A slightly edited version of the following has appeared in today’s Asian Age.
Towards an insane society?
So-called ‘media trials’ are only one of the disconcerting aspects of the proliferation of 24X7 news channels in an era where the capacity to reflect calmly is waning fast. Everybody, including intellectuals, seems to be in a hurry “to act” on their chosen causes. The idea that calm reflection must precede any action – individual or collective – seems to have become quite old-fashioned. Even in the response of institutional structures to serious issues, one can discern a mob-mentality under the garb of political correctness. The growing reach and power of electronic media is contributing greatly not only to the creation, but also to the institutionalisation of such a mentality and needs to be balanced with a sense of responsibility and ethics.
Recall how, a couple of years ago, a female school teacher in old Delhi was almost lynched by a furious mob as a news channel had portrayed her as a ‘procuress’ by manipulating audio and visual clips. One doesn’t know if the channel and the reporter were ever legally charged and proceeded against.
Khurshid Anwar, the well-known activist and writer committed suicide on the morning of 18th December last year. The previous night, in a distorted and sensationalist programme, the Hindutva supporter chief of a news channel and a celebrity feminist turned Narendra Modi enthusiast had repeatedly described him as a ‘rapist’ and vowed to have him punished.
This programme was the culmination of a sustained hate campaign against Anwar. For the preceding three months, he was being charged with rape on the social media. The statement of a girl from a north eastern state was video-recorded by the Hindutva activist, in which Khurshid was charged with raping and sodomizing this girl, and the CD of this recording was distributed to many social activists in various parts of the country. This was done well before any official complaint was lodged with the police or even before an act of rape was established as the complainant has never been subjected to a medical test.
In spite of this, the distribution of this CD and other scurrilous material was condoned and even promoted by ultra-left hate-mongers posing as activists. A vigorous campaign of innuendos was launched against Khurshid on social media websites. The most curious thing in this entire affair was that the accused was acting more transparently than the accusers! Khurshid Anwar kept challenging those charging him to go to the police, to have a medical test of the complainant and proceed formally so that he gets a chance to clear his name. He said this publicly many times over this period, and was thoroughly dispirited at the idea of living with this taint on his reputation as a fierce fighter for gender rights. He filed a defamation case against some of the people whom he knew to be distributing the recording, and reported the matter to the police. No action seems to have been taken to quell the rumours which were damaging Anwar personally and professionally.
It was the wisdom of the well-known activists who knew of the matter and presumably knew of the targeted smear campaign to condone such a course of action. This alliance of the ‘ultras’ of the left and right was probably a result of the uncompromising and sustained stand Anwar had taken against the fanaticism of both Hindu and Islamic variety. His recent series of articles against Wahhabi Islam had particularly angered some ‘comrades’ who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of Islamic fundamentalism.
It is more than two months to the death, but the police have not registered a FIR in the case. The family of Khurshid Anwar lodged a complaint charging the TV channel head, the Modi enthusiast and those who distributed the CD and carried out the social media campaign with conspiracy and abetment to suicide. They have provided documentary evidence which calls for at least a FIR and a thorough inquiry, but the police remain unmoved.
The police seem to be under pressure due to the involvement of ‘big names’ on one hand, and the pressures of identity politics on the other. This is symptomatic of the rot not only in the system but also in the ways the media and intellectuals seek to address systemic short-comings. The rot is characterised by the plethora of laws passed as a result of knee-jerk reactions to situational challenges and under pressures from identity politics of various types. It is also characterised by the fast spreading habit of domain-specific and sometimes frankly opportunistic thinking amongst activists and intellectuals.
To take an example, those well-meaning scholars who are disturbed at Penguin pulping Wendy Doniger’s book due to the fears of harassment under the vague provisions of section 295 of IPC, have been enthusiastically supporting laws which are almost customised for harassment and which compromise on the basic tenets of the rule of law. One mustn’t forget the lampooning of Sharad Yadav by our ‘thinking’ classes for showing the courage of questioning the dangerously vague provisions of the law passed in the wake of the horrendous rape and murder of ‘Nirbhaya’. Passing stringent and often ill-defined laws has somehow became equivalent with ‘action’ against sexual harassment in the minds of our chattering classes. In this, they forget the duty to protect the rights of the accused. The accused is not guilty just by virtue of accusation.
Such laws are empowering not individual victims but rather ‘representatives’ of identities which have a stake not only in perpetuation of conservative power structures, but also in creating of an even more oppressive state machinery. The presumption of innocence till proved otherwise has been replaced by the presumption of guilt; instead of state proving the accused guilty, the accused has to prove his/ her innocence under the regime of ‘progressive ‘and ‘empowering’ laws. It is not the victim, but the policeman and his bosses who are becoming more and more powerful.
To take another recent example, the Goa police have charge-sheeted Tarun Tejpal for ‘rape’ under the post-Nirbhaya rape-law. The peculiarly broadened definition of rape under this law can lead to ten years RI for Tejpal. Is it not analogues to legally eradicating the difference between a fist-fight and an attempted murder? Sexual harassment is of course morally repugnant and ought to be treated as a legal offence as well; but can it be put at par with rape? ‘Off with his head’ for each and every offence, may be understandable in the wonderland ruled by the Queen of Hearts; certainly not in a civilized society.
Khurshid Anwar was driven to desperation due to the psychological pressures created by the troublesome combination of the media cherishing the creation of a moralist mob-mentality and the thinking classes succumbing to the desire of being seen to be politically correct even at the cost of basic tenets of rational thinking. The pressing need of the hour is to resist the temptations of such ‘domain specific’ thinking and move away from knee-jerk reactions.
Gender rights and the rights of other social groups and identities can be ensured only by a system which is genuinely committed to the broad framework of human rights and basic tenets of rule of law. The tragic death of Khurshid Anwar is a stark reminder that the only alternative to such a commitment is to speedily tumble toward an insane society.