On Friday, at around 9 am, Twitter trends in India showed the top trend with the name of the Hyderabadi veterinarian surgeon who was brutally raped and murdered on Wednesday night. Her body was found in the early hours of Thursday morning and the news trickled out, shocking people across the nation.
By this time, Telugu news channels had begun flashing visuals of the gruesome murder, and photos began circulating across social media, continuing the trend. While a couple of posts raised their voice on violence against women (ironically this rape, along with at least three other gruesome rapes across the country, took place a few days into the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence), many others took the opportunity to give a communal hue to the rape.
At 9.26 am, Payal Rohtagi, a Bollywood actor and a vocal supporter of the ruling party BJP, put out a tweet asking if â€śShadnagar is a Muslim majority areaâ€ť, garnering over 4200 retweets. Her account was reported by multiple Twitter users across the country and as of this morning, she has supposedly been locked out of her account. Even before the arrests, many accounts clearly supporting a certain kind of ideology, began spreading the false narrative that there was a communal angle to this. Many also asked â€śWhy are liberals not raising their voice against atrocity against Hindu womanâ€ť.
Then at 1.41 pm, Goshamahal BJP MLA Raja Singh tweeted a video in which he is talking about the incident. In the video, he says, â€śSomeone named Mohammed was behind itâ€ť and also mentions a Mohammed Pasha. This added to the already deepening communal weaponizing of the death of a woman and soon, another trend began to appear with the name of the alleged perpetrator.
All through Friday, numerous people also reported a number of tweets that fall in the purview of â€śinciting communal hatredâ€ť but it didnâ€™t stop the trends from continuing. Experts have, in the past, shown how trends on social media are manufactured and driven by a few influencers accounts. Some repeat offenders such as Postcard founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde too drove this narrative forward. He has, in the past, been arrested for spreading fake news with a communal twist. Amit Malviya, the architect of the BJP IT cell, tweeted about the incident but conveniently named only one of the accused. Andhra Pradesh Mahila Congressâ€™s Twitter account, too, put out a defamatory tweet which was then taken down with another tweet clarifying that it was the work â€śof a mischievous volunteer who has since been firedâ€ť.
For a lot of Hyderabadis like me, watching the horror unfold on ground and on social media was too much to process. From what should have been a discussion on womenâ€™s safety, alleged police lapses and the problem of rape culture, the discussion, unfortunately, on social media took a dark twist with the religion of the perpetrators becoming the main focus. Many of the rumours were also spread through Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram.
Across the world, in conflicts, the rape of women is used as a weapon and there is an established pattern of how women and children become vulnerable in such deepening conflicts.
In India, however, the weaponizing of rape is happening in the name of victims and their perpetrators. And this incident in Hyderabad is not the first such case.
Not the first time
A similar playbook was used when the mutilated and decomposed body of a two-year-old was found earlier this year in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. A narrative was spread that the girl was raped and killed by members of a particular community even before actual facts came to light - that the child was not raped (the postmortem report confirmed this), and the murder was the result of a financial dispute between the family of the victim and the accused.
A year ago, when an eight-year-old child from Kathua was raped in a temple and murdered, a battle broke out on social media, ranging between accusing the Jammu and Kashmir police of spreading lies to â€śHinduphobiaâ€ť Videos supposedly of Muslim men abusing women and children were also circulated, without even blurring the faces of the victims. And with little to no effort from social media platforms to control these stories, fake narratives and news are being spread with an ease that is now having a long-lasting impact on the already thin fabric of national integrity in the country.
It almost feels like people are just waiting to pounce on issues and incidents that fit the larger agenda of spreading communal hatred and Islamaphobia. For instance, on Friday, at least four gruesome incidents of rape and murder were reported from different parts of the country, from Jharkhand to Kerala. One of the cases â€“ that of a Dalit woman from Tamil Nadu - too trended on Twitter but it didnâ€™t take on a communal hue. It was this incident (of the Hyderabad vet) of the four that was picked up and given a communal colour, as one of the accused is a Muslim, clearly proving that the agenda was not womenâ€™s safety but to create an atmosphere of fear and distrust.
Addressing attitudes that create rape culture
One other thing that came to light was how ethics were thrown to the wind (yet again) by the media and social media while sharing the photos of the victim. The more gruesome the incident, the more it fits a certain narrative, then the more eyeballs it gets. While this, unfortunately, has become the nature of social media, I hope all of us pause a bit before we share and forward such photos and videos which do nothing to progress the conversation around violence against women.
Little thought was given by people across the board to the family which was reeling under an unimaginable trauma, before they shared the photo of the body of the victim, juxtaposing it with that of her when she alive. For the Hyderabad police who were under immense pressure to crack the case at the earliest, the communal narrative being spread on social media was the least of their worries. Like a senior officer reportedly told Boom Live, "There are three Hindus and one Muslim in the list of the accused. So tell me, how is it a communal incident?"
At the end of it all, this incident will be forgotten, another trend will appear and the most important discussion on toxic rape culture and failing legal measures will be pushed into the background. We need to discuss more the attitudes fueling these incidents, including the one which involves blaming victims.
Take, for example, the comment made by the Home Minister of Telangana who said the victim should have called 100 instead of calling her sister. That comment is reflective of how little men understand the lives of women. The question should be and remains why donâ€™t women call 100 even if their instinct tells them that they might be in danger. How many of us would think of calling 100 if we have a flat tyre? Are police in India really so accessible that we feel confident enough to call them? What if she did call the police and the police turned up and asked: â€śWhy she was wasting our time with a false alarm?â€ť Why did the police, as alleged by the victimâ€™s parents, hint that she may have eloped when they raised an alarm?
On Friday, the Cyberabad police at the press conference announcing the arrest of the accused, also repeatedly urged women and senior citizens to call 100 in case they need assistance. I wish they had also used the opportunity to tell the men in the society not to rape. I wish men around us carried some of the burden of our safety and did not use it as a way to curb our aspirations and ambitions. And communalising incidents such as these only takes the focus away from having a real and honest discussion on womenâ€™s safety and the root cause for the continuing violence against women.
I wish more men called out each other on toxic masculinity and rape culture. I am waiting for men - ministers, police, brothers, fathers and sons - to take accountability for the actions of their kind and pledge to make our society a safer place, instead of telling women not to be out late, not to travel alone, not to dress a certain way or be a certain way.
Padma Priya is the co-founder & editor of Suno India, a podcast platform for issues that matter.