In these digitally networked times, the social media can be an instant barometer of netizens' opinions on any hot-button topic. That's precisely the case in response to Hindustan Times' report on Monday that made public the name and photograph of Vidisha Bhardwaj. A 21-year-old engineering student of Panjab University, she has been in the eye of a media storm since last week when got drunk and publicly created rumpus on the campus.
In the Facebook frenzy that ensued, even in our newsroom, the reactions were fast and furious, literally. A majority baulked at the "insensitive" disclosure, some upbraided us for breaching journalistic ethics, and a few endorsed our editorial call.
It's easy to dismiss such quickfire comments as sentimental hogwash or a misplaced feminist rage. Yet, they overwhelmingly exuded a sneaking sympathy for the girl as if she was a victim - a feeling perhaps in consonance with the current national outrage against the rising crimes against women.
In reality, however, Vidisha is not the victim. After all, here is an adult woman who belongs to an urban, educated background but thought nothing of getting drunk and creating an unsavoury scene in public that warranted requisition of the police to 'handle' and get her medically examined. The police showed restraint by not filing an FIR against her - and that's the only leniency she deserved.
However, the university was quick to crack the disciplinary whip, expelling her from the hostel and her department, albeit temporarily. In fact, the university authorities' bold action has sent out a tough message to erring students regardless of their gender. More importantly, it marks a welcome break from its typical namby-pamby response to the rampant rowdyism on the campus by far. After all, the campus is no ordinary public place. It's a space that reinforces social norms and moral values among young citizens.
To dismiss Vidisha's drunken fracas as a one-off incident - as most Facebook warriors did - is like pulling the wool over our own eyes. Her indiscretion is, in fact, symptomatic of growing alcoholism among girl students - a worrying campus cocktail as acknowledged by well-meaning university sociologists such as Pam Rajput and Rajesh Gill.
By putting out Vidisha's photograph, HT may have pushed the envelope on ethics, but it was a call solely guided by larger public interest. Our report has sought to put a face - and the spotlight - on a social problem that can no longer be kept under wraps. And, reporting her story with a pseudo-name and without a photograph - as some critics suggested - would have cast a suspicion on all girl students on the campus.
On the contrary, identifying her publicly can't but have a salutary - and sobering - effect on other students. The apprehension that the media exposure would imperil her career and life is too far-fetched and ignores the media's basic duty to society, that is, to unravel the inconvenient truth. Also, an individual's liberty is intertwined with responsibility, and can't override a bigger societal concern. In this case, Vidisha knew the consequences of her deviant behaviour.
In that sense, dean, students welfare, AS Ahluwalia deserves kudos for his prompt and decisive action. He has shown courage to restore a modicum of discipline, which has seen an alarming erosion in recent years.
Much of the blame for such sorry state of affairs goes to previous vice-chancellor RC Sobti's tenure when those at the helm of student welfare undermined the authority of wardens and teachers just to keep the wayward elements in good humour. Those in the faculty criticising Ahluwalia's handling of the case may have a few brownie points to score but his action has certainly set a precedent and is a clear indicator to the authorities' no-nonsense approach to indiscipline on the campus.
The most curious reaction has come from Archana R Singh, the university's director of public relations who, instead of endorsing the authorities' tough stand, chose to sermon the media with her Jurassic-era textbook journalistic ethics. Her contention, in fact, is a classic case of shooting the messenger instead of heeding to the message. She will do well to refresh her most important lesson in journalism that the media ethics are not iron-cast and evolve with context, which is public interest. Clearly, the Vidisha episode has offered quite a few lessons for those on the campus.