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Something sick on air

Puja Chauhan, the 22-year-old in Rajkot who walked in her innerwear to protest against harassment, remains little more than last week’s news, writes Nandita Sengupta.
None | By Nandita Sengupta, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2007 02:20 AM IST

‘Don’t be stupid. It’s a news pic,” was the only response from a number of journalists. Thankfully, there was no gender divide in proclaiming that Puja Chauhan, the 22-year-old in Rajkot who walked in her innerwear to protest against harassment was, of course, news, the jaded follow-ups notwithstanding. Dowry, an agitated mind, a girl child and a semi-nude woman: as far as news triggers go, the mix couldn’t have been more potent. Really? Isn’t there something disturbing about the casual way Chauhan was considered news?

For one, someone out there knew what Puja was going to do. This was no citizen journalism where a passerby is the source of your image and news. Camerapersons, electronic and print, followed Chauhan go round the bend. It was obvious that the girl needed help — psychological, psychiatric, women’s groups, any support. But did she need this kind of help via a tip-off?

Chauhan is firm that she knows exactly what she’s doing. But it’s not the first time that she’s been in the news. When she attempted suicide on June 29 in front of the police station, she was named “Puja Parmar alias Hansha” in news reports. No women’s help group activity there. Just a clip on the inside pages. No place on TV. That time, too, the reports had said that Hansha — or whatever her name is — had attempted suicide two years ago. So her trauma is not new. Her sheer grit and focus apart, she sounds like she needs professional medical help, not to mention the support of family, friends, even some women’s group. This time, she chose, or was pushed into, adopting a novel way to protest. She got reaction, she got press and she got attention. From the Centre, no less. The National Commission for Women, at last. But for that to happen, the rest of the world also had to see her images a day after her parade on page 1 of our newspapers. A disturbed person was made into news. How fair is that? Was the novel protest the news?

Equally disturbing is the sneaky feeling that the media could have been manipulated. A day after the incident and the coverage, the police claimed that they had already booked Chauhan’s tormentors, and so were taken aback by her semi-nude protest. If that is true —and frankly, the police do have low credibility when it comes to telling the truth — then Chauhan wants more than just justice. Is it then a case of crass commercialisation? The police seem to be falling over themselves supporting her now. Why now? What did they tell her when she first sought their help? It has been suggested that this incident may even become Chauhan’s big ticket. To what? This seems cynicism at its worst, and not a line of thought one wants to pursue.

But either way, weren’t the media irresponsible in their treatment? If she’s cuckoo, as her husband and in-laws claim she is and something she denies, does a person with a mental condition deserve this form of coverage? And if she’s in it to retro-harass her in-laws by screaming for attention, what were journalists doing, falling for the ‘news’ hook, line and sinker?

With blogs and YouTube as self-styled media, fact is that there’s simply no time to format details before they are presented. Journalists are being trained to let news unfold rather than deliver everything in a definite form. For this, surely, online and television are better suited than the print media. Journalists are being told to be comfortable with ambiguity — but where does one draw the line? And if medium be the message, all the more important to figure out that line. Print is most definitive, and ambiguity of presentation, couched in nebulous catchphrases, leaves only a damaging memory of Puja Chauhan. Cuckoo or calculating? The reports said nothing. Surely we should know better than to parrot biased versions.

When asked about being hoodwinked into showing something that it couldn’t make out was manipulated, the BBC’s Nik Gowing said that journalists have to be able to make judgments. “There’s also an ethical issue about accepting material shot by those complicit in events.” (Indian Express, July 1). Which brings us to the source of this particular news clip. Please tell me it wasn’t the police or Chauhan. What kind of classified information is this that we see no photographer’s name, no reporter, no source. Three days later, we see an agency tag. Not quite national security that we have only unnamed sources and the police version. Whose story is this? Where does it come from?

Here also lies the difference between responsibilities, and usage of online, television and print. To an extent one can understand the urgency of the event. Whatever be behind the protest, Puja Chauhan walked down the road for public display. But the reports led us nowhere. The television parade took us nowhere.

In the end, there is always the possibility that Chauhan was indeed pushed to this tragic point, as she asserts. Traumatised, harassed, screaming for attention, desperate. Pushed to the point where she shed more than just her clothes to make a rather simple point. She’s been seeking help for at least two years now. But no one’s been listening. That is, I’d say, where the story really is. But nobody’s reporting that.

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