Monday, August 26, 2013

Mumbai gangrape: How the MMS is helping nail rapists - Firstpost

The most wanted cellphone in the country belongs to someone no one had heard of a week ago — a 21-year-old resident of Agripada in Central Mumbai.

The phone's owner, Kasim Bangali, the main accused in the Shakti Mills rape case, is in police custody, but there's now a 'manhunt' on for his phone. Bangali apparently sold the phone to earn some cash while he was on the run, unable to go home.

The phone might contain not just clips from the latest gangrape of the photojournalist but also pictures of other women Bangali and his cohorts had assaulted in the past. Mumbai Mirror reports that Bangali and his buddies would target couples in the deserted mill, assault the women, click photos and threaten to make them public if they went to the police. Bangali, police sources say, even showed the woman he raped last week photos of the other women on his phone to drive home the point that he was not making an empty threat.

Now those pictures and that phone, instead of being his insurance policy, could prove to be a clinching piece of evidence against him, something that cannot be scrubbed away like the stains the young woman was forced to remove with her dupatta after the rape in Shakti Mills.

Police officials escort a suspect (C), in the gang-rape of a female photographer, from a crime branch unit station in Mumbai.

Police officials escort a suspect (C), in the gang-rape of a female photographer, from a crime branch unit station in Mumbai.

The MMS clip of the sexual act, especially an act of coercion, has traditionally been a way to add insult to injury. It was the way the act lived on forever, immortalised in grainy video, a digital scarlet letter of shame that could be played over and over again, shared from phone to phone, watched in the safety of bedrooms and video parlours across the country. And if it was not shared, the spectre of one's humiliation being pawed over virtually by thousands of strangers (or one's own family) was an effective silencing tool.

Whether the act is one of rape or consensual sex, the shame of sex is borne disproportionately by the woman. In one of India's earliest MMS-scandals, a two-minute grainy video of a teenaged schoolgirl stumbling through oral sex with her classmate became dubbed India's Paris Hilton moment, when an IIT student tried to auction off the clip on landing its CEO Avnish Bajaj in hot water. At that time Neelanjana Banerjee wrote on New America Media "For all the hoopla surrounding the 17-year-old cell phone auteur, the horny/money-grubbing IIT student, Bajaj and the anxious IT moghuls, I was left wondering: What about the girl?"
 Paris Hilton's tabloid celebrity isn't affected by leaked sex videos. In India, soon after the scandal broke, the young woman at its centre supposedly left the country.

The stigma of exposure is real and can be fatal. A 15-year-old girl in Etawah committed suicide in February 2013 by taking sulphas tablets after five youths who raped her threatened to make public the video they had taken of her. In a tragic case in Dabra village of Hisar, the father of a minor Dalit girl killed himself after he was shown a clip of his daughter being gang-raped.

However, now the MMS clip, is finally proving to be a double-edged sword for the monsters who record it.

In this case, it's because the gutsy young woman in question refused to be silenced. By pressing charges and demanding punishment for the perpetrators she effectively turned the spectre of blackmail by exposure on its head. Blackmail only works as long as its victim fears its threat. Once the threat becomes reality, it loses its sting. So many of these MMS clips have gone viral, the threat to reveal them has itself become an empty one. A victim knows that these clips seem to inevitably end up online whether they go to the police or not. Someone somewhere cannot resist sharing them with a wider audience as if the sex-ploit is not real until it has had a million views.

In a world where Google AdWords statistics report that mobile phones were used nearly 4.1 million times a month to search with the keyword 'rape' over one year, that's one search per month for every 30 internet users though it includes those searching for research or shelters and not just titillation, the temptation to brag about rape appears irresistible. That's why these men share the clips of their conquests among friends and acquaintances until they eventually go viral online in a voyeuristic frenzy, in effect, inadvertently destroying their own misbegotten insurance policy to enforce silence.

When 15 youths, including the son of a local BJP corporator in Betna in Indore district gangraped two young women, daughters of labourers, they made an MMS clip as well to intimidate them into silence. Eight days after the incident, the victims and their family members went ahead and lodged an FIR despite the political connections of the alleged perpetrators after the MMS clip started circulating in the region anyway.

The public's appetite for rape videos could well become the noose that ensnares its perpetrators. The smartphone with which a thoku master tries to threaten his victim into submissive silence could become the smoking gun that nails him.

There is some poetic justice in that.
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