against UP and an attempt to instigate caste riots. Journalists will now have to contend with the state’s insidious attempts to discredit their reportage and question their integrity through the use of widely circulated fake information.

Challenge three: Failure to understand the dynamics of caste and gender

Indian journalists are overwhelmingly from the upper castes, and their caste-blindness and Brahminical attitudes have been called out. Justice cannot be done in a story like Hathras unless these blind spots are acknowledged. Cursory information on the Valmikis, the caste to which the young woman belonged, is unhelpful in trying to understand how caste dynamics plays out in a Thakur-majority village like Boolagarhi. How do we understand, for instance, the Thakur network stretching from the chief minister to the lowliest havaldar, which allows upper caste mobilisation even as Dalit anger is suppressed? (‘The Valmikis of Hathras and India are Up Against Hindu Democracy’, October 7).

How do the media understand the intersectionality of gender and caste violence if they have no idea of brutal episodes like the Bhanwari Devi case or Khairlanji? The state machinery and justice system have miserably failed Dalit women, as Kiruba Munusamy, a Dalit woman  lawyer, has observed (‘Hathras Case: The Intersecting Factors Behind Structural Violence Against Dalit Women’, October 1). She should have brought in the media into her formulation.

Many of the concerns that India’s feminist movement has been highlighting have been overlooked in media coverage. One of them is understanding “consent”. The police who now claim that no rape took place know well the significance of the term “zabardasti” (used colloquially to suggest coercive sexual assault) that the woman used in her dying declaration, yet chose to ignore it.

As lawyer Vrinda Grover has observed, professional treatment elude Dalit women’s bodies.  Institutional complicity can only be understood against the backdrop of the caste system. It is also significant that the most important institutional mechanism the UP government has to address caste atrocities – the UP SC/ST Commission – has not had a chairperson for almost a year.

Challenge four: Gaps in media awareness of the law

The lack of legal awareness was a major stumbling block. Most journalists covering the case did not realize that the police and state administration, by delaying registration of the FIR, delaying the forensic examination, pressurising the family to change its statement and forcibly cremating the body, were committing serious illegalities (‘UP Police Officers Must Be Investigated for Attempting to Shield Hathras Accused’, October 3).

Police personnel stand guard near Boolagarhi village following outrage over death of the 19-year-old Dalit woman who was gangraped, in Hathras district, Saturday, October 3, 2020. Photo: PTI

There are also some basic legal principles which have a direct bearing on media coverage. For instance, “rape” is not a medical term; that according to medico-legal guidelines, the examining doctor should confine themselves to their examination findings and not venture into suggesting whether a rape occurred (‘Exclusive: Aligarh Hospital MLC Report on Hathras Victim Shatters UP Police’s ‘No Rape’ Claim’). It is for the prosecution to prove this. The police claim that rape did not occur because the report of the Aligarh hospital did not confirm rape was prevarication, which should have been called out immediately if the media had known this cardinal principle.

What some did call out – which was great – was the police attempt to pass off the fact that the forensic report found no sperm on the woman’s body as evidence that no rape was committed. Forensics conducted 11 days after the crime can hardly be expected to find such evidence, even if we overlook the point that under the amended criminal law, any sexual assault on a woman’s body is considered a rape and need not be limited to vaginal penetration and ejaculation.

There are other important legal aspects that proved to be blind spots in media coverage. Take, for instance, the admissibility of the dying declaration. As the piece, ‘Why the Dying Declaration of the Hathras Victim Is Legally Admissible Evidence’, (October 3), observes, “A dying declaration is an important piece of evidence which, if found veracious and voluntary by the court, could be the sole basis for conviction.” The media also failed to pay sufficient attention to whether the accused medically were medically examined and interrogated.

The events that played out in Boolagarhi village, Hathras, could lend themselves to a primer on covering crimes that have gender and caste dimensions. The state’s anxiety to clear the village of journalists came through clearly in the DM’s words to the family (‘Hathras District Magistrate Caught on Video Asking Victim’s Family to Soften Stance’, October 2): “Half of the media people have left today, the other half will leave by tomorrow. Only we will stand with you. It is up to you whether you want to change your statement or not.”

The media have indeed left. There is every likelihood that the Adityanath government’s narrative will prevail. What this really means is that even as the media move on to other assignments, they cannot allow the Hathras story to slip into oblivion.

Julian Assange needs our support

Many journalists go along with the arguments of the US and UK governments that Julian Assange is a criminal for having shared documents of state governments. But if they consider for a moment what he was able to accomplish through WikiLeaks, a website set up in 2006, they may come around to the view that in fact his work symbolised the best and most crucial aspects of journalism: courageously informing the public about issues that concern them deeply by exposing them to the crimes committed by governments they elected to power.

Assange’s extradition hearings in London in September saw widespread support for him from many witnesses who instead of exposing him pulled the rug off the many illegalities committed by the government of the US and UK in their long, hard fought effort to sentence him to what could be notionally a 175-year-long jail term. The verdict will be out only early next year. In the meanwhile Assange remains caged in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in south London – a situation that has taken a severe toll on his physical and mental health. History may extol him as a true hero, but what a personal price he has had to pay.

In a recent conversation with Jimmy Dore, political commentator and stand-up comedian, Noam Chomsky roundly berated the journalist community for their failure to speak out louder in support of Assange: “It’s not a great tribute to journalism to see them back away from supporting someone who has lived up to the highest ideals of the profession and is being savagely persecuted for doing so.”

The right way, HT!

The biggies of the media world tend to disdain cyber portals as news sources, although they are not averse to dipping into their content and passing off these lifts as their own hard work. So when there are due acknowledgements made, it is occasion to note and commend the honesty. The Hindustan Times, for instance, in its front page news report of October 8, ‘Protected witnesses exposed inadvertently by Delhi Police’, duly acknowledged the fact that The Wire was first with that piece of news (‘Exclusive: Delhi Police Blows Cover of Secret Riot ‘Witnesses’, Chargesheet Outs Identities’, October 7).

A shame called Hathras

Madan Mohan Shukla asks some basic questions in the wake of the Hathras gangrape:

“Are we living in civilised society?…The police deliberately delayed the investigations, delayed the lodging of the FIR, and was lax about ensuring that the victim received proper treatment.  They also consistently claimed that this was not a gangrape but mere personal enmity…

“As you saw in Vikas Dubey case, the police are being used as tools by the government to silence the opposition and those who oppose their atrocities. The burning example of the Kuldeep Sengar rape case is before us. Here, the police tortured the victim’s family for two years on the instructions of Sengar although the BJP MLA was himself the rape accused. The same things are happening with regard to Hathras, but most disturbing was the desperation of the UP government to cremate the body at 2.30 am, with the family being denied the right to do so according to their religious traditions. This is a clear violation of Article 25 of Indian Constitution. In 2017, during the campaign for the UP Vidhan Sabha elections, Prime Minister Modi in one speech roared like lion, condemning crimes against women and Dalits that occurred under the Akhilesh government’s watch. A slogan was also coined: ‘Bahut hua nari par var. Ab ki bar, Modi sarkar’. Today this government is breaking all records in crimes against women.”

The Democratic Research Scholars’ Organisation (DRSO) also condemned in the strongest terms the horrible gangrape and murder in Hathras:

“With pain and anguish we stood and witnessed another woman – from Hathras, UP – being brutally tortured and gang raped. While this happened on September 14, the sheer apathy and neglect of the police and other authorities for the subsequent two weeks led to her death in Safdarjang hospital on September 29. The brave 19-year-old fought the criminals to the last, identifying them even on her death bed. We then find the administration proactively burning and burying her lifeless body deep in the night, thrashing her family and the villagers. The brutality and horror of the incident reminded us of Nirbhaya, or Asifa, or more recently Priyanka, and so many other crimes against women and children. The conscience of society is shaken, and well-meaning people of all sections of society have again taken to the streets.

We wish to convey our solidarity to the protests against this crime and demand the speedy trial of the culprits.”


Tech, tech

A reader, Radhakant, has a rather alarming observation to make:

“I am experiencing some unusual behaviour in the YouTube app available on Jio Fibre set top box. When I open any news article from The Wire, I can only hear the audio and not able to see the video. The same is happening to other online new channels like Quint, BBC Hindi, Lallantop, and Dhruv Rathee. One common feature they share is that they don’t cover the news in the way the government would like. The response I got on this issue from their email service is restricted because of the reduced number of associates. Can someone from your team please check with the Jio team on this?”

Thank you, Radhakant, that is quite a tip-off, although we hope this is not the case. Incidentally, the piece, ‘India Will Not Be Able To Ignore the Threat of Tech and Data Oligopolies for Long’ (October 10) did some straight talking on the unregulated power that Reliance Jio is coming to acquire: “Many experts reckon that Reliance Jio is trying to emerge as a single gateway for the Indian consumer wallet that may want anything from daily grocery, to media to entertainment to sundry other services.”


A response to ‘Mahua Moitra, the 1st Time MP Taking India by Storm, Reveals the Woman Behind the Politician’ (September 25):

“The interviewer’s fascination with Mahua Moitra’s appearance, choice of clothing and culinary skills indicates that “despite claiming to represent an alternative media, the interviewer’s sexist and condescending remarks reflect the mainstream media’s orthodox gaze.”


M.S. Manu Shankar writes that he “genuinely wants to see The Wire influencing a greater number” and suggests that it uses posters – a device that is today widely shared and read on social media and doesn’t consume much time of the reader “unlike the elaborate and intellectually packed articles in The Wire.”

“My suggestion is if we can, kind of de-intellectualise our every day news content to fit into small little posters with The Wire icon on it, it will surely have greater visibility on wider social media platforms. People like me who like to defend the truth are largely unarmed on social media against the propaganda media – and The Wire posters will serve to equip people to defend the truth and win their hearts.”

Thank you. That is something to think about.


Examination woes

A mail from Madhav Prakash, Convener, Students Union Against Offline Exams:

“I am a third year law student. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we were promoted to the next semester on the basis of the previous semester performance. However, the Bar Council of India (BCI), which regulates legal education, has notified the conducting of an online examination for final year students with an alternative method of examination for those unable to take the online examination. In the same notification, the BCI has mandated the conduct of examinations for intermediate semester students. IP University has misconstrued it and now intends to hold offline examination for intermediate semester law students. This has triggered serious unrest among the law students throughout the country, given the COVID-19 pandemic. Our plea is that when the final year students have been given a clear choice for online/offline examinations, any insistence on offline examinations for intermediate semester law students is violative of their rights.”


Countering The Wire

Sima Mishra writes in:

“I am from Jharkhand, the same state where the Tabrez Ansari’s mob lynching took place. The Wire wrote articles about it. I am now waiting for you to carry articles on the murder in June of Rameshwar Murmu, a descendant of the great freedom fighter Shiddu Kannu. The alleged killer went by the name of Saddam Ansari. There have been many cases of Dalits dying in violence perpetrated by the Muslim community, but I don’t see a single article on these cases on your portal. Channels like Republic TV and Aaj Tak are termed ‘godi media’. What about biased publications like yours?”

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