Rhea Chakraborty has finally been arrested. The question is why there was such a morbid fascination with it in the first place. Is this the first drug case in the country or the first arrest in a drug case in the country? According to the latest official figures, a total of 49,450 NDPS Act cases were registered in the country in which 60,156 persons (including foreigners) were arrested in 2018.
Was the arrest of Rhea so important that for nearly 85 days, in public discourse on TV, it took precedence over all the current and critical problems of the country? Perhaps, as a mark of gratitude for the ‘Rhea Warriors’, the nation might bang thalis and light diyas again.
Obviously, it was neither the death of an actor nor the role of his girlfriend that had set the country abuzz. Far more primeval and darker forces were at work. The frantic TV coverage and the studio-based speculative investigation into the death of Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) was not just a cause célèbre; it became a veritable danse macabre, which heartily satisfied the bloodlust of the people fired by the misogyny latent in their collective psyche.
The story sold for public consumption struck a chord deep in their hearts. Here was a wily seductress who manipulated and controlled the mind of a simple, innocent man through black magic, hypnotic drugs etc., siphoned off his money and eventually got him killed. She was called names like gold digger, sex bait, vishkanya and dayan.
Nobody, of course, bothered to ask how could a well-built, 34-year old engineer allow himself to be administered just about anything without asking any question even once? We have seen these events happening in a most ridiculous TV serial called Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, but never in real life.
Rhea’s vilification a reflection of inherent misogyny
The Indian socio-religio-cultural tradition has had a very strong element of misogyny since ancient times. Adi Shankaracharya, for example, in his Prashnottari, described woman as the main gateway to hell and as a poison masquerading as nectar. In his Bhaj Govindam, he urges man not to get enamoured of a woman’s body, making a special mention of her breasts and navel!
There are innumerable references in both secular and religious literature, which portray women as a temptation that would bring down a man from the high spiritual pedestal that he could otherwise achieve.
We have all heard stories of the apsaras (nymphs) seducing sages performing tapasya (severe penance) and rendering it waste. The net effect of all such beliefs was that it reduced the status of women in the first place and second, produced complexes in the minds of the men. If women were mohini (seductress) concerning themselves with nothing but carnal pleasures, it meant that their own mothers too must have done the same thing to their fathers. How could the men respect their mothers then, not to speak of respecting other women?
The vilification of Rhea in the media is the result of a belief that women are manipulative and they are out on corrupting the morals of the men and exploiting them. In the current context, it translates as the narrative of bhola ladka-chaloo ladki (simple boy, manipulative girl).
Rhea has not even been charged yet, not to speak of conviction. However, the way the channels have humiliated her all these days, proves that the public disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharat was not an aberration. Duryodhan and Dushasan still live on, albeit in TV studios now.
The outrage would not have been so severe and the perverse TV coverage not so vengeful and so maleficent had it been the suicide of a girl under similar circumstances. They would have still described her as degenerate and given a clean chit to the boy.
The coverage did not stop at just the investigation-related matters. They laced it liberally with her intimate photos and videos that sought to titillate the viewers in a ‘virtual mass molestation’.
More importantly, it was the imagery of a ‘happy girl’, which made the viewers ‘jealous’ of her because deep down in their hearts, male chauvinists yearn for a submissive, dependent or ‘bechari’ woman, who is supposed to become happy only on cue by her man. A woman living on her own terms is regarded as a threat to the established order. It never occurred to them that under the Indian law, there is no provision which mandates that a couple in a live-in relationship must divide their expenses according to some prescribed formula.
A veritable witch trial that it was
To call her ordeal a media trial would be euphemistic. In fact, when the media started gloating over her alleged confessional statements made before the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), it reminded one forcefully of the “witch trials” of medieval Europe. At that time also, using the unscrupulous techniques like witches’ mark, and pricking (described in contemporary books like Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and that of Matthew Hopkins) almost all the accused used to confess their guilt before their inquisitors. The channels and their viewers did not bother to note that, under Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act, a confession made before the police is not admissible in evidence. Hence, what Rhea confessed before the NCB is of no consequence; what she says in the court matters.
Rhea’s acquittal or conviction will not change the ground reality
A man died apparently by hanging, suggestive of suicide. The autopsy report accessed by the media denies any kind of foul play. The viscera report is also clear. That frustrated those millions of lovers of conspiracy theories, who alleged that the autopsy was purposefully fudged. What they do not know is that the body has been cremated and a second post mortem is not possible. Now, hypothetically, even if it were to be proved that the doctors who conducted the post mortem examination did not write the truth, they may be dismissed or jailed for that; but the court is bound to go by the post mortem report on record. That effectively busts the conspiracy theories of abetment to suicide or murder. Then, contrary to the allegations, the Enforcement Directorate could not find any “substantial direct transfers” from SSR’s bank accounts to those of Rhea or her relatives.
These could perhaps be the reasons to unleash the NCB on such an insignificant case not commensurate with its mandate. There is little point speculating about the outcome of the trial in the drug case when even the chargesheet has not been laid yet. We should, however, not forget that the great excitement in the TV studios over arrests notwithstanding, the quality of investigation in this country has generally been so poor and their intent so ‘impure’ that even death convicts have been acquitted by the Supreme Court (for example, in the high-profile Akshardham attack case).
If by any chance, the NCB secures a conviction, it would automatically prove SSR also to have been a drug user, procurer and financier. That would take the wind out of sails of the ‘Justice for Sushant’ campaign. Perhaps, the people would still like to believe that the girl had driven the raja beta (ideal son) into drugs, even as the Bollywood film industry could be infested with thousands of drug users.
Illegalities committed in the channels’ hounding of Rhea
Several patent illegalities were committed in the hounding of Rhea by the TV channels. Had they violated only the code of journalism, the Press Council of India guidelines or ethical norms, it could have perhaps been tolerated as a sign of the ugly times we live in and the arrogance that has accrued to these channels on account of their closeness to the powers that be. The Supreme Court has, on three occasions in August 2014, February 2017, and September 2018, repeatedly said that there should be no media briefings by the agencies about on-going investigations. It has also pointed out that the reputation of the arrested persons is smeared forever if they are shown on electronic media. The Kerala high court reiterated it in August 2020. Both the channels and the investigating agencies violated the orders brazenly.
In fact, agencies appear to have pre-conceived notions about Rhea’s culpability and they are going through the motions just for completing the formalities. This contravenes the orders of the Supreme Court in the cases of Jamuna Chaudhary (1974), Mohd. Imran Khan (2010) and Babubhai (2010). The purpose of an investigation is to arrive at the ‘unvarnished truth’ and not just laying the chargesheet.
Moreover, many would have noticed how social distancing norms were violated as the reporters mobbed her and jostled around her. Who would be responsible if she was infected with COVID-19 because of that?
In the end, the episode is foreboding for Indian society
The way Rhea was relentlessly hounded by the channels was nothing but sadistic and voyeuristic. While channels hawking depravity in the name of news and their hysterical anchors could have been driven partly by their hidden political agenda and, of course, the race for TRP, the real culprit is the viewers who got their baser instincts pandered to by these channels. Psychologically, it was the same perverse lust, which, once upon a time, drove people in large numbers to watch public hangings/executions as if they were amusements.
Rhea is just an individual, it will not make any difference to the society whether she is acquitted or convicted. However, the rapaciousness with which the Indian public was seen lapping up every juicy titbit of her ordeal to the extent of making them the most important issue of discussion in the country, even as the nation was staring in the face of a pandemic and external aggression, is a sign of a fatal weakness in the national character. The sordid saga did not expose Rhea as much as it exposed the perversity and misogyny inherent in Indian society.
N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Views are personal. He tweets @NcAsthana.