The most inconvenient question of them all
by Deepu Sebastian Edmond
The Hindu – Opinion / 2018-11-13 09:35
Often, storytelling is a mechanical process for reporters. If you are particularly lucky, stories appear in your head already told: five Ws and the H all set to meet the printer’s ink.
Then, rarely, a story comes along that makes you question the tools at your disposal. Rarer still, you search that toolbox and come up empty.
Five people were held in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu based on the complaint of a 13-year-old girl, neighbour to four of them. One was arrested for grabbing and trying to disrobe her on the night of October 15. Three were arrested for tying her to a tree through the night on October 18 and then beating her with multiple objects and burning her with metal rods that had been held over a stove. The three had been accusing the girl of stealing a mobile phone from one of them. The fifth was a 16-year-old boy from an adjacent village, who was sent to a facility operated by the district’s Juvenile Justice Board. The girl, in her police statement, spoke about an ongoing relationship with him.
When I met the girl’s family at the Thanjavur Medical College, where she recuperates, my first instinct was to leave the 16-year-old boy out of the picture. Even in the FIR, he is almost an afterthought, the result of a police officer asking the girl if she had other relevant details to share.
I therefore tried to steer the family towards my primary question: why was the girl assaulted twice over three nights by her neighbours? Out tumbled two previous instances of assault. Once, a group accused the girl of stealing ₹10,000 and slapped her. Another time, the same man who grabbed the girl on October 15 tied her to a pole for hours after accusing her of stealing his mobile phone charger.
After the accused were picked up, a large group of residents turned up at the police station and demanded their release. The only resident who agreed to a phone interaction said that the family would be accepted back only if the child’s father apologised for her behaviour to the village at its temple.
A nine-minute audio clip of the girl’s interrogation, made by the alleged perpetrators during her torture, surfaced. It was not about a stolen mobile phone. Over the sound of blows landing on her body, the child’s neighbours kept asking her about her romantic relationship.
The child told me that the hostility towards her had begun soon after she began a relationship with the boy. She regularly borrowed phones and chargers from neighbours to talk to him.
It is when I began writing the report that I realised that I had no language available to speak about this incident. The law refuses to acknowledge what she calls consent; the law brands the boy as a juvenile offender. The girl’s parents blamed her for staying out late often and inviting the wrath of the village.
A draft of the story that held back certain prejudicial details, on the other hand, deprived it of the backdrop that held up a mirror to the village. In the end I had to throw up my arms in the air — there would be no story. I think it is at this point that news reports often take a step back, deciding not to deploy that most probing and inconvenient question among the five Ws: Why?
Courtesy the author, I shared it as it touched a nerve.