By Sharanya Dutta
Rape videos, also euphemistically known as “local films” and “WhatsApp sex videos” are being sold in shops in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for anywhere between Rs 20 to Rs 200. These are videos shot on cell phones in which the faces of the women are visible, and their screams heard clearly.
These are revelations from an investigative report by Al Jazeera that focuses on Meerut and its surrounding villages. The report finds that shopkeepers are “cautious about selling them to non-locals”. And that these videos are apparently made so that the victims of rape can be blackmailed after the fact. “There are watchwords in the trade – akin to a secret handshake,” says the report. There is certainly secrecy around this abhorrent phenomenon — secrecy, but apparently no shame.
These videos are transferred via phones through apps like WhatsApp and shared online, and clearly the people who sell them don’t care that they are freely circulated. A man from Saharanpur in Western UP admitted that he buys “pornography” from nearby villages. That is how he classifies these rape videos which he collects on his laptop, with no distinction from other pornography. These videos, he says, give him “peace of mind”.
The police seem to be oblivious to this thriving trade — they claim to be helpless and unable to verify their “authenticity”. District Inspector General of Police for Saharanpur Range, AK Shahi even asked Al Jazeera, “Rape video…ye kya hota hai (Rape video, what is this)?”
Shikha (name changed), a rape victim says in the same report, “I don’t doubt that many of them [the women in such rape videos] might have resorted to committing suicide.” This, in fact, did happen when the victim of a gang rape poisoned herself in Chapar village, Muzaffarnagar, after a video of her assault was circulated on WhatsApp.
Banning porn is not the answer, as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) might think. Instead of catching the culprits, it suggested last year to the Supreme Court to put monitoring agents inside the offices of companies like YouTube and Facebook to censor content. And despite popular perception, it is not the “insatiable lust and penchant for salacious material”, or the “ubiquity of internet-enabled pornography”, that causes people to rape.
The CBI likened these videos to the Sword of Damocles – eternal potent threats that can resurface at any time. Leave aside such fear-mongering for a minute. The solution to this problem is not surveillance of the “limitless cyberspace”, nor is it deploying language that labels the survivor as “hapless” and the crime a “national shame”. This unnecessary jargon depersonalizes these women, makes the rape incidental to the crime, and situates her in the simplistic and patriarchal ‘India’s Daughter’ mould. Rape videos should not and must not be conflated with pornography. Pornography is constructed and shot with consent. Rape is a violent crime.
“Porn is passé. These real life crimes are the rage,” said a shopkeeper in Agra in a Times of India report earlier this year. Another shopkeeper was heard by the same reporter tempting teenage customers with the possibility that they might even know the woman in the “latest, hottest” video. Reportage like the one in the Times of India report describes the violence in these videos vividly, further feeding into a culture of vicariously living out and fetishising details of sexual violence.
The fact that these videos recorded a crime, which then became reproducible and marketable, thus taking away all agency from the victim twice over, is a fact that even the most well-intentioned people fail to understand. Take activist Sunitha Krishnan’s “Shame The Rapist” campaign last year, and her decision to circulate rape videos she’d received with the victims blurred out. As she herself said, “The videos of rapes uploaded suggest these crimes are pan-India.” Her actions might have been benevolent but they provided further publicity to such videos, and co-opted the trauma of the victims, crusading in their name, to get them what one considers ‘justice’. If she thought the violence shown in the videos would have shock value that would spur the wheels of justice and shame the perpetrators — did this not essentially subscribe to the same voyeurism that caused those videos to be circulated in the first place?
Just the fact of getting raped is not traumatic enough, there must be visual proof in order to take action? Krishnan is a rape survivor and has founded Prajwala, which helps rehabilitate trafficked women and girls. The work she is doing is essential and brave, but as Jasmeen Patheja of Blank Noise says, “It’s the survivor themselves that should own the narrative.” (Krishnan too has asked troublingly, “Why can we not ban pornography? It is merely for the sadist pleasure of a few men.” Actually, no, it isn’t) Krishnan also said to NDTV, “Ten seconds into the video, I was overcome. I had to stop as I needed to throw up.” Why, then, did she want everyone else to see it?
Contrast this with Al Jazeera’s follow-up blog post where it says, “As for the material we acquired in the course of our investigation, we have destroyed all digital copies used to render the very select images we included in the article. And, in an effort to protect the women and girls from further victimisation, the footage our reporter found in India will be turned over to the appropriate anti-rape and women’s rights advocacy groups.”
As Piyasree Dasgupta succinctly wrote in Firstpost earlier this year, “The bitter truth is that between titillation and responsibility, India chooses the former with alarming frequency.”
Co-published with Firstpost.