In time, scholars will unbundle this particular moment as it played out in the shadow of the last phase of the Gujarat elections. Why did the gang rape of a 23 year old girl on a Delhi bus emerge as a tipping point? Was it because this incident of inexplicable brutality played out in the heart of the Capital of India to one of us, to one who could be us? Perhaps. Can we also say that somewhere that protective wall of apathy we had built as a society towards crimes against women was somehow breached by that event? May be. Does it mark the emergence of a new demographic among social protestors invested with energy, visibility, abilities – both technological and verbal -- of articulation? Possibly.
What we can with absolute confidence, however, is that without the media – and media here of course refers not just to the “old” brick and mortar media but the electric “new” media -- the unprecedented social maelstrom we have been living through following that heinous incident would not have happened.
We can say this because we know for a fact that innumerable attacks on women that are comparable to the December 16 incident in brutality and bestiality – whether in conflict, caste or communal situations – have not had the same impact on the collective consciousness of the country, precisely because the media were not there, had not been informed about them or had deliberately ignored them. If this incident too had been dismissed as three paragraph report in the city section, as an ‘add on’ on primetime television, chances are that it too could have gone the way of the others into that familiar chamber called national amnesia.
But today at a moment when institutional change is being demanded of every estate that makes up this republic; when what is being demanded is nothing less than a women’s bill of rights, some aspects about the media coverage demand attention.
Historically, if one were to go through the pages of the newspapers of yesteryear, crimes against women were routinely dealt with as news briefs no more than a few lines in length. They were framed more as cautionary notes, as warnings to women not to stray beyond safe zones, as policing attempts, rather than as evidence of a broken social contract, episodes where a woman’s right to life, free movement and bodily integrity were being violated. In the late seventies, the outrage that greeted the rape of a young tribal girl by two policemen in a police station – referred to as the Tukaram versus the State of Maharashtra – led to a degree of re-thinking. For the first time rape and dowry deaths, which were earlier piquantly dismissed as “stove deaths”, began to feature in newspapers (television as we know it did not exist) to a degree previously unthinkable. But despite this, the broad categorization of such crimes was that they were essentially “women’s issues” and needed to be placed in ghettoized sections of the publication.
The watertight compartmentalization of news into ‘hard news’ and ‘soft news’ was the ordained matrix. ‘Hard’ news was all about power and the ‘real issues’ – political developments, corporate affairs, defence matters, above all, as the nineties brought with it economic liberalization, the happy jingle of the cash registers. Journalistic reputations were built on the hard stuff. ‘Soft news’ was everything else.
There were major shifts in the treatment of news and analyses. “Soft news”, was now packaged into consumable sized bites. So if crimes against women’s bodies were considered “soft news”, so too were all the market-friendly newsy odds-and-ends that turned their bodies and body parts into vendibles and wares for readers and viewers.
What is intriguing about the coverage of the Delhi gang rape was that, for arguably the first time in India’s media history, that time-tested formula was turned on its head – ‘soft’ news became ‘hard’ news. The gang rape had brought the government and its gendarme, the police, to its knees. Everything else was pushed into the background – the Himachal verdict, the Gujarat verdict, the showcasing of Modi as future prime minister, Dabbang2 , Indo-Pak cricket, whatever cud the media would have normally chewed on.
Implicit in this is fact that the fourth estate too – like the other three estates – has failed India’s women. The hierarchies of news selection over the years has done real disservice to the idea of gender equality. The exclusions, unstated assumptions and presumptions, the 'normalisation' of what matters, the routine manner in which sexual harassment and other human rights abuses have been treated, has only helped to build the climate of impunity that allowed such crimes to flourish, whether in Delhi, Imphal or Khairlanji.
The other striking aspect of the treatment given to the gang rape news story was the persistence with which the media has chosen to cover it, day and night. News, we were taught in journalism school, has to be new. Its eye was necessarily fickle because the eye of the reader/viewer was also judged as fickle. If this meant overlooking social disorders, so be it.
This time, however, the story remained firmly on the front page and prime time television for four reasons. One, undoubtedly the unprecedented urban middle class mobilization over it indicated where the eyeballs were. Two, the media sensed that this was its moment to set the agenda in the vacuum left by a fumbling, inarticulate, absent government. Three, the exceptional articulation of women activists who had consistently voiced sustained public outrage and presented alternative ways of perceiving gender crimes long before the present case had created what may be seen as groundwork. Finally, the highly competitive terrain that is the news space today, ensured that every newspaper and news channel was left trying to overtake the next in the width and breath – some may even say wit and breathlessness – of its coverage. Tony Blair, in one of his difficult moments referred to the British media as a “feral beast”. Many in New Delhi’s echelons of power may have used those very same words to describe the recent media coverage. But for all its excesses and stridency, it was also true that the argument for women’s rights reform had never been articulated publicly as substantively as it has just been.
It’s also true that despite the insanely competitive nature of media coverage, the identity of the assaulted woman and her family remained largely concealed as the girl battled for her life in a Delhi hospital. This could only have happened because there was empathy for her that has not always been evident in earlier coverage given to survivors of sexual violence, who were often held responsible for the assaults visited on them. This time, there was a common sense across the media that the news chase must be tempered by established norms, although undoubtedly there was some straining at the leash as the midnight manoeuvre that saw the patient being shifted from Safdarjang Hospital to Singapore played out.
Will the media internalize the lessons learnt from this interregnum and ask themselves the tough questions of their own role in allowing crimes against women to become “normal”? We’ll have to wait for that answer. But there is no option to media reform if we really mean it when we say “never again”. Justice and equal rights are the demands of the moment, and as Amartya Sen has argued in The Idea of Justice, “a well-functioning media can play a critically important role in facilitating public reasoning in general, crucial for the pursuit of justice”.
It is important therefore to turn the mirror on those who see themselves as holding the mirror to those in power.