UP Law Student vs BJP’s Chinmayanand: Can Viral Videos Become the Aam Aurat’s Shield Against the Powerful?

Social Commentary

UP Law Student vs BJP’s Chinmayanand: Can Viral Videos Become the Aam Aurat’s Shield Against the Powerful?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Everyone has a fairly good idea of what actually happened, and yet, there’s not a thing anyone could do about it… except the police. That pretty much sums up the case of the 23-year-old law student from Shahjahanpur in UP, who had gone missing and was found after six days in Rajasthan in August. 

First, the girl uploaded a heartbreaking video on August 23, beseeching Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for help while claiming that a “big leader from the sant society” — ostensibly, former minister of state and BJP leader Swami Chinmayanand, who is the president of the managing committee of her college — had destroyed the lives of many girls and was threatening to kill her and her family. She also claimed that despite the evidence she had against him, the leader was confident because he claimed to have the police and the district magistrate “in his pocket”. The next day, she went missing. 

Her father turned to the police for help, fearing sexual exploitation and kidnapping, but unsurprisingly, a complaint was registered only four days later, after the video went viral. Meanwhile, Chinmayanand’s lawyer told every journalist who would listen that the case was a conspiracy to tarnish his name, and an attempt at extortion. He claimed that Chinmayanand received a WhatsApp message on August 22, demanding ₹5 crore or else an explicit video of him would be released. He further claimed that the police advised him not to go to the media as they suspected a racket. Even though it took four days to file a kidnapping complaint, no time was lost in filing an extortion case against “unknown persons” on behalf of Chinmayanand. (Interestingly, the BJP leader already has a rape case against him that’s been stalled since 2011.) 

With increased public and media scrutiny after the young woman’s video went viral, the police finally started investigating the case and managed to trace her last known location to Delhi with a man, using call records and CCTV footage. It has been almost a month since she was found and despite complaints for her and her family, the police have refused to file a rape case against the politician. In fact, even as Chinmayanand has been sent to jail for 14 days now he has been charged with “misusing authority for sexual intercourse” or “sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape,” reports NDTV. 

And to think it all started with a viral video. 

In a country where filing a police complaint often feels like a bigger punishment for the victim than the accused, social media and the viral video economy is a ray of hope, regardless of how short-lived the respite might be.

Caught in the circle jerk of media heat, political clout, and public opinion, it’s tough not to wonder how the story would have shaped up in the absence of the video. In all likelihood, exactly the same way, just minus the din of outrage. Taking on powerful, politically connected men mostly ends badly for the aam aadmi. Even more so, for the aam aurat. They might be effective in making the public seethe and outrage until a fresh set of scandals demand our attention, but for the most part, there’s little that viral videos can achieve when the men in power have critical instruments of justice “in their pockets”. At best, they’re minor inconveniences. Sure, they might make earnest claims about cooperating with authorities to ensure justice — but that’s only until their victims fall off the edge of public memory, which they will, sooner or later. The men who run the system are intimately familiar with this cycle of noise and inaction, which is why they continue with their raping and ravaging ways, unafraid and undeterred.

And yet, rarely a month goes by without women turning to social media as a last refuge in a system hell bent on silencing them. In July, the 23-year-old daughter of a Brahmin BJP MLA from UP released two videos demanding police protection for herself and her Dalit husband, fearing that her family would kill them for marrying against their wishes. Soon after this case made national news, another interfaith couple from UP released a video claiming that her Hindu parents were threatening violence against them and his Muslim family. The public outcry ensured police intervention and security, but there’s no telling how long that might last. The makers of these videos must know that the protection is short-lived, at best. Why then do these people continue making these videos? 

The brutal answer is, what other option do they really have? Even though Indian laws are heavily stacked in favour of women, the police is notorious for dissuading them from filing complaints against violations by family members or if the perpetrator is a powerful figure. The concern for the repercussions on the future life of the accused is often greater than the will to ensure justice for the victim. As a result, few women persist on the legal route. In a 2013 judgement in a woman’s kidnapping case, a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court noted that “the number of FIRs registered is approximately equivalent to the number of FIRs not registered”. 

In a country where filing a police complaint and ploughing on the long road to justice often feels like a bigger punishment for the victim than the accused, social media and the viral video economy is a ray of hope, regardless of how short-lived the respite might be. These women have to know that whipping out their camera phones to record the wrongs done to them is not going to protect them indefinitely, but for the few moments, while the country’s eyes are trained on them, power is democratised, and some of its gross imbalance corrected. For those few minutes or hours or days, power slips from the ever-tightening clutches of those uniquely positioned to abuse it, and into the hands of the previously helpless. For a breed of people drunk on power, protected by privilege, and immune to consequence, being stripped of their impunity can be disconcerting. For a class of people who have never been allowed to speak, having a voice, even if it is temporary, is a gift. Those of us who have never had to suffer the indignity of not mattering, can perhaps never understand that. 

Despite the furore over the UP law student, Chinmayanand was comfortably sequestered in his ashram in Haridwar for almost a month. Even though the he has been repeatedly accused of rape, the charge has not been included in the FIR. It’s amply clear that a viral video is not going to topple power structures. But it is probably what forced a reluctant police force to divert some manpower in finding and reuniting the woman with her family. It is probably what gave her terrified parents hope that their daughter’s disappearance won’t go unnoticed. Then who is to say that’s not enough?

This is an updated version of the story published earlier.