For nearly a month, the non-stop media coverage of the savage bus gang rape in Delhi has created an outpouring of national outrage. The incessant reporting of the brutal incident with uncensored descriptions of metal rods, ripped intestines and angry Bollywood stars has conveniently fed the 24-hour Indian news cycle. But the news story has undeniably captured the public's attention in a way that marks a turning point in India's history.
The mistreatment and abuse of women is a particular problem in Delhi and northern India because there is a deeply entrenched culture of patriarchy and misogyny. The viscous cycle is exasperated by an indifference to law and order and a generally immune police force. The non-stop coverage of this particular rape case has provoked unparalleled anger but has India awoken to a brutal reality that on average rape is reported every 18 hours? To what extent does the reporting promote a collective sense of obligation to end such crimes in order to make India's women feel more accepted and secure.
Since the attack, Delhi has become a city galvanized in grief, solidarity and street protests. The mood has been captured by the news media and transmitted across the nation state. Campaigning groups against sexual violence and abuse have gained a more prominent platform to vocalize their cause. Brutal rape and abuse stories from the recent past have re-emerged into the public discourse. Issues on gender are now on the agenda, distinct from umbrella movements such as the anti-corruption campaign that has dominated the Indian news media for the past twelve months.
The news media have enabled Indian audiences to personally identify with the rape victim as a sister and a daughter by referring to her as India's 'Amanat' (meaning belonging in Hindi) and 'braveheart.' The construction of such a personalised identity has created a national symbol that permeates across the class spectrum. Whilst this has been a unifying factor, the reporting has incorporated class-based stereotypes about the poor. With a focus on the rapists being illiterate, the reporting has created a subtext for the act of rape which is not only a distortion of the cultural and social roots behind the crime but in turn criminalises the poor.
It is important not to forget that India is a deeply class-divided society. The news media not only reflects this but perpetuates the imbalance by assigning value and newsworthiness to rape stories that focus on middle class victims and perpetrators from a poor background. The focus on the fact that the victim of this rape case was a physiotherapy student, who had watched the Life of Pi with her boyfriend just before her attack made the victim identifiable as a member of India's emerging middle class. Such trends depict a skewed reality. Rape incidents like the Delhi case are therefore presented in isolation rather than an epidemic across the class structures. Victims are not just confined to the middle classes contrary to the frequency and nature of media reporting.
With the story being kept on the national news agenda, the media have played a significant role in directing public anger towards the government. Since the attack, the government have been overwhelmed with the public reaction and protests and have scrambled to make laws more strict and increase the rate of prosecution against rapists. Has India's incessant news coverage started the process of shaking the patriarchal foundations of government? It is too soon to make such a statement, but one hopes this is the initial rousing of change.
Whilst the coverage of the rape case has been class skewed, it has provoked an unprecedented level of public anger and self-reflection. Protests have prominently been from the most vocal and affluent sections of Indian society in india but the fact that protests continue in Delhi after the rape victim's death, inspires hope for long-term political change that may potentially reverberate across the class divide. The incessant news coverage spurred by a ratings war may have planted the seeds to a national awakening but it has a long way to go before the the social roots of violence against women are fully realised and transformed.
Follow Nabila Pathan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nabilampathan