A girl went to graze her horses. The horses returned but the girl never did.
We all know her by a photograph taken by her brother the day she went missing. An 8-year-old girl looking straight into the camera, fearless eyes and sun-kissed face, dressed in a purple floral kurta. I read in an article that the photo was taken whilst she made a meal for herself in the kitchen, something she rarely did as she loved being out in the mountains amongst the cattle. Her brother took the image to show her foster mother that this impish girl could also fend for herself when left to her own devices. She had been adopted by her fatherâ€™s brother when she was 2 months old to help them get over the grief of losing their own daughter and two other children in a bus accident. She slept in her foster motherâ€™s arms and was the darling of the family.
Three months after this little girl went missing, another image of her, in the same purple kurta but muddied and disfigured, was reported in the media. The details of her planned abduction, sedation and repeated gang rape for 7 days within the temple of a goddess became headlines because a group of lawyers took out a protest to prevent the accused from being chargesheeted. What became apparent is the direct involvement of local officials and the police in the planned rape of a minor girl and subsequent coverup to allegedly drive out her nomadic community from the area.
In different corners of the country more disturbing news was breaking. In Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, a teenager threatened to immolate herself outside the Chief Ministerâ€™s residence. She was allegedly raped by a politician who then managed to get her father arrested. The girl was saved but her father was killed in judicial custody. As marches and protests spilt into the streets, another minor girl went missing and was later found brutalised and killed in Surat, Gujarat. The news jostles for space in the newspapers as India wakes up to the reality that its rape culture is targeting children.
I joined candlelit vigils. Every case was more brutal than the other, yet personally the image of the girl in the purple kurta with her pony impelled me. When I confessed this to another mother, she said that she too had sleepless nights because she could not meet the girlâ€™s unflinching eyes. These were first time protesters â€“ a mother, a senior citizen, an officegoer â€“ who found they were part of a movement called #MyStreetMyProtest, which decentralised the protest and mobilised local communities so neighbours stood shoulder to shoulder, all moved by the same image.
Placards were held that had the name of the girl with painted representations of her leading her pony. The court chided journalists under section 228A of the IPC for revealing the identity of the child. In response, the next day there were posters with a black band over the girlâ€™s eyes and others that referred to her as the â€˜Kathua victimâ€™, a depersonalised label that groups all victims under one umbrella of having lost a battle rather than having fought one until the end.
The law is blind and must protect the vulnerable, and yet in the case of a deceased minor whose parents struggled to get a case registered because of political and legal collusion, is it not their choice to use everything in their power, including images, to keep the case alive?
The media did overstep the law to amplify this message and has been asked to pay Rs 10 lakh as penalty. But maybe it was worth it? Without a groundswell of public opinion, the case would never have been registered. It was definitely not a nameless, faceless statistic that could have shaken the collective conscience but an 8-year-old girl in a purple kurta with fearless eyes. Where should the media draw the line whilst protecting identities yet humanising narratives so there is hope of justice?
The image was circulated by her parents when their little one went missing. They did not know then that they would recover her tortured and abandoned body and the very same image used by the media would become a cause of controversy. The two contrasting images â€“ a girl in a purple kurta staring fearlessly into the camera and another of a crumpled form in the same purple kurta lying face down â€“ had the power to shift the moral compass of a nation.
India took to the streets in 2012 following the Delhi rape case of Jyoti Singh, renamed Nirbhaya. Why did we do so? The details of the rape, in the nationâ€™s capital and in a public space when she had a companion, brought home the everyday trauma of young women commuting by public transport in Delhi. The fact that her parents did not want to hide the identity of their daughter and constantly referred to her as Jyoti in TV interviews is a powerful precedent. Her mother categorically stated that she wanted to call her by her name because her daughter had nothing to hide; she felt this was a stance that would shift the shame and attention to the rapists. Jyoti herself bravely clung to her last breath to get her rapists convicted, making every one of us realise that we must take up her cause even after she breathed her last.
There is always a tipping point that shifts the wheels of public opinion to challenge institutions. As a filmmaker, I would argue that it is a challenge to constantly keep alive human details that gives a little girl of 8 a chance against entrenched and powerful criminal systems. Every one of us hesitates to seek legal recourse because of the long and tedious process, the costs, and because justice is often derailed by powerful forces. How much more intimidating then for humble nomadic parents at a time when their lawyer has been issued death threats?
The hashtag with the Kathua victimâ€™s name has become a rallying cry because she is a girl with a name and personality. She is the gypsy girl who fearlessly climbed mountains. She loved animals more than cooking and wore a purple kurta with spring flowers the day she went missing. We would not have known her the same way if she was simply the Kathua victim and the media had not overstepped the law.
She has been brutalised and killed, she can never have justice. If her parents keep her fight alive it is because they want their missing girl to be the guardian angel to every child who wanders believing her home and neighbourhood is a safe place. The law must tilt the scales to favour of the Kathua victim so this could well be the case that humanises the law through nuance.
Miriam Chandy Menacherry is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her best-known films are Lyari Notes and The Rat Race. She is currently working on a film on girl child trafficking titled #MissingGirls.
Views expressed are the authorâ€™s own. TNM as an organisation does not believe that knowing the identity of a victim should be a necessary condition for public anger or action in a horrifying crime.