By: Our Correspondent

 


india-girlstrippedShould the media
repeatedly show the image of a young girl who was stripped naked,
chased and humiliated by thugs in a city street during broad
daylight? Should the picture of the girl, with some portions blurred,
be printed in the front pages of daily newspapers days after the
incident? Why didn’t the newspaper and television channels seek
permission first from the victim? Moreover, would they have run the
picture if the victim had come from an affluent family?

The controversy
has arisen because of a shocking incident in Guwahati, the largest
city of Assam state, on November 24, and it is raising questions far
beyond the incident itself, becoming an issue for India’s
traditionally free press. It began when an estimated 1,000 indigenous
Adivasis, both male and female, equipped with traditional bows and
arrows, marched to the State Secretariat at Dispur – the
Guwahati suburb that is Assam’s official capital – to
demand their inclusion in India’s Scheduled Tribe list.

Police first
tried to prevent the demonstration, which only angered the
protesters, who had hoped that inclusion in the list would benefit
the poverty-stricken group, many of them former or current
tea-plantation workers. Many continued the march. Suddenly some
turned violent and began vandalizing anything in sight.

“The angry
demonstrators started damaging city buses, private vehicles parked at
roadside, shops and even personal property. Even some pedestrians
were not spared by them. Many of them carried their traditional bows
and arrows, but a few were equipped with sticks and hammers too,”
a witness told Asia Sentinel.

Near the
government Secretariat complex, police and paramilitary forces
finally dispersed the rioters with tear gas. Facing harsh action, the
frightened Adivasis fled in small groups, which were then attacked by
local people. Clashes continued for about an hour, with many of the
Adivasi demonstrators beaten mercilessly by youths. Ultimately one
protester died and as many as 250 were injured, some very badly.

Amid the chaos,
a high-school-level Adivasi girl was stripped naked by rowdy youths
and forced to run from the crowd until local residents braved the
thugs to give shelter to the humiliated girl. Pictures show the
terrified girl running while people take pictures of her. One
resident, Bhagiram Barman, risked his life to save the girl from more
physical assault. Before she was handed over to the police, her naked
image was recorded by the media and mobile-telephone cameras.

The incident
kicked off a storm of protest. Mainstream political parties demanded
the resignation of the Congress party-led coalition government.
Social organizations demanded action against those responsible for
the violence and vandalism. Rising fury led to a 36-hour general
strike in Assam. Ultimately the issue reached both the upper and
lower houses of India’s Parliament in New Delhi, where the
stripping of the girl was condemned as barbaric.

Although India’s
trouble-torn and alienated northeast is no stranger to violent
demonstrations, the events in the heart of Guwahati shook the
conscience of the community, where Adivasis have been an integral
part of the society for more than a century. A series of public
meetings and editorials ensued.

But it was the
media that came under particular assault, and probably for good
reason. They described the attack on the Adivasi demonstrators as
unprovoked although the tribe originally started the vandalism. The
papers remained silent on the bravery of the local residents who
sheltered the victim. The media were full of pictures of the naked,
running girl. The English-language Telegraph of Kolkata
(Calcutta) published her picture on its front page on November 27, a
full three days after the incident took place.

A New
Delhi-based media-watch portal also highlighted the issue. “Should
The Telegraph have carried a front-page picture of an Adivasi
girl running naked down a Guwahati street after being stripped by
ethnic rioters? It used black strips to conceal part of her nudity
but her face was only slightly pixelated.” Three readers from
Tezpur University wrote a letter to the paper that “while the
strippers showed their barbarism, the editorial board of The
Telegraph demonstrated its sadism by publishing the plight of the
one stripped."

The Assam
Tribune, the oldest English-language daily in the region,
editorialized, “When a section of the media continues to come
up with the visual of the naked Adivasi girl even days after the
incident, it is evident that their purpose is simply to
sensationalize and blow things out of proportion. It is in such times
that the responsibility and the credibility of the media are put to
test. A responsible media should act to defuse tension and not to
arouse passions further.”

Bikash Sarmah, a
Guwahati-based journalist, asked, “Was there at all any need
for the photojournalists to click her naked photograph from the front
and then get it published?” But through his media column in The
Sentinel, a prominent English daily of northeastern India, Sarmah
admitted that “there might be a justification, though: that
without the visual, the end would not be achieved – of shaking
the conscience of the people, of making them aware of such beastly
behavior by a few despite being part of the civilized world, of
telling the people bluntly as to how some perverts in their midst
would bring disrepute to the entire society.”

The resentment
also was high against the Satellite news channels and the cable
operators of Guwahati. The Greater Guwahati Cable Operators’
Association blacked out two channels, alleging that they were
telecasting a misinterpreted version of the group clash in the city.
“The clashes engulfed not the agitating Adivasis and Guwahati
people as a whole, but only a section of them joined the chaos. But
the news channels went on airing that the residents of Guwahati beat
up the Adivasis and also stripped off many girls who took part in the
procession,” an official of the association told Asia Sentinel.

Two powerful
regional student bodies, the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom
Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad, also criticized the media,
alleging that they repeatedly depicted the image of the Adivasi girl
in an obscene way while neglecting to report that she had been
rescued by a local youth who gave her shelter.

“The media
have every right to inform society about the happenings,” a
student leader said in an interview. “But they should not use
it as a way that only humiliates the victim again and escalates
ongoing tension.”

Shantikam
Hazarika, an academician based in Guwahati, said the two television
channels had replayed the incident for a full day, including visuals
of the running girl. “Those channels were cooking up the story,
sitting in their studios and playing on the visuals of Guwahati
violence,” Hazarika said. “As a Guwahatian I am more
angry at the media than ashamed of what has happened that day.”

Sabita Lahkar, a
journalist and social activist, said, “My question to those
media persons who argue that they have a right to project the things
supported by the facts is, if your daughter or sister is stripped off
by some miscreants and visuals are available, would you support
showing those photographs?

“By
accident, if the daughter of a minister or bureaucrat (or your
editor/proprietor) was stripped off during the Guwahati violence,
would you have guts to project the picture (even if clear photographs
were made available)? You should not humiliate a girl repeatedly as
she belongs to a less privileged section in the society.”