If Neethu was in a relationship with Nidheesh, does that make his crime any less?

Time and again, the media has softened its stance towards those accused of stalking and violence, rationalising their offences as 'crimes of passion'.
If Neethu was in a relationship with Nidheesh, does that make his crime any less?
If Neethu was in a relationship with Nidheesh, does that make his crime any less?

Between the months of March and April 2019, Kerala witnessed two horrifying crimes where the victims – both young women in their 20s – were stalked and killed in broad daylight by men. Their crime? The women had exercised their right to say ‘no’ to the men who approached them.

On March 20, 20-year-old Kavitha Vijayakumar breathed her last after sustaining 65% burns at the hands of 18-year-old Ajin Reji Mathew. She was on her way to college in Ranni, Pathanamthitta, when the accused Ajin followed her, doused her in petrol and set her ablaze.

Less than two weeks later, on April 4,  Neethu, a 22-year-old engineering student from Thrissur, died after being stabbed 12 times and set ablaze by Nidheesh (27). Nidheesh had broken into Neethu's house in the wee hours of the day, carrying petrol and a knife to kill her.

Both victims were murdered by men whom they had known previously and had probably been in relationships with. But does that in any way alter or extenuate the crimes of the accused men? The answer is no.

Yet, time and again, the media has softened its stance towards these men, justifying their offences and sometimes even endorsing them as 'crimes of passion' or 'hot headed acts'.

On April 4, several media publications promptly reported Neethu's murder. These were the headlines of some of the prominent dailies – “Spurned love reason for setting Thrissur college girl on fire”, “Girl set afire by jilted lover in Thrissur”, “Girl burnt to death for rejecting marriage proposal”.

A local daily even went on to inform readers that “romantic videos” of the accused and the victim were out on the internet. The report brushed aside the crime, calling it an 'act of immaturity' and 'hot headedness'. It named the Tik Tok account where readers could watch the video clips and described some of them.

Not a 'spurned lover', but a stalker

So why does the media point fingers at those at the receiving end of stalking and violence if they happened to know the offender?

What happens when news reports reek of judgement and blame victims for making choices that they are well within their rights to exercise?

These media reports go on to become part of the public discourse. They misguide readers with a callous disregard for the concept of 'consent'. Each individual is free to say ‘no’ at any stage of their lives, and their romantic lives or relationship statuses – be it married, single, or woefully complicated – do not matter when it comes to harassment, stalking, or graver offences such as murder, acid attack etc.

Further, by referring to the accused as 'jilted lover’ or ‘spurned lover' or connecting the crime to an event in the personal lives of the victim (e.g.: “Girl burnt to death for rejecting marriage proposal”) is an attempt to rationalise or even extenuate the seriousness of the crime committed. Is love an excuse to stalk and kill people? No. Is the inability to handle rejection an extenuating factor when a victim has been charred to death? No, again.

Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code states that any person who,

a) follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly, despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or

b) monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email, or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking.

When the law does not, why must the media blame the victim for rejecting romantic advances or unfairly judge him/her for exercising consent? Instead, why not avoid terms such as 'jilted' or 'spurned', report on the crime committed and most importantly, call a spade a spade – or in this case a stalker and murderer.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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