Rhea Chakraborty’s Court Trial Doesn’t Matter. Family WhatsApp Groups Have Already Declared Her Guilty

Social Commentary

Rhea Chakraborty’s Court Trial Doesn’t Matter. Family WhatsApp Groups Have Already Declared Her Guilty

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“Media can be compassionate, it can be brave. It can treat its subjects like the human beings they are. It can acknowledge up front, the difficulty of capturing a complex human being in 800 words. Do I really think our media can shift en masse in this direction? No, not really. But if some outlets change, even a little, that’s progress.” – Amanda Knox, quoted in The New York Times, Jun 2019.

You probably know who Amanda Knox is. You might have seen the Netflix documentary. And you’ll wonder how she can sound almost forgiving about a machinery which relentlessly projected her as a cold-blooded murderer, an oversexed druggie, and contributed to the loss of four years of her youth in imprisonment.

The Knox case is a copybook media trial – it faithfully follows the plot points in trials which are not decided by a court, but by an odd nexus of mainline media outlets and social media swarms. And this, in 2007 when Twitter was little-known and Facebook was a curiosity. In 2020, when actress Rhea Chakraborty – actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s purported partner – is being dragged over the coals by social and mainstream media, it is a pertinent case to look back at.

In November 2007, Amanda Knox was a 19-year-old American student in Perugia, Italy, who returned home after spending the night with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito to find her flatmate Meredith Kercher murdered in her bedroom. It went berserk from there: Knox and her boyfriend were charged for the murder, there was talk of a Satanic sex crime, and the charge was not dropped even when forensic evidence showed that the murder was possibly a burglary gone wrong.

But the investigation agencies were reluctant to let go of Knox as a suspect, who was being projected, in her own words, as, “a wise, drugged-up whore – it was unfounded but it awoke people’s imagination.” No attention was given to the burglar, Rudy Guede, because a regular criminal was not quite interesting enough.

Nina Burleigh, the author of the 2012 book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trial of Amanda Knox wrote in the Rolling Stone magazine about “The Amanda Knox phenomenon”, where “tens of thousands of people energetically [subscribed] to the most heinous possible scenario, while refusing to accept more reasonable alternatives.” By the time, the Knox case went to trial – she was conclusively established as the female Charles Manson in public perception.

Knox and her boyfriend were initially sentenced to 26 years, but finally in 2015, were completely exonerated by the highest Italian court. In public memory, however, the doubt persists and overwhelms the actual evidence – did she get away with murder? That’s the way with media trials: You start out being guilty as charged, and you end up being guilty as charged, irrespective of the final legal verdict.

For days on end, news channels spurred on by seemingly livid social media brigades spoke about how nepotism in Bollywood.

A media trial follows no rules

Media trials are decided largely on emotion and public perception; actually examining the evidence on hand makes for boring television. And social media and TV news are Bonnie & Clyde – gleefully amoral soulmates.

In The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop, Adam Kucharski talks about a strategy called “astroturfing”, where with careful targeting and amplification, social media can create “widespread popularity for specific policies”, mimicking grassroots support. “This makes it harder for journalists to ignore the story, so eventually it becomes real news.” Astroturfing allows orchestrated news to attain organic traction and endorsement – and then it just takes a life of its own.

In the month following actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in Mumbai, we saw astroturfing in action. For days on end, news channels spurred on by seemingly livid social media brigades spoke about how nepotism and cabals in Bollywood had brought about this tragedy. Nobody in Rajput’s family or friends’ circle corroborated this version, but it raged on, spurred on by a relentless media which cannot let go of a juicy story in a time of tedious, unending pandemics. Bollywood will take some time to shake off the charges and the online hate that still persists, even as social media swarms found a new object of hate. Rhea Chakraborty, his 28 year old girlfriend now charged by his family for abetment to suicide.

The charges are damning, serious and in terms of public perception impact – perhaps irreversible. We don’t know yet if Rhea is guilty of the serious allegations being levelled at her by the family – she “drugged him” under the pretext of treating him for depression, she swindled him and siphoned off his money before walking out on him. All of these charges need to be investigated thoroughly to see if they build up to a case for abetment of suicide. But that is the role of investigative agencies, not kangaroo courts on the internet or on television.

She is yet to be tried in a court of law. The Enforcement Directorate and the CBI are investigating the Bihar police FIR against her. But she is as good as burnt at the stake.

Her phone records have been accessed, and that she called her brother (a co-accused in the FIR) 800 times in 365 days acquires a sinister ring. Stories on how quick she was to move in with Rajput very soon into the relationship, doggedly build the narrative of the opportunistic “gold-digger”. Leaks to the media which talk about her spending habits and her free use of Rajput’s credit cards indict her further.

Anything that goes against this narrative, is dismissed as “fake” or “agenda”. For instance, Rajput’s reported battle with clinical depression/bipolar disorder or that a 34-year-old man would have agency of his own in his life decisions. But as I write this, larger and more sordid conspiracy theories are being attached to this narrative. After a bit, Gold-Digger Girlfriend Vs Grieving Family does run out of steam. Do tune into the daily news for season hooks. It is tough to keep up.

Media trials are decided largely on emotion and public perception; actually examining the evidence on hand makes for boring television.

Who decides if Rhea Chakraborty is guilty? 

A day after the FIR was filed, a teary-eyed Rhea Chakraborty said in a video message that she believed in the judiciary and that the truth will prevail. She was trolled, among other things, for choosing to wear a salwar kameez in the video. Not just by emotional “fans”, but by the Rajput family’s lawyer who derided what she wore. Even her outfit was yet another definitive ground to establish her guilt.

There is some precedent for what’s happening to Rhea Chakraborty right now. About seven months after the Kercher murder in Italy, India was rocked by the twin murders of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar and 45-year-old Hemraj Banjade, the domestic help in the Talwar household in Noida. It was a crime that caught the imagination of the country especially when her parents, Dr Rajesh Talwar and Noopur Talwar were named as the prime suspects.

What do we remember most about the Aarushi case? The bungled forensic evidence or the salacious cocktail of speculative theories including honour killing and wife-swapping? It was a voyeur’s wet dream, and people like us were only too willing to believe that people like us would turn on a daughter they clearly loved. Social media was not the force it is now, but electronic media stepped in gamely (as it has now) to amplify the wildly speculative theories. The Talwars were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013 – they spent four years in prison, before the Allahabad High Court acquitted them in 2017 dismissing the evidence as weak.

In the four intervening years, the family of the Talwars mounted a campaign to present the hard facts of the case in the public domain. In 2015, we saw Meghna Gulzar’s film Talvar, written by Vishal Bharadwaj. Prior to that, journalist Avirook Sen wrote a book clearly pointing out the lapses in investigation. In 2016, the podcast Trial By Error, brought the book to life.

But to the lay public, in spite of a solid counter narrative in their favour, the Talwars will forever remain tainted. For reasons that can’t be countered by hard logic. It was said the parents didn’t “publicly grieve” and seemed far “too composed” after the loss of a child. Noopur Talwar was on NDTV a week into her child’s death and didn’t shed a tear. When in fact, according to journalist Sonia Singh who conducted that interview, once the cameras were switched off, Noopur Talwar had howled.

That they didn’t react in a way we wanted and expected them to react, became an indicator of their guilt. But you know what, it shouldn’t have to matter. You don’t convict people on emotions. Or don’t you? The crime remains unsolved, and the Talwars will never be completely free. Of suspicion.

Irrespective then of what the official investigation or judiciary decides finally, the only thing that will prevail for Rhea Chakraborty is the verdict already delivered by media trials across channels and social media. And on your family WhatsApp group.

Guilty as charged. And then, some more.