First came Nirbhaya (meaning: the fearless one), she who was gang-raped on a bus in south Delhi on December 16, 2012. In the early days after the news broke, there was a competition of christenings among media houses. One picked the patronisingly, proprietorially affectionate Amanat (meaning: a prized possession kept in trust). Another zeroed in on the crusading Damini, after the title and lead character of Rajkumar Santoshi’s 1993 Hindi film about a woman’s battle for justice for a gang-rape victim.
The name Nirbhaya stuck.
Let’s set aside cynicism for the moment. Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code stipulates that a rape victim’s identity must not be revealed except in specific circumstances by the police for the purposes of the investigation, or with the written authorisation of the victim or next of kin if the victim is dead, a minor or of unsound mind. This written permission is to be submitted only to persons in organisations recognised for this purpose by the central or state government.
Journalists might argue that by nicknaming rape victims, they are abiding by the law. Besides, there are practicalities to be considered. “Delhi gangrape victim”, for instance, consumes more space than “Nirbhaya”.
Yet, there was a time before the media explosion of this century and the extreme competition of today, when the same space was sufficient and fake appellations were not deemed necessary. When two men raped a student of Delhi’s Maulana Azad Medical College in November 2002, the case made front-page news without attracting sobriquets. In 2003, members of the elite President’s Bodyguard were on Page 1 when they raped a university student in Delhi. Again, the victim remained unnamed.
What has changed in the ensuing decade? The answer lies in the media rush to grab eyeballs, and the increasingly sensation-seeking – or at best unquestioning – audiences.
It’s as if even well-intentioned journalists today believe that if they do not give a rape victim a name, if they do not personalise the case, viewers and readers will not empathise. For the not-so-well-intentioned set, the more melodramatic the name, the more it lends itself to the soap-opera-like background music favoured by many television channels over serious debate.
Litany of names
So, just months after Nirbhaya in December 2012 came Gudiya (doll), a five-year-old in Delhi raped by two men who kept her hostage for two days. And in December 2014, a woman raped by an Uber cab driver in Delhi has become Veera (the brave one).
Journalists who disagree with this dramatised nicknaming have occasionally raised their voices but been drowned out by the din of their colleagues’ sensationalism.Besides, with an overwhelming number of issues to be raised in the area of sexual violence, this point ends up sliding down the priority scale.
News consumers, meanwhile, have lapped up the theatrics. While some have expressed their anger against such sensationalism on social media platforms, others have demanded more. Mutilated with a rod by six men? Okay, next. A little doll we could cradle in our arms? Okay, next. If a case is not more emotional and/or more ghastly than the previous one,or more liable to make the audience think “gosh, that could have been me”, it seems unlikely to be of sustained interest. It’s as if we’ve become so inured to inhumanity that we are now collectively benumbed.
That’s a relatively kind view of the public. The harsher view is that while journalists have dished out sensationalism, the people have swallowed it hungrily, tearing into every tidbit provided, as evidenced by so many drawing-room and social media discussions.
“Stop the suspense, tell us her name,” one such chap wrote on Facebook after the December 2012 Delhi gangrape.
This tendency to give fake names to rape victims calls for introspection from both the media and the masses.
The law that does not permit us to reveal names is not to be taken literally. In spirit what that law decrees is respect for the victim/survivor’s right to privacy, dignity and self-determination.
Calling a dying stranger Nirbhaya implies that we knew her better than we did. If she was trembling with fear when those creeps assaulted her, that does not make her less of a woman. If she fought her predators, she was merely reacting with the natural human instinct for self-preservation.
She was not “the fearless one”. She was just a woman who went for a film with a friend.
A point of law
Calling the Uber cab rape survivor Veera is as objectionable. She is not “the brave one”. Unless it is the name-givers’ contention that the very act of existence must now be deemed an act of bravery by an Indian woman, she is just a woman who went for a party and then went home in a mode of transport that she thought was safe.
Besides, it’s offensive for the media to grant itself the right to give a woman a proxy name. The point of the law is that the victim/survivor gets to make a choice – to disclose her identity or not.
Rape is horrific. It should repel us even if we know nothing about the person who has suffered the indignity and brutality of that crime; even if she or he chooses to remain “the nameless one”.
The writer is on Twitter as @annavetticad.
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