Woman attacked in Assam: what should the press have done?
On the night of July 9, a group of about 20 men groped and stripped a teenaged girl attending a birthday party at a pub in Guwahati.
A local news channel, News Live, whose studio is nearby, recorded the incident and broadcast it. The video went viral on the Internet after the channel posted it on YouTube, shocking the nation. (The original video has been removed from You Tube)
The mob molested the girl for more than 30 minutes until passersby and police rescued her. One of them was a journalist, Mukul Kalita, editor of Assamese-language daily Ajir Asom.
According to the police, 11 of the offenders have been identified and four arrested. Police have been unable to find the prime accused, Amar Jyoti Kalita. An employee of state run IT-agency AMTRON, Kalita has been suspended, according to media reports. One of the accused works as a sweeper at Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) while another works for a water tanker service agency.
The story has prompted plenty of outrage about the behaviour of the men, but it also has raised an age-old question about the press. When, if ever, should a journalist abandon the observer’s role and become part of the story? Many people said News Live’s crew failed to live up to its human obligations and was only interested in ratings.
News Live’s reporter, Dipya Bordoloi, while speaking to other media, said that the mob was not listening to anyone, and “it was like a gang rape.” He says he called the police immediately on reaching the spot, but they took about 20 minutes to reach.
Guwahati City Senior Superintendent of Police Apurba Jiban Barua said it was the proprietor of the Gateway Grandeur hotel who called the police, and that he received no media calls.
“The police received a call at 10.10 p.m. from a nearby hotel owner and reached the spot within five minutes,” he said. “[Officer] Dibash Chandan Nath was on the spot even before the call was made, and along with Mukul Kalita, rescued the girl,” he added. Barua also said police were trying to identify and arrest the other perpetrators.
People vented their anger on Twitter, criticising the channel for not concealing the victim’s face. People are also angry that the reporter and the cameraman continued to shoot footage but did not try to stop the mob. Many users have shared Amar Jyoti Kalita’s and the other molesters’ photos on Facebook.
News Live’s managing editor Syed Zarir Hussain defended his channel’s actions in an interview to a news channel, saying had the video not been shot, police would not have been able to identify the molesters. Reuters tried to reach the editor-in-chief of the channel, Atanu Bhuyan, who did not respond to email messages.
According to police superintendent Barua, the victim and a few of her friends went to the pub Club Mint to celebrate one of their birthdays. At the pub, they got into a scuffle with the bartenders over payment. When they left, one of the girls attacked a boy, following which a mob gathered. The victim’s friends fled, but the mob caught one of the other girls and assaulted her.
This incident comes on the heels of a pregnant Congress MLA (member of legislative assembly, for readers unfamiliar with India’s legislative system) Rumi Nath and her second husband being thrashed by a mob in the Assamese town of Karimganj. The mob was allegedly angry with Nath for marrying a second person without divorcing her first husband.
In November 2007, a woman was stripped and thrashed by a local businessman in Guwahati. This was followed by a Mizo girl being beaten in Guwahati in December 2010 while she was asking for directions. The mob in this case, mainly women, accused the girl of being drunk.
A report by the National Crime Records Bureau ranks Assam second in the category of crime committed against women in 2011 in India. The report indicates that there were 1,700 cases of rape, 3,192 cases of kidnapping and abduction of women and more than 5,000 cases of domestic violence in the state (PDF link).
“Such incidents are shameful. It only shows the degrading morality of our society,” Mridula Saharia, former chairwoman of the Assam State Commission for Women, told Reuters.
Whether she was drinking at a bar is irrelevant, she said. “Drinking may be harmful and bad, but that does not give anyone the right to outrage the modesty of a woman. And why can’t women party? These offenders must be arrested and brought to justice.”
India has seen a rise in crime against women, with New Delhi being unofficially tagged as the rape capital of India. Domestic violence, dowry deaths, honour killings are widely reported. A recent U.N. report ranked India as the worst G20 country to be a woman.
However, women in northeast India have traditionally enjoyed respect and equality in a predominantly patriarchal society. Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in his recent avatar as a television anchor praised the people of the Northeast for their treatment of women in his popular show “Satyamev Jayate“.
With the July 9 incident in Guwahati, the question grows ever more urgent: what is the burden that rests on the people to treat their fellow citizens better — and at which point do journalists begin to share that burden through intervention?