In the month of August 2021, Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders Twitter accounts remained suspended for a week, and was restored only after Rahul Gandhi broke his silence and released a powerful video on YouTube where he accused Twitter of interfering in nation’s politics and democratic system. “By shutting down my Twitter, they are interfering in our political process. I have 19-20 million followers. You are denying them the right to an opinion,” Gandhi said.
Gandhi’s account was restricted or locked (not suspended) after National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued a notice to Twitter, asking it to act against the Congress leader’s handle for tweeting pictures of the family of the Dalit girl who was allegedly raped and murdered in Delhi Cantt area. The NCPCR cited the juvenile justice law that mandates the privacy of minor victims.
In protest several Congress leaders and volunteers posted the screenshot of the same Tweet Rahul Gandhi made, effectively reposting the photos. Soon, their accounts too were locked one by one. By some estimates approximately 5000 Twitter accounts related to Congress were locked by Twitter. In further show of protest Congress leaders and volunteers changed their Twitter display pic to that of Rahul Gandhi making thousands of profiles look similar to Gandhi’s, the message being, “Rahul Gandhi is not an individual but an Idea” and “I Am Rahul Gandhi”.
Meanwhile, the parents of the Dalit girl who was raped and murdered have also issued a public statement that they do not have any objections.
Is Twitter to be blamed for being partisan or pliant to State’s orders? No says experts, there is a problem in the law itself which was used to silence Rahul Gandhi.
Legal experts say that Twitter was merely following the letter of the law. Although the NCPCR referred to Juvenile Justice Act, posting photos or any other information that can reveal the identity of any victim of rape or sexual violence or her family is also prohibited under Section 228A of Indian Penal Code. Twitter was therefore obliged to take action.
Law ensuring anonymity of the rape or sexual violence survivors and the Supreme Court guidelines regarding in-camera trials in these cases have been questioned by women’s rights activists and scholars in recent time.
“It is time to ask exactly whom does the law of anonymity benefit? More often than not they are used by accused to prevent victim or her family from garnering civil society or media support. In the Kerala actress assault case, actor Dileep appealed to the court to stop media coverage of the in-camera proceedings. Men use anonymity laws to get away with cheap courtroom tactics, offensive line of private questions bordering upon pornographic, victim blaming and so on, while the woman is rendered anonymous and voiceless,” said Advocate Rebecca John recently at a webinar. “It is time we demand that the law be made voluntary, and the prosecutrix/her family be asked whether she wants to be anonymous or not, because in case after case I have noticed that they do want to tell their stories. Modern women do not want to be reduced to the identity of ‘anonymous victim,” she added.
CPIML Leader and AIPWA Secretary Kavita Krishnan also added that in-camera trials can be used to defame the victim-survivor. “During the rape trial against a Bollywood director the accused was hailed as a secular hero and the victim-survivor was called an RSS agent. But these floating narratives couldn’t be fact checked because her identity was missing. It should be the woman’s choice,” said Krishnan.
“It is also important to check the intent and spirit of the law. These laws were made to prevent slut-shaming, victim blaming and threats. Not to stop good Samaritans from helping by mobilizing people’s support,” says Saabika (name changed) a Delhi based feminist lawyer. “Even though Rahul Gandhi technically revealed parents identity his intent have to be looked at. Check why the photos were posted? With what captions? Ask the victim side, are they harmed? Did it upset them? The law should not be interpreted so broadly as to punish someone who had no mens rea. Moreover, his political rivals or the State machinery should not be allowed to use the law as a weapon. Only the family should have the right to bring a complaint if they feel aggrieved,” she added.
The issue of legal reforms in laws related to rape victim’s anonymity finds relevance in the wake of the historic Priya Ramani case. There was a great public interest in the case and court proceedings were regularly reported, making Ms Ramani the face of courage inspiring millions of women. “This was possible only because it was a defamation case. Had it been a case of molestation, media would not have been allowed to report. Imagine if Priya Ramani was forced to remain anonymous,” Rebecca John told this reporter for National Herald.
The mother of Jyoti Singh has also repeatedly demanded that her daughter be called by her name, but media and political leaders continue to call her ‘Nirbhaya’.
Feminist scholars have long argued that instead of silence and anonymity women must be empowered and encouraged to speak for themselves, and about their personal lives, including their violence and trauma. The public-private divide perpetuates violence, feminists argue. The State and Judiciary should not become a tool at hands of patriarchy which feeds on the public-private dichotomy and keeps women’s voices in private sphere / anonymous in the name of ‘protection’.
An edited version of this was first published by National Herald, under my byline when I was with the publication.