Misogyny, bigotry and everything else that went wrong with Shraddha Walkar case coverage

The insinuation that Shraddha dug her own grave overlooks the National Crime Records Bureau data.

WrittenBy:Gurmehar Kaur& Shabnam Surita
Date:
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A scant unassuming apartment in the tight lanes of Delhi’s Chhatarpur and the dense neighbouring forest of Mehrauli transformed into a stage to play out a macabre story of murder and madness. Aaftab Ameen Poonawala, a trained chef and Instagram food influencer, used his dexterity with knives on his live-in partner Shraddha Walkar’s corpse after strangling her to death, with reported inspiration from the TV show Dexter. The killing was gruesome, and the usual suspects on TV news turned it into a salacious primetime spectacle with toxic flavours of misogyny, bigotry and victim-blaming.

As cameras zoomed in on skulls, reporters scoured the forest for body parts and editors turned into forensic experts, facts, nuance, and the issue of women’s safety became a casualty. Sample the tickers: ‘fridge main ladki, bagal mein laash’, ‘mohabbat to murder’, ‘tukde tukde love story’, and ‘aashiq nahi jallad, mission love jihad’.

The anchors faulted the victim for making independent choices as an adult woman, commenting on her choice of partner. They emphasised that Shraddha had met Aftab through a dating app and lived with him against her family’s wishes. The ticker on Rubika Liaquat’s ABP News show declared Shraddha’s relationship with Aftab as no more than a “trap” set by him – a wink to “love jihad”, the Hindutva conspiracy theory that Muslim men in droves are luring Hindu women with the express aim of converting them to Islam. In a melodramatic monologue, the anchor also stated that she was angry with Shraddha for choosing her partner over her parents.

Anchors across TV news channels proclaimed the growing popularity of online dating as a cause of youth unemployment and moral apathy. Sudhir Chaudhary of Aaj Tak, on his show Black & White, proclaimed that ‘‘relationships are for sale” on dating apps. “It’s suspected that this dating app may also be at the root of this murder,” he said, lamenting that a growing number of young men and women in India were using Bumble, the dating app through which Shraddha and Aftab had met, and declaring it a cause of the moral demise of India’s youth. “Where is the Indian youth headed?” he asked agitatedly, referring to the 10 crore Indians with the dating app installed. 

The primetime TV stars didn’t just have a problem with Shraddha’s choice of using a dating app. Worse yet, they stressed repeatedly she had chosen to be in a relationship with a Muslim man. Her murder, then, they implied, was the result of her less-than-sanskari choices. Republic Bharat went to the extent of airing a “social worker” Preeti Pande’s unsolicited advice to “India’s daughters”. “Aaftab ke bare me baat karen usse pehle betiyo ke bare me baat karein – aapki kisse dosti ho rahi hai, wo koi jihadi to nahi hai, wo apna naam badalke, dharm badalke aapse dosti karke phir aapke 35 tukde to nahi karega – aapko alert rehne ki zarurat hai.” “Daughters” must stay alert, she said. “The person you are befriending, is he a jihadi? Will he shred you into 35 pieces after hiding his name, religion to become friends with you?”

Here it was again, the lurking spectre of “love jihad”, which, while demonising Muslim men, casts Hindu women as weak-willed and feeble-minded and lacking agency and the ability to make their own choices. 

As if on cue, the anchor of 5 Ka Prahaar show on Republic Bharat duly thrust out the accusing anti-Muslim finger. “Jab tak uska man hua usne us ladki ka sharirik shoshan kiya, shaadi ka jhaansa dekar, pyaar ka natak kiya, aur phir jab baat aayi shaadi ki, to usne usko maar dala? Uske tukde tukde kar diye? Agar ye love jihad nahi hai to kisko kahenge love jihad?” she thundered. She had any evidence to make this startling claim? Ha! On Republic Bharat? Times Now Navbharat and CNN News18 were on the same wagon.

On the latter, Anand Narasimhan pulled up Aftab’s call logs to purportedly show that he was in touch with “other Hindu girls” and could be “luring Hindu girls” to fulfil his “love jihad” mission. Chaudhary of Aaj Tak played on another Hindutva trope: of the Muslim man as an uncivilised brute. “Is vyakti ki parvarish ek aise ecosystem me hui hai jahan usne hamesha maar peet dekhi hai, to uski prarvarti tukde tukde wali ho jaegi. Har rishte me ye dekhna bhi zaruri hai ke dono log kaise ecosystem se aate hain aur kis dharmik parvesh se aate hain,” he declared, without evidence, attributing Aftab’s brutality to his upbringing in supposedly an “ecosystem of hate” where violence is commonplace. “In each relationship, it is necessary to check what ecosystem and religious background two people come from.” 

Narasimhan convolutedly linked Aftab’s professional training as a chef and his interest in the food industry to his hacking up of Shraddha’s corpse. “He was a chef, and he used that knowledge of how to cut up a body and meat to try and chop Shraddha’s body into 35 different pieces,” he said, trivialising the crime and further dehumanising the victim. 

The insinuation that Shraddha dug her own grave by using a dating app or making choices independent of her family, or choosing a partner from  outside her religion overlooks the National Crime Records Bureau data indicating that Indian women face violence at a massive scale, irrespective of the religious identity of their partners.

According to the NCRB data for 2021, crimes against women increased by 15.3 percent over the previous year, while “love affairs” were the third-most common reason for murders. The national family and health survey data shows that 30 percent of married Indian women face physical or sexual violence or both. A survey by the International Center for Research on Women found that 52 percent of women have experienced spousal abuse, with nearly 60 percent of the men surveyed admitting to having been violent against their wives or partners. 

The usual suspects on TV could be less bothered about these numbers. As Dr Narendra Nagarwal, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Delhi points out in his paper, “Era of Media Violence and Indian Muslims”, TV channels such as Zee News, Republic TV and India TV deliberately conduct debates on primetime shows which have communal content to “gain TRPs at any cost”. In a related vein, Swati Bandi, a researcher of gender representation in media, explains how Indian TV news channels, “in the absence of actual evidence, transcend their objective communicatory role to construct compelling and highly spectacular narratives of sexual violence”. 

Indeed over the past three days, a section of news channels and anchors shredded every rule of ethical journalism to render Shraddha Walkar’s tragic murder into a tamasha.

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