[The death of Aruna Shanbaug reminds us of the gruesome brutality which rape entails. The gruesome violence and assault left her in a coma for 42 years while the perpetrator, Sohanlal Bharta Valmiki, served seven years of imprisonment on charges of assault and theft, but never for the rape or 'unnatural sex'. While we still come to terms with Aruna's suffering and pray for her to find peace, a three-month-old campaign reminds us of the aggravated misery faced by rape survivors in 2015- one where the crime is supported with impunity by our own voyeurism.]
The recently concluded Women In The World Summit in New York had an emphatic Indian representation, although the Indian media would have you believe that the only conversation about our nation at the Summit revolved around India’s Daughter. A film-maker’s justification and attempt to amend her flawed documentary, a celebrated Indian editor’s effort to be objective and free from bias while talking about women’s rights in the world and a redundant conversation were the only takeaways from the debate with Barkha Dutt and Leslee Udwin. The Indian media responded either by lauding Dutt’s defense of an Anti-India message while some argued whether we should rest our nationalism and patriotic sensitivity while discussing gender rights.
This marked the second time that India’s Daughter and the hype around it silenced Sunitha Krishnan’s voice and campaign. Krishnan, who was part of the same segment titled ‘Who’s winning the fight against sexual violence in India?‘, spoke to Norah O Donell about her #ShameTheRapist campaign which was, in fact, more enlightening and effective than the 22 minutes of hollow debate which preceded it.
The Other ‘Viral’
Sunitha Krishnan has been a vehement anti-human trafficking activist for 20 years and has rescued over 15,000 girls from the flesh trade through her NGO Prajwala. Sunitha was 15 years old when she was gang-raped and faced ostracization and isolation from her community and family for two years for a crime she did not commit. The devastating experience spurned her to dedicate her life towards helping other victims of sex crimes.
On February 4th 2015, she received a phone call from a young man whom she had met at one of her lectures. He nervously described to her that he had two videos and watching them made his ‘blood curl’. When Krishnan saw the videos herself, it left her nauseated and shocked after realising that these were videos of rape. An eight-and-a-half-minute long video showed five men raping a woman, smiling and gloating at the camera as they took turns while another four and a half minute long video shows a woman being raped by a man. Both these videos were shot by someone who is never in front of the camera and the men in the video are aware of his presence. “To me this was not only a slap on the criminal justice system but also on everyone who has even a small iota of humanity left in them. What gave these creatures the confidence to blow their trumpet about something which I would call the worst form of a human rights violation?” Krishnan expressed the disdain on her blog.
She started the #ShameTheRapistCampaign on 5th February 2015 where she uploaded the edited videos online with the victim’s face blurred in a bid to identify the rapists. There was silence from the mainstream media barring NDTV, the only news channel which carried the story. However, 30 minutes after she appeared on the channel, her car was vandalised, something the activist is uncertain about whether it was linked to the campaign or not. Even worse was the reaction or rather, the lack of it.
She soon received mails which not only provided details about the rapists but also criticized her campaign which was said to be insensitive to the victims of the crime and claimed that it was further promoting the voyeurism she was supposed to be fighting. Krishnan had a fitting reply to such opposition, “My question is when these videos were being passed around across the country with the faces of the victims for everybody to see, why did people not protest at that time? A good number of people who wrote to me told me they had already seen these videos many months ago, and these were people from various parts of the country.”
The press and individuals are free to disagree with her methods. But did that mean that the message was not important or not significant enough? As the India’s Daughter controversy hoarded all the conversation around rape and sexual crimes, Sunitha had to fight a lonely battle for justice and perhaps now, in the furore of shrilled debate around Aruna Shanbaug’s rape, her campaign will be missed yet again.
Within 48 hours of her campaign, she received nine other clips of women being gang raped. She won an order from the Supreme Court to investigate these nine cases and CBI made their first breakthrough on March 24th when they identified and arrested Subrat Sahu in Bhubhaneshwar as one of the rapists in the videos. Two more subsequent arrests have followed with one more in Orissa and another in Sitapur. On 15th May, a massive syndicate spanning several states was uncovered due to the evidence submitted by Krishnan to the CBI and police. Kaushik Kuonar was arrested in Bangalore, marking the first time that an uploader of rape videos has been arrested, and while the news trended nationwide as ‘Porn King’ arrested, what many people don’t seem to understand that the videos he and the syndicate were responsible for circulating showed many women and even children in compromising positions. Sunitha had approached the Supreme Court on April 10th saying that she had received 90 such videos from all over the world with the senders all demanding a CBI probe and says that she still receives videos of rape everyday.
— sunitha krishnan (@sunita_krishnan) May 18, 2015
While Krishnan has been bravely taking the campaign ahead, she is beginning to show signs of frustration, “I appreciate that the court, after taking of my letter and the videos I sent, directed a CBI probe. But the judges have to put in place a permanent mechanism to deal with such situations. I cannot become the national registry for all rape videos. Cyber cell does not take suo motu notice of the videos. There should be a complainant but sadly nobody wants to become a complainant as a million questions will be asked.” she told Daily Mail.
National Apathy, International Concern
The conversation around #ShameTheRapistCampaign seems to have come to a grinding halt in India as the mainstream media has simply resorted to following up on Krishnan’s case with the Supreme Court while her voice is being broadcasted internationally through Women In The World and The New York Times. Sunita, who was given the Yudhvir Foundation Award of 2015, previously awarded to the likes of Saina Nehwal, had mentioned the solution she sought from the campaign on her blog as follows:
1. Request for a CBI probe on all the videos she was handing over to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
2. Recommend to set up a task force in the Home Ministry to tackle sexual crimes.
3. To create public friendly anonymous system where citizens can report such crimes within the Home Ministry.
4. To set up a National Sex Offenders Directory of convicted sex offenders, a common practice in many countries, which will not only help to name and shame the criminals but also give the citizens a face to the offense.
5. Ministry of Home Affairs to have an agreement with YouTube and ‘Whatsapp’ to pass on any such offensive videos and to take it up suo motto.
The absence of any debate or conversation surrounding this topic is surprising to say the least, considering how issues of crimes against women have received unwavering attention in the past couple of years. Besides government apathy and bureaucracy, is there a deeper reason that we refused to take this topic up, in the age where even a politicians’ leave from the job becomes a national debate?
The answer seems to lie in our fear that the lifestyle we have adopted might have a dark side to it. The age of countless WhatsApp groups, forwards of images and videos had us feeling secure and jubilant in our communication with no consideration of the flip-side. We ourselves had lauded the role played by a smartphone in protecting the dignity of women through multiple cases, a device which can also be used to go against the same issue. The possibility of an introspection in the age of freely nude pictures or Snapchats is a difficult one which gets further compounded by the addition of rape videos. Sunitha’s revelation that some of the videos were as old as 2010 and 2006 and have been viral for so many years, holds a chilling picture of our grotesque voyeurism and apathy. We guess it’s time to ask ourselves and debate- is all change desirable? And what does one do to counter recording of grotesque crimes such as rape?
The backlash faced by Krishnan for her uploading of the edited videos with threats and mails challenging her to catch few of them reveals the impunity achieved by the perpetrators for their horrific crimes in the absence of this conversation. Aamir Khan, also in attendance at Women In The World, remarked that India’s laws reflect the society we have. He gave the example of how sex determination is made illegal in India due to the direct role played by it in Female Foeticide in the country. The same analogy can be applied to India’s response to sexual violence where a campaign like #ShameTheRapist has to be created and spearheaded not just to spread the awareness of the criminals, but also sound a message to an increasingly deaf Indian society.
Shame. The. Rapists.
Words: Devang Pathak