Aswini was 18 when she was brutally stabbed to death outside her college in Chennai last week.
The accused is Alagesan, a 26-year-old man who was, at one point, in a relationship with her.
In what has become a familiar pattern, the conversation, encouraged by a certain narrative spun in mainstream media, has become about how a young woman spurned the "love" of a man and his subsequent "suffering" which led to the crime. That Aswini had broken it off with Alagesan, withdrawing her consent to be in a relationship with him, has become a secondary factor.
What we have, instead, is an endless justification for Alagesan's actions, to the extent that journalists and the public in general have ignored the facts of the case. In their eagerness to paint Alagesan as a cinematic, love-struck hero, they've badly let down the young woman who was cut down in the prime of her life and bled to death on a street.
The facts of the case
A much discussed element is the claim that Alagesan had spent Rs 2-4 lakh on Aswini's college fee. This "fact" began doing the rounds in the evening on the day of the crime. The source appears to be what Alagesan told the police. By then the police were facing the wrath of Aswini's family for not acting on the harassment complaint that she had filed. The "fact" immediately painted Alagesan in sympathetic light.
Nobody was interested in investigating the matter further. Nobody asked how a man who sold water cans for a living had lakhs to spare. Nobody bothered to even call Meenakshi Academy of Higher Education and Research, where Aswini had studied, to find out what the cost of the course was.
We did. The cost is Rs 26,000 per year, with an annual exam fee of Rs 5,000. This means that even if Aswini had completed the three year course, she would have had to pay Rs 93,000 in total. Where then did this figure of Rs 2-4 lakh emerge?
On Saturday, when reporters reached Aswini's neighborhood, people were so furious at the lies peddled by the media that they did not want any journalists near their home. Aswini's mother Shankari told reporters in between her wails that she did multiple jobs and had pledged her jewellery for her daughter. Moreover, the family won a court case after Aswini's father's death in 2006 and was paid a compensation of Rs 4 lakh by the government.
So far, nobody from Alagesan's side has produced a fee receipt that proves he indeed paid for her education. On what "proof" is the media buying into this narrative?
Accompanying the â€˜feeâ€™ narrative was the claim that Alagesan and Aswini were married. Almost as soon as the murder was first reported, some headlines screamed that a college student had been murdered by her 'husband'.
Neither the police nor the families concerned ever said that Alagesan and Aswini were husband and wife. From where then did this narrative emerge?
After stabbing Aswini to death, Alagesan shouted in police custody, "I killed my wife!". Aswini's heartbroken cousin sobbed that he had tied a thaali to the young woman at one point. However, a marriage requires mutual consent and what both parties - the murderer and the relative - were referring to was an incident when Alagesan forcibly tried to tie a thaali around Aswini's neck.
On February 14, an out of control Alagesan went to Aswini's house. He waited till her mother left for work so the young woman would be alone. Then, he tried to tie a thaali around Aswini's neck. A frightened Aswini and her mother responded by going to the police and filing a complaint.
All of this is on record.
And yet, what we were consistently told by media reports was that Aswini was Alagesan's wife. In films like Amman Kovil Kizhakale and Pudhupettai, the act of tying a thaali around a woman's neck, without her consent, may mean marriage but thankfully, not so in real life.
Why the haste in declaring what relationship the victim and the perpetrator shared? When time and again victims in cases of gender-based violence go through character assassination in public, should not the media exercise caution and rigour in checking facts before reporting such a story?
Or is it that victim blaming is second nature to most of us in a patriarchal society? As a male journalist told us, "You'll love someone, and then when your circumstances change, your mind changes and you'll say no? And we have to accept it and be casual, is it?"
Actually, yes. Women are allowed to change their mind about anything and everything just as men are - as long as it is legal. The pronouns 'you' and 'we' clearly indicate that even people in the media, who are expected to be objective in their reporting, pick sides according to their gender when it comes to such cases. To disguise an opinion piece as a news report is dangerous, especially in such cases where it's so easy to swing the public mood.
Widely shared articles, in fact, compared this brutal crime to a Tamil film Unnai Ninaithu, in which the hero, played by actor Suriya, "sincerely" loves a young woman who first reciprocates his attention but later breaks off the relationship when she finds someone with better prospects. The slant given by the article is to provoke sympathy for the accused and not the victim.
In popular culture, a young woman initiating a break-up with a man has been frequently depicted as a "greedy" person "cheating" someone who "genuinely loved" her. Entire plots have been written on this theme - the 2005 Tamil film Devathaiyai Kanden even had the hero filing a case against the heroine for breaking her promise of spending her life with him.
A young woman who lost her life to a deluded, violent man who could not take "no" for an answer, has become the villain in the story. Her grieving family has been characterised as "dishonest" and "mercenary." Meanwhile, the accused has been propped up as the tragic hero. What justice is this?
These are the facts of the case as far as we know, but it's important to also ask what if they had been different?
What if Alagesan had indeed paid Aswini's college fee? Does that mean he has eternal rights over her? Do women have to stay in bad relationships forever? Are we, as a society, also ready to condone women who hack their ex-boyfriends to death because they once lent them cash?
If, in this fictional story, Alagesan was convinced that Aswini had cheated him of money, the logical step is to file a case to retrieve the money. Not force her to continue in a relationship in which she was no longer interested. In any case, money was not the motive behind the crime, it was Alagesan's refusal to accept and respect Aswini's decision about their relationship.
Aswini must have been around 16 when she dated 24-year-old Alagesan. People of all genders change their minds about romantic relationships all the time. If the solution to a break-up, however unfair it might seem to one party, is murder, then the label for the feelings that the person had is anything but love.
It's important to note that Alagesan's act was not sudden provocation. It was not a momentary suspension of rationality. He consistently harassed Aswini before taking the final step of murdering her.
That sense of entitlement that Alagesan felt, and indeed many men do, towards women is what led to Aswini's murder. It is precisely this sense of entitlement that the mainstream media is feeding by romanticising it. Rather than occupying ourselves with the anatomy of Alagesan's heart, let's staple our eyes open to the blood that Aswini spilt on the street. The stains on the tar may wash off but the insults heaped against her, after her death, will not.
Make no mistake. This is not a love story.
The genre is horror.