One need not look much further than literature and the dramatic arts to be convinced of humankind’s fascination with the extreme. Our reactions to things in the pages and portrayals of potboilers know no proportionality theorem. So it came as an exhilarating development when the fourth estate broke the glass ceiling and began to include the audience in the process of news collection and dissemination. Journalism of the people. Social media and blogs took the inclusion many steps further. Journalism by the people. It took the idea of democracy, the foundation of our political system, to hitherto unprecedented heights. However, today we see the chips falling away and revealing the underbelly of ‘mobocracy’. If you think the last line was a cliche, wait until you hear the reactions of people to the Jasleen Kaur case.
Here was a girl who posted on social media a picture of the man who had allegedly molested and threatened her. The post went viral with the man receiving a barrage of expletives on social media. With the media taking up the case, the photograph of the man was seen splattered on our TV screens all day long. Once again, the “collective conscience of the nation” had been riled. The girl was hailed as a beacon beaming and making all the right noises for women’s empowerment. The Chief Minister of Delhi announced a cash reward for the girl. She was congratulated by celebrity and commoner alike.
The very next day, in a move Kafkaesquely reminiscent of the fate of babu beacons under the CM’s regime, our lady beacon was pulled down. The man had spoken. Sarvjeet Singh claimed to be innocent and held that the woman had cooked up the story for publicity. He alleged that a minor altercation had led Jasleen to her ‘heinous’ move. The nation saw him coming forth with a witness who attested to his side of the story. The ensuing backlash against the woman was like a turncourt event by amateur debaters. Her affiliation to a particular political party was scrutinised. Her ambition of scaling the heights of a student political career was attacked as motive. A popular actor apologised to Sarvjeet for having reposted Jasleen’s original Facebook post. She said that “being a girl” she had given her “the benefit of doubt” while reposting. As a woman, it makes me uncomfortable to think that my support to a person should be based on our shared gender, instead of the facts of the case. This brings us to the issue at hand. We still do NOT know the facts of the case.
People seem to be rejoicing at their collective morality in having “done the right thing“, having rectified their vilification of Sarvjeet in the face of the man’s claims. Popular demand now wants Delhi Police to file a case of defamation against Jasleen. Sarvjeet has the right to file a case of defamation if he feels he has been wronged. Just like Jasleen was well within her rights to file an FIR. Jasleen’s inability to produce a witness to back her up is not curtains down on the case. That is why there exists a due process of investigation into crimes. Let the law take its course. Let it play out. Dismissing this case because Jasleen could produce no witnesses could escalate into a serious trend. Would we be saying the same to a woman claiming to have been molested at a site with no witnesses? Would we be comfortable tossing it aside without investigation? It takes courage to come out and report sexual crimes. In this frenzy to shut Jasleen down, let us not forget that crimes against women do take place in this country. The public lashing that she received, which included making uncalled for comments on her appearance and comparing her to a frivolously dramatic Bollywood actor in full length articles, would make victims of sexual abuse cringe about reporting their ordeal. The unwarranted comments amount to bullying, just as shooting down Sarvjeet without evidence is a stellar example of bullying.
Nothing in the paragraphs above should be construed as unfairly siding with Jasleen. We should not be siding with either of the two as of now. Till the time a thorough investigation has been carried out into the case, we should not be abusing our role as social media activists. Instead of switching parties at every turn that the case takes, why not take a step back and analyse why we respond prematurely to everything out on social media and in the media. Collective conscience or collective bloodbaying?
We are now outraged that Sarvjeet was defamed publicly. His defamation was the direct result of people blindly believing in the veracity of the claims made on the picture posted by Jasleen in the first place. The woman made a claim on social media. There was no fact file attached. It was up to us to give both of them the benefit of doubt in the absence of any evidence whatsoever when the case first broke. We are getting quite comfy with using public shaming as the means to set someone right. Public shaming is never right. It used to be rape victims not so long ago. Now it is anyone we think has crossed the line. Public shaming psychologically cripples people in coming out with their side of the story.
Many seem to be of the opinion that men are increasingly bearing the brunt of false accusations. The Rohtak sisters and the Nagaland mob lynching are cited as standard cases to defend this second round of blood-baying in the Jasleen Kaur case. How can we be so myopic as not to see that we are repeating the same mob action here as in the two cases referred to? In both these cases, as with the current, a public trial and public judgement were handed out with disastrous consequences. There has been a reluctance to engage in the larger discrepancies of the case involving the Rohtak sisters. Our insistence on seeing everything in black and white blinded us to the deficiencies of the narco test. The case is currently being heard in court. However, it is seen in popular imagination as a shut case.
The word ‘popular’ also alludes to how the law never seems to take its proper course. Shaky faith in the working of the police and the law in the country has led to calls for much needed reform in the system. However, this attitude also seems to drive us to quick justice via social media/media trials. It also leads to selective evocation of law on our part. On one hand, we call for bringing offenders to justice. On the other, we do not have the patience to see the case to its fulfilment through proper process.
Many seem to worry that if it is legally proven that Jasleen is at fault, she would not be brought to book as we as a culture go soft on women. That characterisation of our culture leaves a lot of room for incredulity. In the event that does happen, THAT is when social media and the media should erupt and facilitate correct action. Much like it should if Sarvjeet is found guilty but without a sentence.
Society is abound with deviants of all colours. However, jumping the gun with public trials only serves to empower the very people that our collective conscience cries for. If the treatment meted out to Sarvjeet on Day 1 could have led to the bafflement of men at how it is always a woman’s word against them, then bringing Jasleen down prematurely in a mob-like fashion would be, at this moment, making victims of sexual abuse pull themselves tighter into the cushions in the closet.
Let us give both Jasleen and Sarvjeet the dignity to fight their case. Our activism at this moment should be restricted to:
1) watching the events unfold and viewing them in as rational and objective a manner as possible
2) seeing to it that the case is not dropped due to loopholes or bullying
3) ensuring that due process of law is followed in the case
4) keeping alive a rational debate on gender equality, exploitation, falsity of charges and reform of law.
It is an erosion of faith in the legal system that leads to people seeking out justice through social media. A feeling that the law is unfairly stacked up against men leads to much misguided misogyny. Why not begin a discussion based on statistics, observed reality and myths associated with these claims?
Let us use our power to manifest our collective power into meaningful action to arrive at rational conclusions. Let us be sceptical and not raise a speculative spectre. Let not the collective conscience of the nation turn in its bed only to turn around.
About the author: Shruthi Venukumar holds a Masters Degree in Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently an Editor with Macmillan Education. Engaging with and debating political and social issues, be them burning and on the back-burner, are her calling in life. She loves to go backpacking and is fascinated by the profundity found in psychology and philosophy.