It is about us

What a ritualised show of sexual humiliation says about our society

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:July 21, 2012 3:35 am

Heads are rolling and tossing in the wake of the live TV molestation case in Guwahati. SSP Apurba Jiban Barua’s life has ceased to be beautiful. Charged with insensitivity,he has been banished to Dibrugarh. Alka Lamba,the Congress member of the fact-finding committee sent to Assam by the National Commission for Women,has been dropped like a hot potato for outing the name of the victim — though it was already out in YouTube footage seen by at least one lakh people. And Atanu Bhuyan,editor-in-chief of the News Live channel that aired footage of the outrage,has resigned citing nebulous fears of political pressure.

Television struggled to make sense of an incident in which it is charged with complicity but the colossal collateral damage — some of it out of proportion — distracted attention from the main point. The incident became an opportunity for examining dereliction of duty. Why did the police reach the spot late? Because that’s the tradition! So many Bollywood classics would have flopped if Iftekhar’s jeeps got to the scene on time. Meanwhile,Amitabh Bachchan turned the heat on the media,asking how News Live,which had recorded the outrage for 20 minutes,had known in advance that it would occur,and why its reporters did not intervene.

The second question is as old as Nick Ut’s iconic shot of a terrified,naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack on her village. There will never be a clear answer because in such cases,intervention can mean several things. The first question swelled into the serious charge that a News Live reporter had instigated the attack. And RTI activist Akhil Gogoi leapt into the fray with uncut,raw footage,which he submitted to the authorities as proof of the channel’s complicity.

We don’t have access to this video,but there’s some intriguing footage on YouTube,which suggests that the media lost the plot. The voices,speaking mixed Hindi and Asomiya,suggest that this incident was not about the police,the media or government. It was about us. All of us,as a society.

The first audible words of the attackers,as they drag the girl away from unresponsive people in expensive-looking cars to whom she had appealed for help,bear an echo of the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore: “What have you drunk? Daaru piya hai?” Surprisingly,a political motive for the attack was not sought in the course of the investigations.

Then the attackers begin to perform. They tell the beaten girl to show her face to the camera. They stick the television mike in her face and ask her name and which class she is in. She tells them. Why had she gone to a pub? For a friend’s birthday party,she replies. It is a ritualised show of sexual humiliation,explicitly played out for the camera.

NDTV’s Vishnu Som had wondered aloud why a mob would be willing to perform for a camera when the footage could nail them. I would rather ask if,in a society where visual media is pervasive,we are being seduced into becoming perverse performance artistes. The camera is an amoral eye that sees everything indifferently. It is we who are active agents,who make behavioural choices in relation to the camera. And what happened in Guwahati suggests that we are willingly turning our world into a sprawling,open-air Big Brother House,where 20 minutes of notoriety works better than 15 minutes of fame. The real facts of the mob attack in Guwahati may never be known,but it reveals the sickness of a media-rich society.

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