The crime that altered India

In the wake of a brutal rape, a flawed media led a national self-examination

In Delhi, according to the police, a woman is raped every 18 hours, on average. So it is worth wondering why the gang rape and murder of one 23-year old woman there is still resonating nearly three months after it happened.

It is also worth considering the role of India’s media in the aftermath of the brutal December 16 event, and the national self-examination it put in motion. The country’s flawed and burgeoning press not only reflected the public mood but set it, and may have helped change the discourse about gender in India.

It started with a small group of protestors in the heart of Delhi, who had read initial news reports. The Hindu, for example, began its December 17 story this way:

Brutally gang-raped by four persons in a moving bus in south Delhi on Sunday night, a 23-year-old woman is now battling for life at the Safdarjung Hospital here. The girl’s male friend was also assaulted, stripped and then thrown off the bus along with her near the Mahipalpur flyover in south-west Delhi.

TV news programs took the cue from the protestors and cranked up the volume. The victim had been sexually assaulted with an iron rod, and the female anchor on NDTV the following day led into a special focus on rape with this: “Words really are inadequate to describe the depravity, the brutality” of the crime. Angry protestors in central Delhi were soon tear-gassed by police, and that, too, was covered.

Soon the numbers swelled to thousands, egged on by outrage and television cameras in the biting winter of Delhi. TV news anchors skewered politicians on prime time. The young and the restless of India’s cities railed on the Internet, and used Twitter and Facebook to organize more protests. Formidable journalists and writers, many of them women, lashed out at India’s “culture of misogyny” in the pages of newspapers and magazines. In an essay for Outlook magazine, headlined “Breaking the Indian Penile Code,” Meena Kandasamy framed the problem this way: “The endless discourses of the elite point fingers everywhere: except at the real cause, which is the cultural sanction of rape in India.”

Largely due to such pressure, things moved quickly: The perpetrators were quickly arrested by a normally inept police force and the judicial proceedings moved to a fast-track court—this in a country where the conviction rate in rape cases is abysmally low. A high-powered commission suggested radical reforms for gender justice. The government approved the death penalty for rapists. And late last month, a headline from India’s annual budget was the establishment of a $200 million fund for programs for the safety of women—a tribute to the Delhi rape victim and called Nirbhaya, or “Fearless.” On March 11, the young man alleged to have been the leader of the pack that raped her was found hanging in his prison cell, from a noose made of bedclothes. The police said it was suicide, though his lawyer and relatives disagree.

It was part journalism, part activism, and it had the nation riveted. The foreign
media got into the act too, making the rape on a Delhi bus the one Indian story the world will remember from 2012.

In India, the media talks about sexual matters in hushed tones, reflecting a people caught between binding taboos and a fast economic adventure that is knocking impatiently at the door of orthodoxy. A young, tech-savvy generation (India’s median age is 25) is pushing to control the discourse—against an entrenched older group, essentially their parents’ generation.

Driven by a growing service sector, India’s urban growth has opened up economic opportunities for women, long treated as second-class citizens in an agricultural society. The struggle between villages and cities, between the old and the new India, and between old and new conventions in the Indian media—all were on full display in the coverage of the Delhi rape.

Quaint euphemisms abound in print, like “outraging the modesty of a woman,” for sexual assault, or “eve-teasing,” for sexual harassment. Indian society and media often focus on the “shame” of the rape victim, rather than on the crime. As Heather Timmons, editor of the India Ink blog in the global edition of The New York Times, pointed out, regular drawn illustrations for rape stories “almost inevitably” depict a “shamed woman. Sometimes, this woman also happens to be somewhat scantily clad.”
Indian law prevents the press from naming a rape victim, to “protect her reputation.”

This time though, the tone was different. A sense of identification with the Delhi victim triggered an urban rage that cut through prudishness and the reflexive urge to blame the victim. Nilanjana Roy, a well known journalist and literary critic, combined incisive commentary with on-the-ground reporting and palpable emotion, making her blog one of the best reads on the subject. “That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us,” she wrote “The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.”

The outrage was exacerbated by a fumbling political class, which kept quiet as
the protests swelled and then was out of sync with the public when it finally spoke. And the media hit the politicians hard. Indian TV’s fiercest interviewer, Arnab Goswami of the Times Now channel, often described as India’s answer to Fox News, tore into a Member of Parliament—Abhijit Mukherjee, who also happens to be the son of the country’s president—for his rather curious remark that the protestors were “dented, painted” women. “The matter will not end there,” Goswami said, after Mukerjee’s mumbled and apologetic response to his question of what “dented and painted” means. “The words are in the public domain. You will have to explain what you meant by dented and painted women.”

Over time, the media began to question the lack of gender equality in all spheres, from religion to the business culture, from the police to Bollywood, from archaic laws to archaic social structures. To some extent, journalists even examined their own consciences. “In the newsroom we discussed with our editors how women are always judged for their looks at the workplace,” says Ruchica Tomar, a TV anchor with Headlines Today, who also reported on the story for the BBC. “It wasn’t just about rape, but the deep-seated misogyny that encourages it.”

As a journalism student nearly a decade back, Tomar said she spent many of her evenings in the South Delhi shopping arcade where the victim had gone just before she boarded the bus where she would be raped. Inside that bus, she was raped and fatally injured—by six men who used iron bars to assault her and to beat her male companion. Like her, Tomar was an immigrant to Delhi from small-town India, a member of the first generation of women in her family to have left the safety of their hometown to make it on their own.

The incident was a slap in the face of the new Indian dream.

But in some ways the victim was not like Ms. Tomar. She was not part of the South Delhi middle class. Her father was an airport baggage handler earning $200 a month, about as much a south Delhi household would pay their chauffeur, struggling to put his daughter through school, where she was training to be a physiotherapist. The family was part of what Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, calls the virtual middle class, a section of low-income Indians who are connected to middle class dreams through cheap communication technologies like mobile phones, television, Internet and news sources.

It is this reality that is at least temporarily pushing the class- and revenue-driven Indian media to reach beyond its bubble in covering this story—beyond its traditional opinion-shaping audience of the relatively rich urban middle class.

Heady with India’s growth story, this class often tends to ignore—or even detest—media reports that point out the large-scale inequality, deprivation, and lawlessness that still pervade much of India. The typical urban media consumer does not want to read much about India’s villages, where three-fourths of all reported rapes happen; it does not want to read about the Indian army’s alleged crimes against women in Kashmir or Maoist areas; it does not want to hear about rapes of Dalits, the most marginalized people in India’s caste hierarchy.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, pointed to this class bias in a powerful essay, “The Glories and Blemishes of the Indian News Media,” published by The Hindu in January 2012. As Sen wrote:

Since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes, but also the bulk of the country’s intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement gets, directly or indirectly, much aired—making an alleged reality out of what is at best a very partial story.

What also holds back the Indian media from strong investigative or explanatory journalism, from tackling pressing issues like corruption, is the excessive profit-mindedness of the owners and the influence of their corporate advertisers. A December 2012 report by Caravan magazine detailed the profits-first, journalism-second thinking inside The Times of India, the world’s largest-selling newspaper. “The job of the newspaper is to deliver the reader to the advertiser,” a corporate manager is quoted as saying.

India’s newspaper industry is one of the most profitable in the world, in a country with improving literacy rates and low Internet penetration, at least so far. Between 2005 and 2009 for example, there was a 44 percent increase in the number of daily newspapers, to
2,700. The total number of newspapers, meanwhile, increased by 23 percent—to more than 74,000. In terms of readership, India overtook China in 2008 as the world’s largest newspaper market. Though hit by recession, major Indian publications are still adding anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 readers every quarter.

This won’t last forever. While Internet penetration currently stands at just above 10 percent of the population, a recent McKinsey analysis predicts that this number will nearly triple, with 350 million Indians having Internet access by 2015, driven largely by Web-enabled mobile phones. Analysts say the industry is in for a bit of a shock in the next few years, unless it also learns to master the Internet.

An unfortunate victim of the industry’s deep thirst for profit, meanwhile, has been the quality of its journalism. Just about every part of the newspaper up for sale, in a cutthroat competition to maximize ad revenues and reduce selling price in order to gain more readers. Since India’s largest corporations either own the press or are its largest advertisers, most big publications shy away from stories on crony capitalism. The press stands accused of trivializing news—churning out sponsored Bollywood and society gossip columns while ignoring issues of development and outsourcing the job of exposing corruption to social activists.

So it was bracing to see the media coalesce around an issue of great
public importance for once, asking uncomfortable questions and unearthing moving details of the Delhi rape and its aftermath, and exploring the reasons behind the nation’s high rate of sexual assualt—an effort that has kept the issue alive in the public consciousness.

Has Indian journalism taken a new turn after this story? Perhaps not. Not until media executives are convinced that serious news can be good business in the long run.

Still, something feels changed in the wake of this crime and its coverage. One detail: the victim’s name has been published. It was released by her father, Badri Singh, who told reporters that she had wanted to become a doctor, that the family’s life had revolved around her, and that “we want the world to know her real name.” She died of a heart attack under medical care on December 29. She was 23. Her name was Jyoti Singh.

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Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow with Swaniti Initiative based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @some_buddha Tags: , ,