Speech Melba Society

Pundit’s day out: on the Kamaraj-Hitesha Zomato row

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

A couple of weeks ago, a video was posted on Instagram from Bengaluru, where an influencer named Hitesha accused a Zomato delivery man named Kamaraj of assaulting her after an argument over a late delivery. She then rode a sympathy wave which allegedly gave her some 10,000 extra followers. But within a couple of days Kamaraj refuted her claim, saying it was Hitesha who had abused and hit him. Did Kamaraj abuse her and punch her nose? Or did Hitesha abuse him and hit him with slippers? Nobody really knows, but FIRs have been registered against both.

As the news broke, it was amusing to see how easily people were making up their minds and as quickly changing them. It was also amusing to see the simplistic sorts of tribalism that immediately came to the fore. First came commiseration for a customer, hailed as ‘king’ (or ‘queen’ in this case), being shabbily treated by a delivery executive, so there was much tagging of Zomato.

As Kamaraj’s version came out, the wave swung towards him, quickly morphing into a class debate — middle-class versus working class. Paeans were written about why one must always believe the hard-working salt of the earth and not privileged middle-class occupants of apartment blocks.

This brought its own backlash — how dare you disbelieve a woman, some demanded. According to this school, any woman who complains of assault must be instantly believed and any attempt to question her story automatically becomes an anti-woman stance.

The men then came out in hordes. Kamaraj’s weepy video became the excuse to launch a nasty storm of misogyny directed against not just Hitesha but all women who, these men said, have been lying since the dawn of time and getting away with it.

Meanwhile, someone claiming to be a former flatmate insinuated that Hitesha had a history of freeloading. This was grist to the misogyny mill, as expected, but women too responded with self-flagellation, absurdly lamenting that when women like Hitesha lie and swindle, all women everywhere are discredited forever.

It is human to take sides in a debate, depending on where your sympathies lie, but issues are almost never as black and white as one would like them to be. As much as it’s possible that Hitesha might have overplayed her hand in her eagerness to wrangle free food, it’s possible that Kamaraj lost his temper and said intemperate things or fobbed her off too violently. Or it might be a bit of both, with both sides downplaying their own transgressions as much as possible.

Neither Kamaraj’s working-class background nor Hitesha’s gender make them intrinsically violent or fragile, honest or dishonest. To ignore their individual quirks and propensities and focus exclusively on their larger ‘tribal’ memberships is a fraught path. Each individual incident comes with its own script, back-story and inter-personal dynamics, but our need to be facile, popcorn-munching pundit-judge-jury makes us push everything into one crude template and then take predictable positions.

Social media might intend to be a ‘democracy aggregator’ but it works more as a ‘prejudice aggregator,’ setting up gladiatorial contests between unreal binaries of good-bad, guilty-innocent, right-wrong. The protagonists become irrelevant as the commentators’ blood lust takes over.

Let us, for argument’s sake, pretend that Hitesha indeed lied. So what? Why is she expected to be the poster figure for #AllWomen? In fact, why should we expect that all women will tell the truth? As among men, among women too there are liars and killers, frauds and fakes, and this exaggerated expectation that all women must be kind and gentle and honest is a classic trap. It forces women to feel defensive about all manner of female offences. And it allows toxic handles like ‘Save Indian Family Foundation’ and ‘Men’s Day Out’ to convert each incident into another excuse for woman-bashing, for demanding the dilution of dowry or rape laws.

Hitesha was an influencer, that uniquely millennial profession, where you are constantly visible, monetising tiny details of your life, chasing followers, seeking endorsement. So Hitesha decided to put Kamaraj on a social media trial. It got him suspended, even locked up for a bit, but when the locusts descended, they consumed Hitesha too. She has left her home and her Instagram handle has gone quiet.

The social media glasshouse is such a terribly brittle thing.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2022 9:42:04 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/pundits-day-out-why-social-media-works-as-a-prejudice-aggregator/article34222586.ece