‘The heroic manner in which the Delhi gang rape victim had battled death was an inspiration for the millions who prayed for her.’ (AFP)
Certain tragedies reduce the connotative significance of words — and phrases of sorrow suddenly appear to be a mere clutch of clichés. The death of the 23-year-old paramedic student, the victim of a vicious sexual assault in Delhi, was one such tragedy. The heroic manner in which she had battled death was an inspiration for the millions who prayed for her.
The vicious nature of the attack on her had jolted the collective psyche of the nation, prodding ordinary, non-political people to come out to the streets demanding not only justice for the victim and strong punishment to the perpetrators, but also seminal changes to the system to at least contain, if not entirely eradicate, such crimes.
The wide-ranging protests across the country and abroad have shaken the UPA government. These have galvanised the administration to try and make changes to the system to bring about speedy justice in rape cases and amend existing laws to impose more stringent punishments.
The media, too, has played a sterling role in backing the protesters and condemning in no small measure the high-handed tactics initially employed by police to suppress them. It is mostly seen that the media tends to “sensationalise” this type of news in its effort to garner a wider audience, but in this horrific case, reporting even by the gutter press was admirably restrained. The media, too, was responsible for initiating a nationwide debate on the issue and if anything good ultimately emerges from the tragedy, credit would go as much to the media as those concerned citizens who first sparked off the protests.
However, it would be salutary to take a hard look at this incident to determine what elevated it from a probable “in brief” capsule in print media or one among the many telecast bits of news in electronic media to the front pages of newspapers and lead item in television news broadcast. One needs to note that India has been acknowledged as one of the worst nations wherein to be born as a woman. It is a country where the fairer sex receives unfair treatment, with cases of rape, sexual assault or harassment, demand for dowry, domestic violence, discrimination at the workplace being the lot of Indian women.
Discrimination against women is symptomatic of the bent towards male chauvinism which Indian society in general displays, and lies at the core of related social evils such as rape and domestic brutality. However, the media so far had not come out in a concerted way to launch a crusade on the issue. True, there have been occasional erudite and relevant reporting and comments in the media on women-related problems, but the kind of passion and fervour displayed in the latest tragedy have never been witnessed before.
Statistics inform us that in India a rape takes place every 12 minutes. Open the pages of any old newspaper and the odds are bright that you will find a news item on a rape having taken place somewhere in the country. However, I am yet to come across an instant where the media had pursued any of the reported cases of rape with the determination it has displayed in this particular instant.
In the ordinary course rest assured that the media would have simply reported the vicious gang rape of the young woman in a bus in Delhi in the same routine way it reports other rape cases and then gone on to other things. However, some young idealists unconnected with the media had got together through social networking sites and homed in on this tragic incident to express their anger.
Suddenly, almost miraculously, the accumulated anger among the masses against violence directed at women as also the impotence of the establishment to contain it burst forth in a volcanic eruption.
There have been comments from certain quarters that the spontaneous outpouring of anger and grief would not have come about had the victim been a Dalit or belonged to the disadvantaged section of society.
There may be a grain of truth in this, for those youngsters who first set the protests into motion did empathise with the victim because she too was a young student from a middle-class background. The plight of women in India’s rural areas, long subjected to male dominance, violence and barbarity, would not move these youngsters as much as the fate of one who they could consider as their own.
Yet this in no way detracts from their idealism or the significance of their actions, for the outcome has embraced the Indian woman in totality. As the protest movement began to absorb elements from every social stratum, what might have become merely a new item for the media suddenly metamorphosed into a cause célèbre which needed more than just a fleeting mention. Thus it has been the protests rather than the actual incident which has aroused the media to launch a concerted campaign against violence directed at women and pressure the government into action!
Unfortunately, the transient nature of public memory or concern is an undeniable reality. One recalls the hue and cry raised a while back on the issue of “corruption”, with the media going all out in support of the campaigners. When the campaign flared out like a meteor streaking across the atmosphere, media interest too ceased — which brings out the core postulate of the ephemerality of “news”.
Time and again newspapers and TV channels have been reporting equally brutal cases of violence against women, but these recede to the societal background with the passage of time. Cases of barbarism perpetrated by institutions such as khap panchayats find regular mention in the media, only to be obliterated from the general memory. Yet it would be futile to blame the media for not harping on any single case for long enough, thereby keeping it alive in public memory.
The inexorable need to keep itself adhered to the present entails that the media cannot remain glued to any event or issue for a long duration. Sometimes, if the issue is important enough, there is greater longevity to media interest, but normally it becomes distracted into focusing upon newer events and issues extremely quickly. This is perhaps the greatest impediment towards the media becoming a powerful instrument to bring about social change.
Transforming aspects of society in an ameliorative manner is a long-term process, as it involves mutation of a mindset which needs to be redirected towards a different direction.
The very ephemeral character of “news” means that the media is handicapped as far as long and sustained campaigns are concerned, which is actually the job of enlightened individuals, segments of civil society as also the establishment.
It is this ephemerality which creates the danger that this gang rape case too will slowly lose its “news-worthiness” and disappear from the pages of newspapers or the screen of the idiot box.
Forgetfulness of the people, shift of attention of the media — these are phenomena very familiar to the powers that be, and which they make adroit use of to steer away from tackling thorny issues.
There are umpteen examples of exigent issues being quietly shelved away once public and media pressure have eased. The death of the brave girl is no doubt a monumental tragedy; but it would be a greater tragedy if her death has been in vain and no concrete change takes place in society.