Misogyny Goes Viral in India

a | A

By Chandrahas Choudhury

In an especially shocking example of the gender violence ubiquitous in India, a teenaged girl leaving a pub with a friend on the night of July 10 in Guwahati, the largest city in the north-eastern state of Assam, got into an argument with a group of men and was assaulted by the mob for almost half an hour, while bystanders watched.

Already a victim, locally, of the peculiar cocktail of misogyny and moralism that lurks in almost all public spaces in India, the girl then also had her humiliation broadcast to the entire country by a local news channel whose reporter happened to be on the scene, and whose voice seems to be heard on the footage, possibly egging the mob on.

Even worse, every subsequent reaction from the individuals and groups implicated at different levels in the case -- the news channel, the police and the state, even the National Women's Commission -- seemed to serve not as a condemnation of gender violence so much as further confirmation of the multiple layers of misogyny in India.

The news channel's head, Atanu Bhuyan, argued that condemning his outfit for broadcasting footage of the attack was tantamount to "shooting the messenger," and that the police had made several arrests based on the footage. Less helpful to the case for his defense, though, were his Twitter posts that "I've been heading News Live for 5 years now. And I've seen that most incidents of molestation takes place in front of bars" and "Prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs." This sly and utterly irrelevant bit of innuendo is nevertheless valuable in what it reveals about the assumptions of Indian patriarchy, and about the work that lays ahead for Indian feminism in changing not just laws but worldviews. Bhuyan decided to resign in the wake of the controversy.

Meanwhile, Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam, met the victim, presumably to offer his government's commitment to seeking out and prosecuting her attackers. His office then sent out a statement that revealed the victim's name along with her photograph. India's National Commission for Women, a government body with many idealistic goals, but hamstrung in practice by the fact that many of its office-bearers owe their positions to their proximity to the ruling Congress Party, sent a representative, Alka Lamba, to Guwahati to compile a report on the incident. Lamba's main intervention in the case was to inadvertently name the victim at a news conference. Back in the capital, New Delhi, the commission's head, Mamta Sharma, condemned the incident, but also took the opportunity to suggest that women should be careful about how they dress and to proclaim that she didn't support the practice of "aping the West" (not coincidentally, also a favorite theme of India's moral police).

The victim would be fully entitled to ask: With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Two main questions emerged from the case. The first, and to my mind most important, was whether the condemnations of the incident that emerged from various sources of authority did not feed rather than reject the climate of ideas from which such violence emerges. The best formulation of this came from the writer Mitali Saran in the Business Standard, who pointed to the attempts in many other spheres to naturalize gender violence, such as through language:

The recent violence in Guwahati, where a mob was filmed assaulting a young girl, has thrown up the usual (and necessary) soul-searching about culpability, law enforcement, and media ethics. But one issue that surrounds every such incident does not get enough airtime, and that is the insidious language used by people in positions of authority, whether policy-makers, law enforcers, or members of the judiciary, that reinforces the easy moralizing of society at large.

Words carry powerful cultural assumptions, and the easiest way to keep women in line is to ensure that the language they grow up with keeps them intimidated and docile. Raise your daughters to believe in good words and bad words, and they just won’t give you as much trouble by trying to choose their own partners, or entering a profession of their choice, or wrecking your social standing by leaving their abusive husbands. Good words: decent, moral, character, Indian, married, modest, dignified, family, values. (Best phrase: family values.) Bad words: single, fast, modern, unmarried, indecent, provocative, obscene, Western, immoral. (Worst phrase: Western immorality.) If she controls herself, that saves you the trouble.

The easiest way to preserve the social status quo is to reference these words. The language of analysis, after each brutal incident of sexual violence against women, points to the fact that the people who make and enforce policy are — sometimes totally unselfconsciously — as depressingly regressive as those who commit crimes. [...] In the recent Guwahati case, the considered opinion of the chairperson of the National Commission for Women was that “women should be careful about the way they dress because such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West” [...] She then offered the following mystifying interpretation of this great challenge: “Westernisation has afflicted our cities the worst. There are no values left. In places like Delhi there is no culture of giving up seats for women.” That’s right, forget a mob bent on sexual assault — we have fallen so deep into Western sin that people don’t give up their seats for women.

The second question concerned the role of television in sensationalizing the case by gratuitously replaying the footage, and occluding the central fact of gender violence through a mix of concocted outrage, moralism and voyeurism. In much of India's thriving television-news industry, reality is now presented through the conventions of soap opera. Shoma Chaudhury wrote in the weekly Tehelka:

What role had the television camera played in the Guwahati outrage? Instead of being the vigilant eye, the watchdog whose arrival should have scared the mob, why had the camera melded insidiously into being a part of the circle of violence, completing its circuit with the girl trapped inside? Why had the molesters smiled brazenly into it and repeatedly tried to yank their victim’s face up so the lens could have a full gaze? Why had the camera’s presence prolonged the girl’s humiliation? Why had it turned what should have been fear and shame into triumphant spectacle?

Tehelka's cover story this week tracks the seamy underbelly of this sordid incident. Based on unedited, raw footage, not yet made public, it details why there is strong conjecture that the News Live reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog, who first recorded the assault, may actually have instigated the mob to amplify its violence just to feed his greed for juicy footage. If this is proved right, India’s "Murdoch moment" has arrived: the last horizon has been breached. If not, all the earlier questions about the camera still remain.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to treat this merely as a chapter on News Live’s ignominy. Like the hatred of women, the excesses of certain sections of the media are part of a larger problematic continuum. The truth is, the race for revenues, TRPs and eyeballs is forcing the profession down a perilous slope, eroding its credibility, setting it on a trail that many reporters and editors are themselves uncomfortable with. The tail has begun to wag the dog.

And on the website of the media watchdog The Hoot, the media critic Sevanti Ninan noted:

Living off saleable footage for an inordinately long time is not news. But that is what YouTube has made possible. [...]

It also spells an emerging news culture which is being shaped by easy access to technology. Audience-seeking news organisations are increasingly willing to convert lurid excesses filmed and uploaded by their own reporter or somebody else, into the stuff of news. That includes not just a channel like News Live whose editor Atanu Bhuyan uploaded a three-video series called ‘Girl in the City’ between July 11 and 12 on YouTube, but also dozens of lurid MMS clips which find their way into news. Something is changing and it's not exactly uplifting our civilisational quotient.

Raw footage has immediacy. It can ignite revolutions, but it can also violate persons in savage ways. And it is aiding a coarsening of what passes for news. One of Mr Bhuyan’s Girl in the City videos has been removed from YouTube. The other two show the girl being mauled after she has fallen to the ground, her clothes being pulled at. And when she manages to stagger to her feet, guess what? She has a mike stuck into her face by a reporter.

One of the most depressing realities of this country is the gulf in freedom on offer to men and women in public (and indeed private) spaces; one gender enjoys an excessive license and the other suffers an unnatural suppression. This unspoken and socially legitimized curtailment of the right of women to dress, move and mix freely, and the projection of various unreasonable meanings onto their decisions to do so, means that all accounts of India's "growth story" are in an important sense misleading, if not downright untrue. If one were to apply the human-capability method used by scholars such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to India, one would find the country's men to be  vastly better off women merely because of their uncomplicated access to various freedoms that for women are available only after the most prolonged negotiations and conflicts.

A depressing number of instances that appear almost daily in Indian public life, from moral policing by nationalist parties to disagreements with women being expressed in grossly offensive and sexualized language, attest to the fact that Indians of a patriarchal persuasion -- including many women -- have found the new freedoms on offer in a modernizing society very hard to digest. A recent poll showed that of all the major economies of the world, India is the worst for women. In a very real sense, the Indian woman is, almost without exception, a second-class citizen.

But the picture isn't one of unrelieved darkness. After all, women in India have historically had it much worse, and our modern history would be nothing without the struggles waged by feminists of various persuasions not just for their own rights but for those of all kinds of marginalized groups. (A thorough overview of women's movements in India from 1800 on is provided by Radha Kumar in her book "The History of Doing.") If anything, one of the paradoxes opened up by India's consumer revolution over the last two decades is that even as it has created many new opportunities and rewards for women in terms of education, employment and material betterment, it has also managed to narrow the terms of Indian feminism and to co-opt that movement's language for its own purposes. (Advertisements these days for goods -- from scooters to push-up bras to skin whiteners -- offer women the promise of liberation and empowerment for a small fee; that is, as consumers and not as citizens).

The value of these goods and freedoms isn't to be denied, but they allow for a society in which a one-dimensional liberation can calmly and complacently co-exist with misogyny. To borrow a phrase from William Blake's great poem "London," many "mind-forged manacles" and stereotypes in India have yet to be cut to pieces -- in all probability by Indian women themselves -- before the day arrives when gratuitous eruptions of violence such as that seen in Guwahati become a thing of the past.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

-0- Jul/23/2012 22:35 GMT