To name or not to name a rape victim

It is prudent to err on the side of caution rather than relying on interpretation of law alone.

December 21, 2015 12:38 am | Updated November 16, 2021 04:08 pm IST

Anindita Mukherjee from Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, was in the news a few months ago when she sought and got India’s “first gender-neutral certificate” with the honorific ‘Mx’ instead of ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’. Last week, she wrote to us questioning the newspaper’s decision to not mention the name of the Delhi gang-rape victim even in the story where the girl’s mother wanted her daughter to be named. She felt the headline — > “Name my daughter, says Nirbhaya’s mother” — was strange, as the name of the girl was blanked out in the report in some editions.

The report in those editions read: “My daughter’s name was... and I am not ashamed to name her. You should take her name too,” the mother said on ‘Nirbhaya Chetna Diwas’, an event organised by women’s and citizens’ groups at Jantar Mantar.

According to Mx. Mukherjee, irony was writ large on the face of this editorial choice. I would like to share some of her observations. Instead of paraphrasing her note, I have made one crucial editorial decision. I have refrained from mentioning the name of the girl. Instead, I have substituted it with ‘she’ or ‘her’, to uphold the spirit of covering gender-based violence with what I consider true empathy in journalism.

Mx. Mukherjee wrote: “First, the term 'Nirbhaya' is itself rather escapist. There is nothing fearless about the way in which any human being faces up to the possibility of assault; one does not march into the experience with panache. The fear of assault is very real, and we do disservice to her experience, and that of thousands of others, when we romanticise it and use heroic epithets like 'Nirbhaya'. The way in which she lost her life was not heroic, it was tragic. In this context, perhaps, it might have been worthwhile for The Hindu (given it presents itself as a thinking newspaper) to mull over the meaning of jumping on the Nirbhaya bandwagon; the newspaper could just as easily have chosen to call her X.”

Rape and stigma

Her second point was that Asha Devi, the girl’s mother, requested that the girl be called by her name, out of a firm belief that those who have been raped ought not to be shrouded in shame. She asked: “If The Hindu did not feel that this political position was worth its time, then why cover it? Having written about it, is it not dismissive and disrespectful to unquestioningly ignore her exhortation?”

Anindita Mukherjee, as a lawyer, gives the newspaper the benefit of doubt by invoking legal consequences, explaining Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises the disclosure of names of rape victims, and its categorical exceptions in Section 228A(2)(c). The exception talks about authorisation in writing either by the victim, or in the case where the victim is dead or is a minor or of unsound mind, by the next of kin of the victim.

Mx. Mukherjee’s argument was that Ms. Devi's statement, which was made before a large public audience in an event organised by women's groups, would fit the requirement of the exception, if it was read in its spirit. According to her, an explanation for why the newspaper refrained from naming the victim, despite her name having been in the public domain ever since her father's interview with The Sunday People in 2013, would be one way to engage with Ms. Devi’s statement.

Mx. Mukherjee’s passionate arguments are not an exercise in nitpicking, and I agree with her about the importance of the language we choose to represent people and events. The ethical questions that flow from reporting news of rape and its subsequent developments — court hearings, police FIRs, public protest, and activists’ interventions — do go beyond the legal requirements. There is a need to create a framework that does not disaggregate the crime between the ones that captured the popular imagination and the ones that remain in the margin.

Why was the word ‘Nirbhaya’ used to report this case? The answer is simple. The term ‘Nirbhaya’ has gained a large recognition to represent this case and it makes sense to any reader despite the passage of time. It is worth remembering too that in this particular case, the family’s stand on naming the victim does not seem to be very firm. Mx. Mukherjee cites a 2013 interview of the victim’s father.

Earlier this year, there was a PTI report which this newspaper carried on March 6, 2015, “Father objects to revealing gang rape victim’s name in India’s Daughter.” ( The report states that the family of the Delhi gang-rape victim has taken a strong exception to making public their daughter’s name in the BBC documentary, and has warned of taking legal action in this connection.

The Nirbhaya case is an exception where even the legal process was put on a fast track. It forced the Union government to form the Justice Verma Committee to look into crimes against women. The committee’s recommendations were welcomed widely by the women’s groups and the legal fraternity. Despite the general sense of outrage, sexual violence against women is on the rise in the national capital. The data from the National Crime Records Bureau Delhi reported 1,813 rapes in 2014, up from 1,441 in 2013. We are unable to ensure safety of women in our cities as well as rural areas. Given this disturbing reality, I think it is prudent to err on the side of caution rather than relying on interpretation of law alone.

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