The Great Indian Witch-Hunt

Asmita Sood

How the sudden death of Sushant Singh Rajput has turned into a media led prosecution of his partner Rhea Chakraborty 

Content Warning: Suicide 

Indian media has a long legacy of vicious media trials. With that in mind, the coverage around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput should not come as a surprise. Sushant was a brilliant actor, a rank outsider who survived and excelled in a cut-throat industry, and gave some memorable performances. On June 14, Sushant was found hanging from a ceiling fan. The post-mortem report and the initial investigation declared that his suicide was caused by clinical depression for which he had been undergoing medical treatment. As with great artists, he felt familiar and his loss felt personal, even to those who never knew him closely. At 34, his death was hard to process. 

“The tragic passing of a young star has been made by the electronic media into a brutal, unforgiving public flogging.”

Since June 14, the initial shock is gone, and in its place is a feral media circus. The tragic passing of a young star has been made by the electronic media into a brutal, unforgiving public flogging. What should have been a time to grieve and introspect on the epidemic of mental illness silently killing India’s youth has turned into a systematic attempt to punish a culprit, by any means possible. If there is no culprit, it appears that one must be created to sate the public appetite. 

“The adjudicator and the executioner in this trial has been a media drunk on its tremendous power to shape opinions, rewrite history and distort reality for the sake of its viewership.”

At the other end of this is prime suspect Rhea Chakraborty, 28-year-old actor and Sushant’s partner, now arrested and in judicial custody on charges of facilitating the procurement of 56 grams of marijuana for Sushant. She may have just been arrested, but long before any investigation, the media and viewers decided that she was guilty. The adjudicator and the executioner in this trial has been a media drunk on its tremendous power to shape opinions, rewrite history and distort reality for the sake of its viewership. The viewership in question has remained hooked to their screens, well-fed on a meticulously curated diet of primetime TV shouting matches and unverified WhatsApp forwards.

“Even if you don’t actively tune in, it’s impossible to escape this story because this is all the news media has chosen to report in the middle of a raging pandemic and the deepest economic recession since independence.”

It’s been chilling to watch this story unfold over the last few months. It drills in the point that women who deviate from the patriarchy are not safe in India. Because she lived with her partner, her character is questionable, if not entirely flawed. Those slut-shaming her naturally don’t apply the same yardstick to Sushant, an equal half in that living arrangement. Because she’s Bengali, she practices witchcraft. Because she’s not as successful as he was, she’s a gold-digger and her entire family lived off his wealth. Typical woman. Because she was unable to stop him from consuming drugs, she’s responsible for his addiction. Because she took his mental illness seriously and encouraged him to seek help, she drove him to kill himself. It’s endless. Even if you don’t actively tune in, it’s impossible to escape this story because this is all the news media has chosen to report in the middle of a raging pandemic and the deepest economic recession since independence.

There are videos of cameramen harassing food delivery boys outside her building, hunting for any stray piece of information they can bring back to the newsroom. A day before she was arrested, disturbing pictures of Rhea being mobbed by a crowd mainly of male journalists circulated. As someone who has been groped, my first thought on seeing those pictures was how easy it would be for anyone in that crowd to get away with touching her without her consent. How unsafe and vulnerable she was even when surrounded by swathes of policemen.

“Throughout the coverage, there has been little public support for Rhea. But after her arrest, #JusticeForRhea began trending on Twitter. It needs to be noted that justice here does not mean absolving her of any wrongdoing she might be responsible for.”

Throughout the coverage, there has been little public support for Rhea. But after her arrest, #JusticeForRhea began trending on Twitter. It needs to be noted that justice here does not mean absolving her of any wrongdoing she might be responsible for. Remember, the CBI investigation that was so loudly demanded by the Justice for Sushant campaigners, several Bollywood actors, his family and Rhea herself, hasn’t concluded yet. There is no trace of the large sums of money that she allegedly stole from him. His therapists have come out and verified his diagnosis of Bipolar disorder and clinical depression. No false medical prescription that she forced him into has been discovered. Instead, every aspect of her private life is now part of public record. Anyone at home with a TV connection can find minutely specific details of her personal relationships, how much her flat’s EMI payment costs and the exact amount she spends on one session of hair and makeup.

“Justice for Rhea means acknowledging the devastation that the news coverage has wreaked into her and her family’s life. Justice for Rhea means upholding her constitutional right to an unbiased trial. Justice here means securing for her the basic premise of any fair criminal justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

Justice for Rhea means acknowledging the devastation that the news coverage has wreaked into her and her family’s life. Justice for Rhea means upholding her constitutional right to an unbiased trial. Justice here means securing for her the basic premise of any fair criminal justice system – innocent until proven guilty. Whenever this ordeal ends, she may get her life back. But it’s hard to imagine the film career she’s been working on for the last ten years continuing now. All of this, and there’s still not a single shred of evidence in the public domain that points to her culpability in Sushant’s suicide.

What has been done to Rhea is distressing to watch. There are plenty of precedents of similar media vigilantism: the prime-time villainisation of JNU students accused of sedition in 2016, the abject dismissal of institutional casteism that drove Dalit scholar Rohith Vemulla to suicide, and more. A Republic TV journalist detailed in her resignation announcement how the channel executed its goal of vilifying Rhea by any means necessary. This may not be the first one, but there’s every indication that media trials can and will get worse. Many have pointed out that the treatment of a Hindu woman from an upper-caste family, a daughter of an ex-Army Officer does not bode well for those without the same class and caste privileges, those with no access to good lawyers. The rise in access to technology and a lack of effective regulation of fake-news dangerously aids newsrooms in constructing the narrative their commercial agenda needs in the next witch-hunt.

“Her refusal to blink in the face of unimaginable injustice and hardship and the words she wore are a call to action. Rhea’s deplorable treatment by our country calls for strong, urgent condemnation. No one accused of any crime should be treated like that.”

On the day of her arrest, as she was being driven away to custody, Rhea defiantly stared at the cameras that were frantically chasing the police vehicle. People began quoting the words on her t-shirt- “Roses are red, violets are blue, let’s smash the patriarchy, me and you”. Her refusal to blink in the face of unimaginable injustice and hardship and the words she wore are a call to action. Rhea’s deplorable treatment by our country calls for strong, urgent condemnation. No one accused of any crime should be treated like that. It is shameful that this has gone on for nearly three months, and it’s unlikely to stop until the news media and the public decide that she has been punished enough. It is a warning that the combined might of government investigative agencies and the national media can be turned upon anyone on the wrong side of the patriarchal state and society. It is a reminder that anyone can be made fodder for election campaigns. The less she conforms to patriarchal norms, the juicier the meat. 

In solidarity with Rhea Chakraborty.   

Asmita is an MA Woman and Child Abuse student. She also runs the Talking Research Podcast and is an Editor at Bol Magazine. 

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