A 14-year old girl disappears from a village in West Bengal in February. She returns in April, and when questioned, says she had run away of her own accord. She refuses to be medically examined. There are varying accounts of how the entire episode played out, but we will get to that later. There is scant media coverage and little mention on social media about the incident.
A month later, in May, the girl, reportedly in the middle of her Class 10 exams, disappears again. This time, though, social media takes up the story with a missionary zeal, making #JusticeForTuktuki trend for more than a day – and literally bulldozes certain sections of the mainstream media to report on the incident. Here begins the charade.
Love jihad redux
It was the first week of June. The Hindu Samhati, a non-government organisation (NGO), which “regularly monitors and reports violations against Hindus in West Bengal”, appropriated the girl as the face of their Beti Bachao initiative. Led by Tapan Ghosh, the organisation took the easiest way to rake up a storm: get television media involved.
According to many reporters covering the story on the ground, Debadatta Majhi, vice-president of the Hindu Samhati, approached them saying he had a story about a “missing person”, and the police’s reluctance to help the family in spite of much running around on the part of the family. “It seemed like a good story; a story about a callous state machinery refusing to help a poor family,” a reporter with a leading TV news channel told me.
Reporters, of course, readily arranged to meet Majhi since it did, prima facie, sound like a story – and a good one at that.
Majhi then arranged meetings between the girl’s family and various reporters.
“The father told me that one Babushona Gazi had abducted his daughter – and it was the second time he was doing so,” an English TV news reporter stated. Majhi, reporters recounted, insisted that they should highlight the plight of poor Hindu girls being forced into flesh trade.
But as reporters studied the story, they began to discover obvious loopholes in the father’s version. The most glaring being the girl’s statement to the district Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), where she stated she had left home as a result of a tiff with her parents over her studies and was living in one of her maternal uncles’ place. In fact, a reporter claims the mother, on cross-questioning, even admitted that their daughter was involved with Gazi and had eloped with him. The mother also stated that both Gazi and the girl studied in the same school. Gazi at the time of the girl’s disappearance was also a minor and turned 18 in June.
The story just wasn’t adding up. And most reporters chasing the story for major mainstream news channels stated that the story was not what Majhi and the girl’s father were trying to sell them.
At best, it was a story about a missing girl and possibly a kidnapping given the girl was a minor. But Majhi insisted it was a story about a Muslim boy abducting a Hindu girl with ulterior motives, and how this had been happening for years, resulting in Muslims overtaking Hindus in terms of population in the region.
Enter social media
While Ghosh and Majhi were trying to garner support in the media in Kolkata, around 13,000 kilometres away, in Philadelphia, United Sates of America, Saswati Sarkar, a vocal right-wing voice on Twitter, took it upon herself to bring justice to the girl. To do so, she took the platform she is used to: Twitter.
Sarkar, who enjoys a formidable following, managed to rake up a serious storm. Soon, other influential figures on Twitter started tweeting about it. And in no time, #JusticeForTuktuki started trending.
Shortly, the mainstream media yielded too – and one of the first to do so was NewsX. The channel started its own campaign to deliver justice to the girl with packages provocatively titled: “Mamata Banerjee government turns a blind eye to kidnap, gang-rape in West Bengal” and “Desperate kin appeal to NewsX”. However, there was very little reporting (in terms of carrying both versions of the story) – and the packages looked and sounded more like orchestrated campaigns than news reports.
NDTV and India Today TV too aired the story – but stuck to reporting the facts and refrained from editorialising it. Interestingly, Times Now did not even carry a ticker about the story. According to sources in the channel, Times Now was one of the first channels to be approached by Majhi and Ghosh, and Ghosh had even reached out to Arnab Goswami. However, the source added that the reporter on ground saw no merit in the story and Goswami went with the reporter’s assessment.
The print media, too, caught on the story. Mail Today’s story, which suggested, in no uncertain terms, that the girl was abducted and raped by “local goons” didn’t carry any quotes from Gazi or his family. The Pioneer carried a column by Kanchan Gupta, headlined “Bengal’s Daughter: The tragic tale of Tuktuki” with the following strapline:
The abduction and alleged rape of a teen from rural West Bengal is the latest addition to a long list of Hindu girls victimised by Muslim goons in the State, where neither the ruling party nor the Opposition is in any mood to help.
Gupta’s column draws heavily from what Ghosh and the girl’s father had told the reporters in Kolkata during their meetings. The column, however, makes no mention of the girl’s statement to the CJM.
When I spoke to Gupta about the column after the girl reiterated in the court that she had gone of her own accord, he told me that he wasn’t surprised and it was “normal practice”. “She wasn’t even allowed access to her parents; what do you expect?” he stated. Gupta said he had done an extensive analysis of the case and he stood by what he wrote. When I asked him if he was coming to conclusions on the basis of just one version, he told me the parents’ version is the only “logical” version to believe in.
Twitter decides, the mainstream media follows
As Sarkar basks in her moment of social media glory, with people congratulating her for “forcing” the mainstream media to take up the story, reporters on the ground are less than excited.
“It’s simply unfortunate that Delhi succumbed to the pressure on social media and reporters are being forced to pursue a non-story,” said a reporter with a leading Delhi-based channel.
According to another reporter I spoke to, the girl’s mother, during a conversation with him, had even said she and her husband had spoken to their daughter in May. The girl, according to the reporter, was upset that her father had taken such a hardline stance.
Sarkar, however, is steadfast. When I asked her if she might have been wrong in reading the situation given the girl’s statement in the court, she said she’d only respond if her answer is reproduced in its entirety. Here’s what she said:
Tuktuki has not been at her home since 78 days, and her parents had lodged an FIR early on. Her father had written to the PM and had appeared online to narrate his account. One Mr. Gazi, allegedly affiliated with a local TMC goon (Salim), has allegedly kidnapped her. The state police was duty bound to locate the missing child, but it did nothing until WB HC ordered police to produce her in court and substantial pressure built up nationally and internationally. The child was located after 75 days, and interrogated in absence of her legal guardians or magisterial supervision. The police did not inform her parents and denied them access to her. Did Tuktuki go away by her own accord? A child of 14 is unlikely to have survived all by herself for 75 days. Where did she live? Why did those who gave her shelter not inform police? If a minor leaves with some one else, then he is guilty of kidnap under IPC. A sexual relation with a minor is statutory rape under IPC as well. Such obvious concerns have not been addressed. Worldwide, abducted girls, eg, Rinkle Kumari, Lata Kumari, Asha Kumari of Pakistan, have been intimidated into siding with their abductors. International press has reported that sex trafficking of minor girls is rampant in WB. Given all the above, why should we discount the repeated and consistent statements of Tuktuki’s parents, and accept right away an one line statement of a child under duress, given in custody of the police whose inaction could very well emerge from complicity with her abductors. Is it because the father is a poor Hindu SC daily wage laborer?
While Sarkar takes almost 300 words to answer my query, a look at her tweets reveals that her stance is dictated by the last line of her response. In fact, all reporters I spoke to agree that since the girl was a minor, the argument about kidnapping did hold merit. However, their gripe was how the “campaign” on Twitter and some sections of the media focused only on the Hindu-Muslim part.
Both Sarkar and Gupta cite the FIR registered with the police to make the point that since the girl’s family house was attacked by Gazi and his accomplices, the girl couldn’t have gone on her own. Curiously, though, they refute the police’s contention that the girl wasn’t abducted and forcibly taken away.
The man who began all of it, Ghosh, told me he is still “100 per cent sure” it was abduction and rape. He wrote to me in an email:
She was under full control of the abductors who were fully hand in glove with local police, for long 75 days. What have happened to her – is it difficult to guess? She might have been raped 50 times. More often than not, more than once a day. May be by a number of people. By this time she may be pregnant. She might have been compelled to do abortion.
A reporter covering the story is amused. “You should have seen her demeanour in the court. She didn’t even look back at her mother.” Here is a clip of what transpired outside the courtroom on July 21 – and the girl doesn’t seem to be speaking under any coercion here.
Following the girl’s refusal to go back home, the court has directed that the girl be sent to a juvenile home for the time being. Meanwhile, Ghosh sent me a mail detailing a new case of “love jihad” in Howrah district. “Pics and other details will be available tomorrow,” he told me. Ghosh now knows his pictures and other details have more than a few takers in the media.