The Pollachi sexual assault case was first reported in February. However, it exploded on social media and news channels after Nakkheeran put out two blurred videos of sexual assault on Saturday, and claimed that there were several more such videos that could be found in the phones of the accused.
In the videos, a girl can be heard pleading with a man, asking him to let her go and to not hit her (it's unclear if it's the same girl in the two videos). Her heart-wrenching cries have led to much outrage, from film celebrities to politicians and the public. Unverified reports have estimated that the number of girls who were trapped by the men is around 200, with many such videos of sexual assault.
While there cannot be any question that the case should be thoroughly probed, what with allegations of political interference and police apathy, it's equally important to look at some of the extreme responses that the case has evoked. Is this display of anger cognisant of why such incidents happen? Or do we continue to perpetuate rape culture with our responses?
'He also has women in his family'
Within hours of the video going viral in Tamil Nadu, pictures of the women in the family of one of the accused began doing the rounds on social media. Several commented on how the accused had not listened to the victim despite her calling him 'anna'. Some even called for similar treatment to be meted out to the women in his family.
A sample of the messages that people have put up while sharing the family photograph: "You have a sister? You'd have understood if this had happened to her. You should be killed'; 'When that girl pleaded with you saying "Anna, let me go", did you not think of your sister's face, the one who is next to you?'; 'Whore family'; 'This girl looks hot, take a moment and she's the sister of the guy who raped so many girls. Just because you had money doesn’t mean you can rape Girls. Friends in my list, if you are against Rape, share and make this family famous. FAMILY OF RAPIST GUY'.
If there's anything NCRB data has consistently shown us, it is that women are most unsafe in their own homes. This means that the greatest violence they experience is from their family members and immediate social circle – fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, neighbours and so on. From people they call 'appa', 'anna', 'mama', 'thaatha' etc.
It is because of this that crimes against women remain heavily under-reported. Our collective denial about these cold facts only shows how little commitment we have towards preventing sexual violence and encouraging survivors to share their stories. The anger is reserved only for stories we see in the media, when the perpetrator is unknown to us.
The women who are related to the accused are not his property. Asking that they be raped in order to punish him is no call for justice, but a complete perversion of it.
'It doesn't matter if the girl in the video didn't consent to it being leaked'
There's no doubt at all that the videos which have been put out have led to massive pressure on the police to take action. Because until that point, despite media reports, the case did not capture the imagination of the public. This says a lot about how indifferent we are as a society towards cases of sexual violence. Unless we are given the voyeuristic details of a case, we cannot be bothered to take an interest.
However, it's important to remember that the leaked videos are not that of the complainant. The girl, whose voice can be clearly heard, has not consented to the video being published in the public domain. We do not know what impact the leak has had on her, physically and mentally, and if she's in any position to take help from those around her to deal with the situation.
And what of the other victims? Will this sensationalism encourage them to step forward and file a complaint, given that there's no guarantee that anonymity will be maintained? A few media channels have already published less blurry videos supposedly that of the Pollachi case – what if the identity of the girl(s) in the visuals becomes known? Several people have already received the unedited videos. Who will take responsibility for this?
For far too long, decisions have been taken on behalf of women "for their own good", and their consent in matters pertaining to their own welfare is considered unimportant. This is yet another example. The videos have brought attention to the case, but there are several such sensational cases where the accused have been let off by courts long after the public has lost interest. The conviction rates for cases of sexual violence is abysmal – it's the survivor in the end who stands to lose the most when we have moved on.
'Girls should not have smartphones'
As was only to be expected, the news has made several defenders of "culture" use this as an excuse to restrict women even further. In one video on Twitter, a man randomly stops a young couple on a two-wheeler and advises the girl to not go with the boy because he's a "stranger" and the only men who can be trusted are "father" and "brother". He shuts down the arguments with his righteous moral policing.
Statements like girls should not have smartphones, or should not be allowed to use the internet, or even step out of the house without an accompanying male, have been passionately put out on social media and shared with equal enthusiasm.
Considering that the perpetrators are men, wouldn't it be more logical to call for restrictions on men rather than women if we're going the khap way? Placing the onus on women to prevent sexual violence is classic victim blaming, and a huge reason why victims hesitate to file complaints. And as pointed out earlier, women are more unsafe in their own homes than outside of it, so it's not that they will not be violated if they stay home – only that it will not become public.
'Pollachi girls are damaged goods'
Another viral message on the internet is that people will hesitate to marry a girl from Pollachi because there's a good chance that she's "damaged goods". Every time an instance of sexual violence comes out, it is the woman who has to bear the shame of it. Even though she did not commit the crime but is actually the victim, it's her reputation which is at stake and she's deemed 'unfit' for marriage because she has been 'touched' by another man.
Words like 'keduthutan' ('spoilt'), which are used to describe rape in Tamil, refer to loss of "chastity" and "purity", squarely shaming the victim. A rape survivor has to live with this stigma for the rest of her life. These statements clearly show that as a society, we still blame women for sexual violence and are not ready to accept survivors with empathy.
'One more sex video out'
The voyeurism surrounding the Pollachi case is shameful, but not surprising. Several YouTube videos have used a suggestive image to draw users in for more views. A movie promo for actor Vishal's upcoming film Ayogya in which he's seen outraging against rapists was released (and later deleted) to capitalise on the people's mood.
A Tamil newspaper Malai Malar even carried this headline 'Pollachi: New sex video of girl students' on its poster. Perhaps the editors were asleep, or perhaps they genuinely do not know the difference between sex and sexual assault.
Let's remember that one of the top search trends on Pornhub soon after the Kathua case came to light was the gangrape video of the eight-year-old. It's no different this time around as the voyeurs among us go looking for the Pollachi video and wait with bated breath for the next leak. Again, what effect is this having on the victims? Nobody knows or cares.
'Where are the Me Too women'
After the Me Too movement in October 2018 threw up the names of several prominent men in the media and cinema industries, the survivors who put their names to the allegations faced extreme hostility, or were met with complete silence from their colleagues.
For instance, the Tamil film industry, which is currently boiling with tweets on Pollachi, maintained a deafening silence. Instead of questioning their double standards, several people have used the Pollachi case as an excuse to attack the women all over again, even though they have been speaking about the case, too.
Dismantling rape culture cannot be done overnight, and certainly not if the anger and outrage is limited only to convenient perpetrators. While we must focus our energy into preventing cases of sexual violence, a large part of this exercise also involves empowering survivors – to speak up and fight for justice with our full support. That cannot happen if we trample all over their rights and refuse to acknowledge their agency in our haste to be seen as social justice warriors.
Sowmya Rajendran is a journalist who writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She also writes books for children. Views expressed author's own.