Women across India received a grim reminder of how thin the illusion of safety is in this country in October this year. Reports of a horrifying incident of gang rape and murder from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh and the subsequent governmental apathy toward the victim’s family shook the country. In addition to shocking sexual violence, the caste differences at play – the victim was Dalit while the four rapists were of the dominant Thakur caste – highlighted how the intersecting inequalities in Indian society made certain individuals, like the Hathras victim, especially vulnerable to rape and murder.
Unfortunately, when the incident was being featured heavily in the news in October, after the victim’s death spurred the media into action, the opportunity to examine the inequalities and injustices that led to a tragedy like Hathras was missed. Instead, as the caste element of the case came to the fore, the narrative was slowly twisted to protect the reputation of the accused by certain news channels. Despite the victim’s repeated assertions to the police before her death, including her dying declaration, that she was sexually assaulted, her story was dismissed by the nation’s news anchors.
Some chose to instead provide a platform for the UP state government’s bizarre argument that the allegations made in the Hathras case were part of an “international conspiracy”. Others were even more distasteful. On Republic Bharat, Arnab Goswami went so far as to voice a theory that the girl died at the hands of her own family, questioning her claim of rape without blinking. Rather than dwelling on ways to protect other women from suffering the same fate as the Hathras victim, the national media was instead casting doubt over whether her account was even true.
It says something (and nothing good) about the state of Indian news media that this blatantly misogynistic coverage, which completely sidelined the victim’s narrative in favour of her rapists’ reputation, was received as par for the course by viewers at home back in October. But the Central Bureau of Investigation’s report on the case confirming the allegation of rape and murder, as well as exposing several lapses on behalf of the UP Police after the victim approached them, has made the anchors who were peddling their alternative theories look even worse than they did back in October.
Now that the Hathras case is three months old and no longer breaking news, how many of the anchors who chased ratings by disrespecting a deceased rape victim will dedicate a segment to the CBI report that shows how irresponsible their brand of journalism is? After spending precious prime-time minutes on devaluing a woman’s own account of her assault, will there be any efforts made toward setting things straight?
Despite these news anchors’ best efforts to convince their viewers otherwise, the CBI’s chargesheet only confirms what most Indian women already know. The Hathras victim’s ordeal, from being attacked, then poorly treated by authorities, to becoming embroiled in the usual victim-blaming that follows every time men sexually molest women, is a pattern that can be easily spotted in the story of too many sexual assault survivors and victims to count. The national media’s irresponsible coverage of the case was no surprise; old habits die hard.