By Nandini Ghosh
‘Nirbhaya 2012’ lives in the minds of almost all Indians as one of the most brutal cases of sexual assault in recent times. Nirbhaya (name changed) was gang raped and physically and sexually abused by a group of 6 men in a fatal assault that occurred on 16 December 2012 in a moving bus in South Delhi. Her male friend who was with her was beaten and tied up so that he could offer no resistance. After the beatings and rape ended, the attackers threw both victims from the moving bus. The partially clothed victims were found on the road by a passerby at around 11 pm (IST). The passerby phoned the Delhi Police, who took the couple to Safdarjung Hospital, where the female victim was given emergency treatment and placed on mechanical ventilation. She was found with injury, including numerous bite marks, all over her body. She underwent multiple surgeries to remove and repair parts of her internal organs, although remaining in “stable but critical” condition. By 25 December, she was having high fever and sepsis, when the central government decided to fly her to Singapore for further medical care. Her condition continued to deteriorate, and she died at 4:45 am on 29 December, Singapore Standard Time. Nirbhaya’s case drew lot of attention from the media but also set off a series of mass protests mainly in Delhi followed by all over the country, which led to important changes in the rape laws of India. The perpetrators were promptly arrested and sentenced appropriately in one of the most swiftly conducted legal proceedings within the country.
Two years later, the story of Korpan Shah remains relatively unknown to most Indians. On 16 November 2014, a body of an unidentified man was recovered from the third floor of the boys’ hostel of a state run hospital in the heart of Kolkata. According to the police, the 30-year-old man’s body was found on the third floor balcony of the student hostel. He was tied to a pillar and beaten to death with bamboo sticks, kicks, and punches allegedly by a group of junior doctors, who are residents of the hostel. The attackers even allegedly inflicted injuries on his genitals. His dead body was then dumped on the balcony. The man identified 3 days later, Korpan Shah, was known to be mentally ill and was lynched in the early hours of November 16 on the suspicion of being a thief, who stole a mobile phone. Before the police could register a case, the principal of the medical college filed a mobile theft case in the police station on behalf of the students of the hostel. The proceedings of the investigation have been dragging with only few arrests being made in late December 2014 and early January 2015.
Both Nirbhaya and Korpan are victims of brutal physical and sexual assault, yet there has been a sea of difference in the way both the public and state have responded to the case. This article proposes to discuss how responses are tailored by our cultural moorings, our specific social locations and, hence, the people we identify with, thereby lending some cases more legitimacy and rendering others as unimportant.
In both the cases, initial attention was directed to the case by media coverage, which also reveals a lot about the way in which the media manufactures or dumps stories. Media is not disjunct from either the state or larger society and, hence, is a reflection of the accepted social values of the space and time. While the media aggressively covered the Nirbhaya case, right from describing the brutality of the crime, her family details, details of the perpetrators, and the plight of the protesters after the incident, there was very little media coverage of the Korpan case, except for the initial reports regarding the body being found.
Why this difference?
This difference is based on media perception and values regarding ‘saleability’ of news. Nirbhaya was a young woman from a middle class salaried family, which had moved to the city from rural UP not only for better work prospects but also to seek better education for the children. Nirbhaya’s family is a prime example of modern society and its aspirations for upward mobility. Nirbhaya had received a good ‘professional’ education and had a bright career in sight after the completion of her para-medical course, but this was cut short by the fatal sexual assault that she had to experience. Korpan, on the other hand, is just the opposite of all that Nirbhaya represented – a mentally ill man, with little education and no stable job, hence with very few aspirations in life. Moreover, the aspersion of theft of a mobile phone made him more culpable for the crime he was accused of. It is almost believable that a mentally ill man with little money would be prone to committing such a crime.
The plight of Nirbhaya drew attention as much as from the fact that she is a woman and any sexual assault on a young woman with a promising future is blight against the patriarchal social order, which deems it the responsibility of men to protect women overtly. However, the caste, class, and religious overtones also cannot be ignored. Niribhaya, in all these three counts, demands attention because being from the dominant religious and socio-economic group, she became the representative face of most in India. She represented not only the women who are wronged against on an everyday basis but also the men who found themselves crying out against not only the brutality but also against what seemed to be an attack on Indian masculinity, which failed to provide adequate protection to its women. Korpan fails on these three counts – being a male from a poor family belonging to a religious community that is itself variously stigmatized, he did not appeal to the media or the common masses as someone who had been grossly wronged.
This also leads us to the perpetrators against whom a lot of public fury was directed in the Nirbhaya case but were less visible in Korpan’s case. The men who violated Nirbhaya were all from poor, illiterate migrant groups living in the slum areas of New Delhi – all easily recognizable as having a predisposition to crime and, hence, it was easy for the media, the state, and the common people to find them guilty and press for their punishment. In the case of Korpan, the presumed accused are all medical students and, hence, not only literate but having an impeccable academic and professional record. Though some of them might be from rural or semi-rural areas, most of them are from middle class families and perceived to be ‘good’ boys because of their academic credentials. Doctors are people considered to be capable of saving lives and how could they be involved in the business of taking a life, so cruelly? This is probably one of the reasons why the investigation was dragging on for weeks before any suspects could be identified and arrested.
Public opinion and response is often greatly influenced by media reports and, in the case of Nirbhaya, it was the role of social media that was remarkable in ensuring the state was pressurized into taking necessary action swiftly. The use of not only electronic media but also social networking sites by people in New Delhi and all over the country to gather in full strength and lobby for strict punishment of the accused in the Nirbhaya case and the need to repeal our rape laws shook the central government out of its repressive stance and ensured that not only was swift justice rendered to Nirbhaya but also that the existing provisions of the sexual harassment laws were reworked to make them more stringent and effective. The reaction of the public was mainly middle class, the group that had the most to gain or lose from the movement that was stimulated post-Nirbhaya. The more the movement gathered strength, the more the state resisted initially at least, the more the movement resurged and garnered more media attention. Media latched on to the case as marketable and the media reports constantly focused on the different ways in which Nirbhaya was brutalized and also the ways in which the state sought to repress the movement in New Delhi, which actually sparked off corresponding responses in different parts of the country.
On the other hand, the Korpan Shah incident was able to garner little media attention – a male, Mulsim, mentally ill thief is a poor protagonist. Almost all of his identity markers deny him attention of the media, state, and, hence, the public. There were media reports in the first few days regarding the case, but meager details emerged about the sexual brutalization he was subjected to before his murder in the hostel. Hence the sympathy that is aroused in minds of public glued to various forms to media was significantly less, and only activists and social critics were found to be following the case on a regular basis. There was hardly any public outcry over the incident and, hence, the news soon slipped into oblivion, with only occasional small inserts regarding the progress in the case. Another way to understand the anomaly in media response: while Nirbhaya’s urban and educated family were able to access media groups to put their case forward, Korpan’s rural, illiterate family background meant that neither his family nor his friends have been able to use the media to their benefit.
The role of the state in both cases requires further attention as in both the cases the state machinery was reluctant to respond to the exigency of the situation. However, public pressure in the Nirbhaya case ensured that the central government, however reluctant, was forced to take strict action against the accused as well as standing by the family of the young woman. In fact, they were left with no recourse but to also help pay for Nirbhaya’s treatment and ensure that the case was properly and swiftly dealt with by the police and systems of justice, in accordance with the revised laws of the country. The Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of New Delhi, and other political leaders all had to make placatory gestures and undertake proactive measures to ensure the safety of the women in the country.
Contrarily in the Korpan case, the first response of the state was to shield the accused and launch a counter attack on the credentials of the brutalized man. The hospital authorities registered an FIR against Korpan for stealing the mobile phone of the student doctor and tried to turn the attention away from the brutal treatment he received before his death. The tepid response of the state government to the case emboldened the hospital and college authorities to initially declare that the students could not be involved, to announce that the suspected students were under tremendous stress because of the investigation, and to shield the students and implore the police that the academic results of the students would suffer. All this was in tune with the image of these students as good boys, who were not capable of committing such a heinous crime. The lack of response by doctors’ associations, who did not issue a censuring note, also emboldened the student doctors and people supporting them. The doctors’ associations can be a powerful influence as has been noted in the Bankura rape case of a deaf-mute girl within Bankura state hospital by a state government doctor, where these associations closed ranks to defend the accused and falsify the charges leveled against him.
All these silences ensured to relegate the Korpan Shah case to the margins of the police activities, as a result of which it took them nearly two months to arrest the first person.
Dr. Nandini Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. She has a Ph. D in Social Sciences from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the broad area of Gender and Disability Studies. She is engaged in research on issues of marginalisation and development from a gender, disability and development perspective. She also teaches qualitative research and sociology for M Phil courses in IDSK and is a guest lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
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