The murder and dismemberment of 26-year-old Shraddha Walkar is yet another monstrous crime perpetrated against women that Delhi has had to witness in recent times.
Much like the gang rape and eventual death of Jyoti Singh (‘Nirbhaya’) a decade ago, it has – since the latest story broke on November 12 – quickly assumed the proportions of a media spectacle. A livestreaming, if you will, of every little shard drawn from police sources, friends and family members, as well as reporters on the ground.
On television, the case is eternally unspooling, cycle by repetitious cycle. This continuous reiteration of known information (sometimes with edits: 35 pieces, no, 16), does in no way dissuade the binge watchers who are lured into the narrative through successive “breaking news” invitations that use adjective-heavy kickers – “More gory details emerge”; “Blood-curdling revelations”; “Spine-chilling details” – to keep the story going.
The Nirbhaya coverage saw a new level of graphic detail being made public in terms of the mutilation done to the female body. We had, at that juncture, shuddered to read and hear those details of entrails and rod which would earlier have been edited out, keeping human sensitivities in mind.
But, as I had observed in a book that I written on the mediatisation of India, “competition between peers fuelled a tidal wave of information that washed away such compliances…The explicit reportage on the condition of the woman’s body based on eye-witness accounts also contributed towards the creation of an atavistic desire for retribution that marked the crowd response”.
Today, that dam has long since broken. In the Shraddha Walkar murder, every detail, including the minutiae of the ways in which the killer disposed of the body, is offered up without a thought.
There are crucial reasons why editorial reticence on publishing violent or graphic material is advised. It leads to a coarsening of the public discourse; an undermining of people’s capacity to be empathetic; a normalisation of criminal pathologies. The potential impact on the impressionable minds of children is also enormous. Resulting anxieties and traumas are rarely registered, even though they have a long afterlife with potentially severely damaging consequences for society, including the encouragement of psychopathic behaviour and copycat attacks.
(I am happy to report that the editors of The Wire had weighed in on the subject long before the present case and have tried to set a norm for themselves. For instance, when it comes to publishing violent or graphic images of death, The Wire’s standard is to refrain from publishing them. If a red-flagged image is imperative to a story, then the editors discuss the best way to handle it – through trigger warnings, and the like.)
The most ominous aspect of the Shraddha Walkar news story was the manner it was framed as a ‘love jihad’, right from the point when the story broke on Saturday, November 12, and the name of the killer was revealed as ‘Aftab Poonawala’. This fed into the familiar, pre-fabricated template, assiduously created and replicated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindutva right wing; of Muslim men as sexual predators intent upon capturing Hindu women for purposes of conversion.
Initially, doubts were raised on whether the man was indeed a Muslim since ‘Poonawala’ is a common Parsi name as well. But soon, Hindutva trolls and media outfits were quoting Walkar’s father to confirm his Muslim identity and many outlets took to adding his father’s name, ‘Amin’, to his own, as clinching evidence.
Although the nature of this relationship, judging from the few details floating around which include the killer’s social media posts, does not conform to the ‘love jihad’ angle, attempts were constantly made to bring in that element. One of the questions put to Rajat Shukla, a “friend of Shraddha”, was whether Aftab was religious. He couldn’t answer it, but was happy to go along with the ‘love jihad’ angle.
Hindutva proselytisers like Kapil Mishra, with his humongous 1.3 million followers on Twitter, were among the first off the block. This is a rough translation of the tweet in Hindi he put out: “Bollywood, media, ads that promote false constructs like brotherhood, politics that is soaked in the blood of daughters, rich and upper middle classes drinking the poison of fake secularism, the sold police and the jihadi education model. Don’t blame daughters for murders like Shraddha.”
This egged Tapan Das to immediately tweet (rough translation): “The biggest weakness is that we have not been able to keep our sisters and daughters within our grasp. They are left free to do what they want. If parents and brothers keep an eye on each and every sister’s/daughter’s movements, then I do not think anyone else will fall in love so soon. They will be caught in the net.”
The torrent of communal rage online quickly turned on the victim. Hindutva influencer Shefali Vaidya, with her 668,000 followers, kept tweeting and taunting the dead Shraddha for defying her father. Before long, the number of ‘followers’ on Shraddha’s Instagram page had risen from 120 to 5,117, with many posts blaming her for her fate.
The linear narrative put out by one meme – follow the path of dharma and you will be carried on a palanquin like a princess; follow the path of adharma and you will end up in a suitcase – was the general line.
Soon, television channels began to interview women who had married outside their Hindu faith and suffered tragically as a consequence. Important to note here is that there were no attempts to dwell on the life story of an Abhijeet Patidar who slit the throat of his partner Shilpa at a Jabalpur resort and videographed her as she gasped for life, just as the Shraddha Walkar story broke; nor was “one Rahul” who strangled his girlfriend, Gulshana, to death on November 17 in an area not far from where the Aftab Poonawala atrocity had played out, of much interest. Since the names of the men involved did not fit the master narrative, it was far more productive for the media to chase the story of Nidhi Gupta, allegedly pushed out from the fourth floor by her lover, a certain Sufiyan, in Lucknow.
This was not media coverage driven to ensure the safety and security of women; in fact it undermines any effort to do so. As a perceptive observation in an article in The Wire noted: “By falsely framing the problem as one of ‘Muslim violence against Hindu women’, their propaganda prevents people from recognising and addressing the real problem that Shraddha’s murder points to: rampant intimate partner violence faced by women in India and the world over.”
What is significant about this moment is that it shines a light on how ‘love jihad’, once just a trial balloon floated in the early years of the Modi primeministership, has now become an immutable concept, reinforced by both law and media coverage. It is a powerful tool for the Hindutva project in a country where ministers promise new laws to “save Hindu girls”, and Supreme Court judges direct the government to do something about “deceitful religious conversions”.
The tragedy of Shraddha Walkar, who fell in love with a monster who happened to be a Muslim, and paid for it with her life; which should have led to a renewed examination of ways to strengthen women’s agency and confront endemic sexual violence, has instead become a cautionary tale to all Hindu women in the country to shed their capacities for free thought and action; submit completely to the patriarchal control of the family and its traditions.
The irony, of course, is that some of the worst forms of sexual violence against Indian women today take place within the fold of the family.
End police impunity during search and seizure actions
Seizing the electronic devices of a media establishment and of those working there is a bit like a steel industry being deprived of its motors and conveyor belts – machinery essential to its functioning. The Delhi police’s move to seize the devices belonging to senior personnel of The Wire, as well as from its office, is rife with multiple violations, beginning with the failure to provide the hash value of the devices seized and ensuring that a cloned copy of the material was given at the time of seizure.
Days after that unacceptable raid conducted on October 31, the devices have still not been returned. Meanwhile the Union government, under whose jurisdiction the Delhi police functions, has failed to come up with counter-petition to the one that a group of academics had filed, much before The Wire’s case, seeking guidelines for search and seizure of electronic devices by investigative agencies. The Supreme Court has now fined the government Rs 25,000 for this failure.
The lawless nature of this entire operation against The Wire was driven home by no less than a former Supreme Court Justice, B.N. Srikrishna, in an interview given to the socially and politically engaged portal, Article 14 , and republished in The Wire.
“Police must be able to demonstrate the need to gather the data without consent. Simply saying the purpose is a criminal investigation is not adequate, in my opinion,” Justice Srikrishna observed. Meanwhile, according to a Live Law report, a Delhi Court has ruled that the police have no right to seek the password of the electronic device of an accused without his or her consent as it violates Article 20(3) of the Constitution and Section 161 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Many political prisoners in India today find themselves in jail under repressive laws like UAPA through precisely such illegal seizures of devices. Every citizen should understand their rights in this regard.
That the political establishment’s knives are out for The Wire is clear from the recent statements of Union minister of information and broadcasting, Anurag Thakur. In a public speech, he termed its reportage (implicitly all its reportage) false and malicious and targeting the government.
According to a Hindustan Times report, he went on to observe that such reportage was being done “with no regard as to what it does to India’s image and prestige.” I&B ministers have a long legacy of media bashing – V.C. Shukla’s attempts to crush the press during the emergency of the 1970s are now legendary.
Minister Thakur should have desisted from making such remarks on National Press Day of all days! Incidentally, even though he did not name this news portal, the Hindustan Times read his mind clearly enough to headline its report: ”Malicious, targeted’: I&B minister hits out after Wire’s false reports’.
When they were asked to bend, they crawled…
Readers write back…
AfriForum in perspective
Ernst J. van Zyl, a campaign officer at the South African civil rights orgnisation, AfriForum, responds to The Wire piece, ‘In South Africa, the Rise to Prominence of an Interest Group Tells a Familiar Tale‘.
“This piece gives a detailed overview of many of the things AfriForum does, but also contains some inaccuracies. In the piece AfriForum is referred to as an “Afrikaner-nationalist” organisation. This is not accurate. The majority of AfriForum’s 30,900 members are Afrikaners and we often fight to preserve Afrikaner culture and the Afrikaans language, but we do not do this because we believe our culture to be superior to all other cultures in South Africa. We also make sure our actions don’t disadvantage any other cultural group in South Africa. We actively work with other cultural groups to protect their rights against the government. (See, for example).
“Secondly the piece falsely claims that, “AfriForum was instrumental in the resurgence of the Afrikaaner-nationalist Vryheidsfront Plus (VF+) in the 2019 election” and that there is a “close association [between the VF+] and AfriForum”. In fact, AfriForum has no formal association with the VF+ political party. The VF+ has similar stances to AfriForum on some issues, but the party and AfriForum are not connected or affiliated.
“Further, the article makes a very serious, false claim: ‘The narrative of a white genocide and white farm murders is leaned into heavily by AfriForum’. AfriForum does not claim that there is a ‘white genocide’ going on in South Africa. See the Press Ombud ruling in AfriForum versus Mail & Guardian, where it was found that AfriForum does not claim there is a white genocide in South Africa and the Mail and Guardian were directed to publish an apology (one of many such retractions of this false claim).
“Lastly, just for further overarching context, AfriForum has taken a hard public stance against white nationalism, as can be read here.
Paharis also have aspirations for social justice
Ahjaz Karamat Mohd writes in:
“This is with reference to the article titled ‘BJP and the Politics of the Inclusion of J&K’s Paharis in the Scheduled Tribes List’ (October 9). As a member of the Pahari community I found it unfortunate to see the aspirations for social justice and welfare of my community being regarded as a mere tool for a political party to make electoral gains.”
“The author who is clearly not well informed about the socio-economic factors of the Pahari community and has not only conveniently ignored any references to the claims made, but has failed to get a comment from a member of the Pahari community. The three people whose comments are carried are all prominent Gujjars.”
“The author refers to the Paharis as ‘socially and economically well off’ and the Gujjars and Bakarwals as ‘poorest of the poor’. The words chosen to describe the two communities are rife with biases that the author should have declared at the outset.”
“It is personally disheartening to learn that members of my community, who have faced the wrath of perpetual conflicts, immobility of a hostile border, harsh weather, absence of connectivity, lack of political representation and infertile mountainous soil, have been referred to as ‘Socially stratified, economically well-off and culturally moored with caste and other ethnic divisions’. The author has again demonstrated his misinformation when he referred to both Gujjar and Bakarwals as nomads and Paharis as not. Both travel according to the changing climate but their patterns of travel are very different. The Bakarwals travel to the plains of north India with sheep and goats around the foothills of Himalayas in winters; the Gujjars and the Paharis travel to the mergs (meadows of Pir Panjal) with their buffaloes in summers.”
“The author claims that support from Pakistan occupied Kashmir has strengthened the Paharis in Jammu Kashmir. I am exasperated that he could sneak this sentence into the article without being questioned.”
“It is unfortunate that the Wire is being made into a platform to spread lies about a community. The struggles of Pahari community for reservation are as old as those waged by the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities. While it is true that this is being used by political parties today to make electoral gains, that does not negate the fact that a community that has lived in the most difficult region of the country and has been neglected over decades should not get the social justice it deserves.”
The fire in Male
Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson, and Dr. P. Saravanamuttu, bureau member of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, write:
“SAHR expresses concern over the loss of life of migrant workers in a fire in Male, Maldives, on 10 November 2022. One Bangladeshi and nine Indian migrant workers are reported to have perished in the fire that destroyed their cramped lodgings.”
“Migrant labour has been crucial for the development of the Maldives. SAHR learns that one-third of the Maldivian population is made up of migrant workers mostly from South Asian nations. National, regional and international human rights groups have continued to express concern over the numerous discriminations they face, such as negligence of undocumented migrant workers, irregular payment contracts, hazardous working environment and unhygienic living conditions.”
“It also condoles with the families of the workers who perished and urges the Government of the Maldives to provide redress and compensation so that they could rebuild their lives. SAHR also calls on the government to institute better migrant labour governance policies and regulations based on the international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families, as well as follow relevant ILO standards.”
The Wire and Meta
“I am sorry, the way my tweets have been aggregated in the Readers Write Back section of ‘Backstory: Only Good Journalism Will Steer ‘The Wire’ Out of the Meta Thicket’ (November 5) quite changes their context, and thus their meaning.
“The direct response to your last column was only this:
This needed to squarely be about the lapses in the editorial process as have been well flagged by @pranesh and @PySamarth.
The manifest complicity of Meta with BJP, schadenfreude, bad-faith right wing trolling and glee, and much else besides, could be written about separately. https://t.co/6doR2Eo69q
— Sundeep Dougal (@SundeepDougal) October 22, 2022
Support for The Wire
Kannan Srinivasan (on Facebook):
“The Wire.in was tricked by a crook. The error was detected and the publication apologised. Error is inevitable; so it is risible to see the architects of pogrom, demonetisation, pandemic holocaust and monumental corruption preach sermons on good journalism.”
“Yet over its very short existence, The Wire has published so much that has shaped our knowledge of India that we should in general commend it.”
Anu Arunima (on Facebook):
“I guess the takeaway is that any ‘expose’ involving your ideological opponents will need to be fact checked beyond all doubt.”
“I am confident The Wire will carry on with good journalism.
“Mistakes do happen, if one is working for change or resistance or in public interest. Carry on with you resistance, don’t be cowed down.”
Romi Mahajan from Bellevue, Washington state, USA:
“I continue to enjoy The Wire and find its stories, reportage, articles, and analyses very useful. The Meta issue to me is a non-issue. Perhaps a mistake, sure, but what was reported is VERY much in the character of Meta and its executives. What I find most disturbing is the sudden defence of Meta being mounted by Indians, whose agenda is really to besmirch The Wire.”
“Keep up the good work. Darkness cannot last forever.”
And, finally, a very warming mail from Leo Levy, Brussels, Belgium:
“I have been deeply touched by what happened to all of you, not only to The Wire as a media enterprise but to all of you as human beings, as a group and as individuals. When the storm blows over, or even before that when the moment is right, ask someone to interview Sidharth Bhatia or Karan Thapar or any other sensible journalist or anyone in the staff, not about the facts and their meanings, but about how it feels when this kind of thing happens; what becomes important; how to keep up. It could be useful to remind ourselves that we are all human beings. And that even in dark times, we must go on, and be prepared to respond with courage to the dark times that lie ahead. This is also part of the mission of a media like yours.”
“We are all (I identify myself with India, where I felt home every time I went there) in an ideological war, but ideology is not only abstract, it is also very concrete. From the bottom of my heart with you…”
Thank you to our readers for their mail. My next column will appear on December 10, 2022.
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