What does Swathi’s murder say about us?

Communal polarisation, caste victimhood, intrusive media coverage: this tragedy brought out the worst in different media

BySubhabrata Dasgupta
What does Swathi’s murder say about us?
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It was a gory murder, committed in broad daylight; in a place as public as a railway station, in a metropolitan like Chennai. Swathi’s death revealed a lot about how unsafe public places can be, the way a tragedy is manipulated to serve various agendas, and how insensitive sections of the media can be in its craze for bytes. The latest development in the case is that the accused P Ramkumar has claimed he’s not guilty and that the police is foisting a false case on him.

As if the crime itself wasn’t horrible enough, what Swathi’s murder has inspired has been all the more appalling. Following rumours, online bigots pledging allegiance to Hindutva alleged that the murderer was a jilted “Love Jihadi”. Some used dubious articles from even more dubious websites; many circulated gory pictures of the slain Swathi with equally flammable commentary. It was described it an “ISIS type beheading” and #JusticeForSwathi started trending on social media.

Whether or not justice was their priority is another matter, though. Abhijeet Bhattacharya, the popular Bollywood singer from the 1990s, tried his best to cash in on the murder, but only ended up tweeting himself to trouble.

Those rallying behind #JusticeForSwathi, suddenly found a new cause: #IStandWithAbhijeet. In the speed with which they forgot about the murder victim, it became evident what their priorities were.

When Chennai police apprehended Ramkumar and it became obvious that the love jihad rumours had been baseless, the cyber hate-mongers’ quest for justice suddenly ebbed. The hateful tweets and inciting posts on these websites remain online though, lying in wait for the less informed who can be misled.

There was also the issue of Swathi’s caste. That Swathi was born in a Brahmin family was used by Brahmin associations like the Anthanar Munnetra Kazhagam, which demanded that the state government should ensure the safety of Brahmin women. How the murder was seen from the prism of caste victimhood is indeed morbidly fascinating. Take a moment to consider what this excerpt from a Scroll.in article says of Swathi, “What the papers do not underline, though the vox populi does, is that she was the epitome of a Brahmin girl, born to succeed. Even as she lay dying, no one dared to touch the body of a Brahmin girl.”

The article then goes on ask if the case is “another manifestation in reverse”, of the “hateful contradictions of a society mired in caste?” Really? That’s what we’re supposed to glean from the fact that a person was killed in a public place and that no one helped her?

The more real and critical issue is that India has an abysmal record of bystander intervention. In 2011, what later came to be known as the Keenan-Reuben case, we saw two young men being stabbed and left to die on the streets of Mumbai, unaided by the countless passers-by. More recently, in the infamous December 2012 gang-rape and murder, the victim and her friend lay on a Delhi road, grievously injured and bleeding, pleading for help and vehicles drove by unconcerned. As per data from SaveLIFE Foundation, an NGO which works on road safety, 3 out of 4 people are reluctant to come forward and help an injured in a road accident. This was a brutal hacking and perhaps bystanders worried that they would be held responsible for the crime if they helped Swathi.

Although the media coverage was mostly responsible, there were a few aberrations. There were wild speculations about Swathi’s relationships in certain publications, like this speculative headline in The Asian Age: “Relationship issue led to murder of Infosys techie in 6 minutes?” At one point, Swathi’s father K Santhanagopalakrishnan appealed to the media to stop speculating about her character. “When no one can bring back the departed soul, why tarnish her image and indulge in character assassination,” he asked. Swathi’s uncle Govindaraj had to clarify, “As some section of people say, she wasn’t involved in any relationship with anyone.” A section of the regional media followed Swathi’s father while on his way to perform funeral rituals, which was both tasteless and an invasion of the family’s privacy.

Some media channels opted for sensationalism while others succumbed to trivialisation.Take for example, Tamil news outlet Maalaimalar.com, which ran a story asking if Swathi’s “spirit” helped in the investigation of the case.

Thanthi TV, a Tamil news channel, ran a story asking if numerology was working against the accused Ramkumar, and concluded that eight was an “inauspicious” number for him.

Violence, particularly when enacted in crimes, exerts a pull over us. It reveals both power and a dangerous excess that most of us are fascinated by — this is the quality that media has cashed in on for decades. That’s why whether it’s an article or a video, the attempt by journalism is to take the reader/ viewer as close to the victim and the scene of the crime as possible. Who will you see yourself as — the victim or the killer? There’s an inherent element of horror in violent crimes, but what response a reader will have depends to a great extent upon how it’s reported. The way crime is shown and analysed in the media offers an interesting insight into how at least one section of society thinks. What Swathi’s murder reveals is a greedy voyeurism on part of both those who told the story of her death and those who consumed it.

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