“Even you’ll be shocked if you hear the story of their relationship,” says a news anchor bizarrely dressed as a policeman on the Kannada channel Prajaa TV. His backdrop is a large photograph of a jail. This is followed by loud music that’s supposed to invoke suspense. “Why did a woman with a double degree have a relationship with this man?” a voice-over asks, alongside photographs of Shobha, a young Dalit woman in Bangalore who was murdered near her house on April 11 by a man called Girish, who worked as a painter.
Next, we see an image of blood on the ground. The reason for her murder, the anchor in fancy dress tells us, was their ‘illicit’ relationship. A relationship that was so illicit they confined it to the four walls of her house. “This would never have happened if she had just ended the relationship,” the anchor says. And finally, we see a photo of Shobha’s body wrapped in white with a garland around it.
If you want to know what actually happened here, and not what happened in Prajaa TV’s amazingly prurient, victim-blaming imagination, here it is.
Shobha, 25, had completed her BEd and was a tuition teacher for school children in her neighbourhood. The organisers of the campaign #JusticeForShobha say that on the morning of April 11, Shobha was washing clothes outside her house when she was stabbed to death by Girish, who also lived in the Bangalore neighbourhood of Deepanjalinagar. Two days earlier, Girish had turned up drunk at Shobha’s house and made a scene. He had been stalking her for four months, to the point where she’d had to change her phone number thrice because of his incessant calls. He didn’t stop harassing her despite her telling him she was not interested in him. And when he heard that she was going to get married, he turned up at her house and stabbed her. Shobha died on her way to Victoria Hospital. Girish also stabbed Shobha’s neighbor, Vijayamma when she tried to help. Vijayamma is now in a stable condition.
There has been a complete lack of sensitivity in talking about Shobha’s murder, both by the police and the media. According to the #JusticeForShobha campaign organisers, Girish was only arrested four days after the crime. This slowness was in stark contrast to how, within two hours of Shobha’s death, DCP (West) MN Anucheth was already making appalling moralistic press statements about a supposed relationship between Girish and Shobha without any evidence. Anucheth referred to almost 1,000 phone calls between the two — and while we don’t know if this is true, it should have had no bearing on the case. Since his insinuations, Kannada channels like Suvarna TV and Prajaa TV have ignored ethical standards and broadcast atrocious shows about Shobha’s murder.
Shobha’s character was constantly questioned in every ‘news’ show. She was portrayed as a woman who “spoiled” both Girish’s life and his family’s, “luring” him away from them and “using him for her lust”, and then refusing to marry him. Suvarna TV, on an episode of its show FIR (aired on April 15), and Prajaa TV, on a special show aired on April 17, both referred to the “illicit relationship” between Girish and Shobha and blamed her for her own death.
So what was this implied illicitness? The fact that Girish was already married. How a relationship, illicit or otherwise, real or wholly fictional, justified Girish killing Shobha and making a good go of also killing her neighbour, is not clear.
This wasn’t the end of it. Reporters entered her house without permission, shot footage and took a photo of hers that they found there, and published these without the family’s permission. “Nobody knows the source of the ‘information’ they aired,” says Vinay Sreenivasa of Alternative Law Forum, who has been involved in organising #JusticeForShobha.
Why do media houses feel such impunity to do this? As the organisers wrote on the #JusticeforShobha Facebook page, “Did the media slander Shobha because she was not affluent? Did the media slander Shobha because she was Dalit?”
While newspapers like the Kannada daily Prajavani referred to an “akrama sambandha” (illicit relationship) between Shobha and Girish, the Times of India couldn’t resist quoting the police as saying the two would often fight because Girish had not divorced his wife. Bangalore Mirror ran a report with the headline, ‘Man kills ex-lover over her engagement’, while The New Indian Express’s headline was, ‘Jilted lover stabs woman to death’. Deccan Chronicle went with, ‘Man stabs woman for refusing to marry him’, completely oblivious to how they again put the blame on the woman. Nobody it seems, thought it important to talk about the man who committed the crime, or consider that a woman was murdered by a man who couldn’t stand her saying no to his advances.
While local channels and newspapers had a field day following the police in sensationalising the incident, very few English language papers even reported it. Those who did – such as Times of India or Deccan Chronicle – report it certainly didn’t pay the kind of attention that murders of and by people from more affluent classes are given. The lavish reporting of crimes involving techies is a particular Bangalore affliction.
When media houses decide to place a woman’s ‘character’ above her life, not even techies are spared. There was a horrifying photograph last year from a candlelight vigil held at Infosys when Swathi was brutally murdered at Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai in June 2016. The photograph had a note that read, “Killing her character is worst then killing her” [sic] — a dangerous statement that indicates that having a ‘bad character’ based on misogynistic standards, is worse than killing her.
As we had argued last year, the media’s burning need to establish that Swathi was a “good girl” who didn’t interact with men was as bad as their saying she was a “bad girl”. In Shobha’s case, whether she was in a relationship or not should never have mattered to the media, for whom it only added an element of false sensation and better audiences. Unnecessary details were sensationalised to become bigger than the crime itself, with no respect for Shobha or her grieving family.
In Shobha’s case, two problems remain. Why did DCP Anucheth think it was necessary to release the statement that he did, and why did the media push the case in an irrelevant, even misleading direction? The reporting on Shobha’s case has been an infuriating reminder that the media is happy to create and fuel a frenzy of moralism around the lives and deaths of young women.
#JusticeForShobha will hold a protest at Town Hall, Bangalore at 3 pm on Saturday, April 22.
Ila Ananya writes for The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading online women’s magazine. Visit the website here.