Last Monday, a teenage girl in Guwahati, India was sexually assaulted — beaten up, molested and stripped down — by over a dozen gleeful men in front of many more for half an hour until the police finally came to her aid. The assault took place on a busy street outside a bar, just minutes away from the nearest police station. We know this because the entire incident was filmed by an off-duty TV journalist who called a camera man to help him. But why didn't anyone help the victim? And more to the point: why is India's justice system so incompetent when it comes to convicting men for sexual assault?
Public outrage grew over the week as police did nothing but locals uploaded photos of the men (taken from the video, which you can watch here) to Twitter, sharing their images with possibly millions of people. Finally, on Friday — five days after the incident took place — the area's Director General of Police Jayanta Narayan Chowdhury defended the cops by saying that they had identified 11 out of 12 molesters and arrested the four accused. Why did it take so long? He said they were "taking time to arrest the accused as we want to be doubly sure." His statement pissed people off even more, especially since it became clear that he had no idea that images of the accusers were already being spread thanks to the public. On Saturday, the chief ordered detectives to make arrests within 48 hours. Way to make moves, guys!
The horrific assault has prompted a national discussion around the necessity of vigilante justice. Public shaming is problematic — even though the victim's face was blurred out in this case, it would have been ideal if the police had received the footage instead of, well, everyone — but many say it's crucial in India, where the number of women filing sexual assault complaints has increased in recent years but the number of convictions has fallen. (The New York Times has a good Q&A with a lawyer explaining why.)
"Social media acts as social awakening," Kiran Bedi, an activist and former Indian Police Service officer, told the NYT. Thanks to the internet, police "come under a scanner and have no choice but to perform," she said. It's clear that the police would've taken even longer to arrest the girl's attackers — if they would have ever gotten around to it in the first place — without the power of social media.
While the video evidence was obviously crucial, the assault has also prompted a debate over whether the reporter, who wasn't even on duty, really should have filmed a teenager being violently molested for half an hour without trying to help her. (The girl told local news stations that she would've been raped if the police didn't eventually come to help.) "Some [media] questioned me as to why my reporter and camera person shot the incident and didn't prevent the mob from molesting the girl," tweeted NewsLive channel's editor-in-chief, Atanu Bhuyan. "But I'm backing my team since the mob would have attacked them, prevented them from shooting, that would have only destroyed all evidence."
But couldn't they have called the police right away? Or intervened after a few minutes of shooting rather than never? Twitter should not be the most powerful justice system in India. But, right now, it seems like it is.