Media Matters

A high-profile death of a teenager exposes Kolkata’s self-conceit

The city takes pride in its progressive liberalism. But the media coverage of a recent tragedy has revealed a conflicted society prone to moral highhandedness.

A teenager’s death has brought out an ugly side of the Kolkata media that thrives on generated controversy and has exposed societal fissures that have always existed but are rarely spoken about.

On July 23, a 17-year-old boy was found bleeding from multiple injuries at a residential complex in an elite South Calcutta neighbourhood. He had just attended a birthday lunch for author Amit Chaudhuri’s daughter, who lives in the same complex. The boy, Abesh Dasgupta, succumbed to his injuries on the way to the hospital, despite Chaudhuri’s attempts to save his life.

From the moment the incident was reported, the media and its readership decided it was murder. And that, everyone, all the teenagers at the gathering and their parents, were shielding an influential suspect.

Dasgupta’s mother had the assurance of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself of a speedy and impartial investigation headed by a top bureaucrat. Members of the film industry – many of whom are close to the ruling party – expressed solidarity with the inconsolable single mother and demanded justice. Dasgupta’s father, who was a member of the Kolkata police and an assistant director to Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip Ray, had died earlier this year.

Veneer of inclusivity

What has followed since then is crime porn masquerading as reportage and social media outrage that shows how Kolkata, which takes pride in its airs of plurality, inclusivity and progressive liberalism, is actually a conflicted, provincial society prone to nativism and moral highhandedness. It also showed how the local media has engineered a protracted hate campaign – masquerading as moral outrage and fierce investigation – against a certain section of society. Here is how it unfolded.

The first victim of this cycle of sensationalism was the author himself. The party, according to his statement and corroborated by the others involved, was a surprise celebration for his teenaged daughter organised by her friends. The Chaudhuris had not organised their own celebration since the author's mother had died only recently.

After the bunch of teenagers had lunch at a venue outside, they broke up into smaller groups, and a few of the boys hung around the complex, drinking. Details of what really happened during those crucial minutes, when Chaudhuri’s daughter and the other children dispersed, are still under investigation. But the police have established that the dead boy was not really abandoned by his friends – all of them students of elite schools and from affluent families – as several media reports had claimed. Dasgupta’s friends performed CPR, one boy took off his shirt to dress the wounds, someone else dialled 100 and no one really left him to bleed to death.

Initial news reports, however, painted a graphic picture of how the wounds could have been inflicted with a broken bottle and how circumstantial evidence indicated that a bleeding Dasgupta had tried to drag himself around to get help while his friends fled the scene. The police have not been able to establish any truth in these reports.

Some of the reportage has been breathless and intrusive. One reporter landed up at Chaudhuri’s flat when he was not there and remarked how the family that was “allegedly grieving the demise of Chaudhuri’s mother a week earlier and hosted the boy who died” had decorated the house with colourful balloons – though the police found only a few black and white balloons in the daughter's bedroom. A photographer sneaked in with the police and shot pictures of Chaudhuri’s living room. Some posts on social media demanded that it would be necessary for Chaudhuri to be arrested if the truth was to be revealed.

From day one, reports based largely on hearsay and inputs from anxious parents and panicky teens directly or indirectly involved with the incident claimed Dasgupta was the victim of a love triangle. The media and social persecution of the children at the party, their families and their extended friend circle left no room for objectivity.

'Bengali ethos under attack'

The girl involved in the so-called triangle, who was not present at the party, wrote an emotional piece in a tabloid, pledging support to the cause of justice. She also stated that she had no clue the relationship was serious enough to cause a death. The media, of course, did not stop at that. The love triangle theory seemed so exciting that everyone went all out to establish it. The father of the so-called accused boy had played a suspicious role, said an article.

The reporters who landed up at the teenage suspect’s home wondered: “How come the family has left home if they have nothing to hide?” One news channel interrogated one of the boys and splashed the headline “Why did Abesh’s friend gulp nervously before answering questions?”

All the 16 teenagers were grist for gossip, their lives fodder for the tabloids that churned out unverified reports, influencing the narrative that took on a different, uglier turn. It soon became less about the exact details of the tragic incident and more about “rich boys” and how they are “ruining vulnerable middle-class boys”. “These underage rich kids,” claimed an unnamed employee at the liquor store from where the boys had bought their alcohol, “waited in their cars and sent their chauffeurs to buy”.

It became more about morality and the “unostentatious, frugal Bengali ethos” under attack and less about the truth. A parental advisory from an elite Kolkata convent began doing the rounds – it spoke of spa vacations and lavish birthday parties that are damaging to children. The mayor, whose niece was involved in a drunken brawl with a policeman last year, shot off an angry post on Facebook questioning the way parents are bringing up their children.

In the tune of the shrill tabloid-style reporting that continued, some parents slammed Dasgupta’s mother for allowing her son to “party with the debauched rich kids” and “daring to demand justice”. Others questioned the affluent parents who had failed to instil “right moral and social values” in their children. One woman declared: “This is an ethnic war.” Meaning, the Bengalis were under attack from the “Non-Bengalis” (the so-called suspect is not a Bengali). Pop psychologists wrote reams about “when to say no” and “why kids are growing up this way”.

The moral juggernaut received a rude jolt when the police began to establish that the incident, as corroborated from the versions of all the children at the party, their phone records and available CCTV footage, that it was perhaps an accident and not murder as everyone wanted to believe.

Kolkata is still not convinced.

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