The media trial that sought to vilify the complainant in the Tejpal case would reverse the currently increased receptivity to women’s complaints of sexual abuse and restore the public culture of silence against sexual violence
By Ayesha Kidwai
Over the last one year, since the rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus, the Indian public sphere has been repeatedly rocked by reports of egregious sexual harassment and sexual violence against young women, usually committed upon them in the course of their work. What has been unusual is not the occurrence of these incidents, but the fact that so many of these incidents have become complaints, materialising from the crisp backlit text of email, blogs, and the social media on our computer screens into brutally-thumbed and casually bandied-about complaints and depositions.
Public institution after institution — the judiciary, the media, and academia — has felt the impact of this unanticipated shift. But ever since the problem has gotten off the bus and knocked insistently at the door of whichever institution, one considered to be one’s home, the initial enthusiasm for the bracing winds of social change has abated. Three recent journalistic pieces — one by Manu Joseph in the Outlook and two by Seema Mustafa in The Citizen and the Statesman — show that the strategy to contain the contagion of complaints have evolved in disturbing ways.
Quite obviously, the complainants lie at the heart of every problem, but dealing with them is not an easy task. For one, they do not cower behind the anonymity that is their right under law, but never ever get; for another, even when they have been subjected to the most public violations of privacy, confidentiality, and due process, they do not back away from their complaints. And since the law holds that a survivor is her own true witness in the allegations she makes, the best way to discredit her is to cast her asunder from her words. In Manu Joseph’s view, this separation is effected by what the Grand Hyatt Hotel’s elevator landing saw (i.e. CCTV cameras in the landing areas outside the elevator); from Seema Mustafa’s version of what the Elevator Landing speaks to, a woman’s right to voice even a perceived grievance is denied to her.
While Joseph’s and Mustafa’s pieces have been extensively critiqued in the electronic and social media (most admirably by the Network of Women in Media [NWMI]) for the many breaches of ethical professional journalistic conduct they embody, what allies them most is the lengths that both go to elide the word ‘complainant’, or the more popular word ‘victim’, from the lexicon of their (this-is-not) rape narrative. As Pratiksha Baxi points out, in her Kafila piece, Joseph’s use of Young Woman for the complainant is a reference that does “not evoke the popular image of the innocent rape survivor”.
It is clear that for Joseph, there is only one set of victims here — Tejpal and his family. It is he who has been “destroyed” and it is his family who has been “evicted” from their home, as his wife suffers the “indignity” of defending her husband’s “consensual” relationship. The complainant of course has not suffered in the same way: though she has had to move as well, it is only to a “new home on the outskirts of Delhi”. There is no mention of her mother at all, and her father cannot be told that Tejpal raped her because of his ill-health; in short, no grieving kin or friends. And while she is “in a delicate mental state”, this fragility is not because of the assault she has been subjected to, but because she is “consumed by the intense fear” that her character will soon be put on trial. And lest we begin to empathise with her, we should know that “details of her past are already in the air” i.e. she has a past that needs some worrying about! Comparing this to Tejpal’s ordeal of sitting in a small cell in a Goa jail, we know which one of the two could qualify as the veritable zindaa laash, were it not for Tejpal’s love for his journalistic craft, embodied in his ceaseless striving (through Court petitions) for stationery supplies in jail.
Mustafa’s characterisation of the complainant is even more partial than Joseph’s. Since, unlike Joseph, Mustafa does not appear to have even bothered to meet the complainant (whatever happened to the journalistic code of checking and balancing sources, we wonder), it’s only the woman on the CCTV footage who she describes as the “alleged victim”. This purposely cruel phrase — more so because Mustafa refers to Tejpal (only once) with the contradictory ‘”alleged accused” (note, not “alleged perpetrator”) — discredits every part of the complainant’s deposition, even those incidents that the Elevator Landing couldn’t see, most importantly the act of the rape itself.
The choice of this phrase as the descriptor (although the usage of the term ‘alleged victim’ to mean complainant does exist in US legal parlance, it is novel for Indian journalism) then allows Mustafa the latitude to interpret what the CCTV evidence should mean for the case: since the woman did not show “visible (to Mustafa) signs of agitation”, and because she chose not to take the stairs in the second incident complained about, Mustafa concludes that “the jury is clearly out on this one.”
Both Joseph and Mustafa have stoutly defended their positions by invoking the criterion of objectivity, but one is puzzled as to how that criterion is served by their unwillingness to question information fed to them and which is clearly directed towards a “media trial” of the complainant. Surely, intrepid journalists like these two should have entertained enough skepticism about such information fed to them and carry it over to the copy they generated. Nevertheless, even if we were to assume that every alleged contradiction pointed out in these articles are “facts”, as Mustafa asserts, surely there has to be an understanding that any “fact” is always interpreted as one within a particular context. The context here is one of sexual violence, for which there is ample evidence that the trauma causes confusion, numbness, memory lapses, etc in the victim. In the universe of this discourse, it is no longer a ‘fact’ that recollection and narration of a sequence of events must be instantaneously seamless and fluent for it to be credible.
The burning question is why Mustafa and Joseph have done this? Are they misogynistic ‘supporters’ of Tejpal or fearless worshippers of fact and intrepid journalism? While the latter question may be good for an author’s self-image, and the former one can be dismissed as presupposing too tidy a critique, the real issue is a general failure amongst the professionals to come up with an adequate response to what the changed mood in the middle class demands. Mustafa and Joseph’s failures are just repeats of ones that we have witnessed over and over again, and each profession has plunged into a crisis when a colleague has been accused: How does a ‘senior’ professional approach the fact that some young woman has gone and complained about something that wasn’t even a grievance just a few years ago? After all, it is ”her’ word against ‘his’ and we know him; and while he may have his faults, he has done so many good things, and he is above all, secular. In any case, why are these outsiders, this “bunch of feminists” getting so involved in these matters (which are always so stippled with grey when seen from our side)?
For an outsider feminist like me, the answer is obvious: no one but this bunch knows what to do when a complaint is made from within one’s own kind. When the complaints have been made from within academia or within the judiciary, it is this bunch that has fought for them to be addressed, protested and thwarted the misuse of hierarchical power and its machinery of slander and intimidation, and reminded their professions that the ideal of equality must first be expressed in the creation of conditions conducive to its access. In doing so, they have imbued the phrase “let the law take its own course” with substantive meaning.
It is time for some of our journalist friends who have long written about women’s empowerment to emulate a fraction of what Indira Jaising and Vrinda Grover did in the complaints against the judiciary. Disputing their and other activists’ rights to dispute one’s own article may serve to create a comfortable ‘Us vs. Them’ binary that facilitates self-justification, taking feminists names along with the website-hacking Hindu Right may exaggerate the sense of injury (and dare I say it, “alleged victimhood”), but using the suicide of Khurshid Anwar as a stick to beat all feminists and complainants with does not serve the memory of a man whose commitment to the cause of women’s emancipation and equality has been cited as proof of his innocence.
It may be thought that the fact that the court has already taken a position on the Insightful Elevator Landing renders the current debate irrelevant, but this would be a terrible mistake. Across the spectrum of professions, what is at stake here is the fundamental right of a woman to make a complaint, and the vilification of the complainant that we are witnessing currently targets the all important court of public opinion. The increased receptivity to women’s complaints that we have witnessed in recent times must be reversed, and what better way to do it, but to turn the woman against her word. If complainants are no longer as readily believed, if feminism’s misdeeds begin from supporting such untrustworthy women and end with draconian punishments like the death penalty (which they were in truth the first to oppose), the re-creation of a public culture of silence about sexual violence can perhaps be hoped for. It needs no guessing as to whose interests this aspired to future will serve, but must we be doomed to dream the nightmares of the communal misogynistic right?
Ayesha Kidwai is a professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University