The recent case of a Zomato delivery boy allegedly punching a ‘beauty influencer’ he was delivering to has brought to the fore a grotesque but rather an imperative debate. While at the surface it is swinging between the assault on a woman and a woman making false accusations – a classic case of ‘he said, she said’ – but recent developments have also brought out a class issue.
Whilst our law is supposed to provide for both a fair trial and presumption of innocence until proven guilty, do we really see that happen? Especially when the victim is a woman? Even the ones with a memory like a sieve may recall a few of the countless number of such cases. Least, the case in Rohtak where two sisters beat up three men in a bus, alleging that they were being ‘harassed’ will surely strike a chord! They were quickly praised and nicknamed ‘brave-hearts by the media, but as it turned out, the fight was over a seat dispute. The sisters subsequently failed a polygraph test while the ‘accused’ passed it and eventually all charges were dropped. But, they haven’t been able to find employment due to the label and stigma attached to the case. In fact, a media report on charges being dropped against them had the word ‘molesters’ as the first word in its headline. So much so for objectivity.
In the ongoing Zomato controversy, the ‘Instagram influencer’, Hitesha shared a horrendous video on her social media claiming that a Zomato delivery boy assaulted her after she tried to cancel her food order as he arrived 59 minutes late. As claimed, she suffered a nasal bone fracture during the scuffle. From the public sentiments to media, everyone took her side, and the Zomato boy, Kamaraj was swiftly booked by the Bangalore Police. Later, Kamaraj busted Hitesha’s allegations and said that it was she who berated and abused him in filthy language and hurled slippers at him. When he tried to defend himself, the ring on her own finger hit her nose, added Kamaraj. The ‘victim’ fled the city out of the jurisdiction of the Bengaluru City Police after a counter FIR was lodged on the complaint of Kamaraj. Police learned her disappearance after they tried to contact her for questioning following Kamaraj’s complaint. On the same day, she got support from an unexpected source – Bollywood.
Now common logic dictates that whenever Bollywood comes out in support of something or someone, it warrants some due diligence. Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, who had dropped off the radar several years ago, resurfaced to support the influencer, calling everyone who supported the delivery agent, “a dumbass” and further reiterated that “the educated urban woman ordered food” and that “since she ended up with a bleeding nose, there wasn’t supposed to be another side to it.” Note Datta’s choice of words here – educated, urban, and woman. Not just is it a case of ‘he said, she said but also a case of “she’s educated and urban, she can’t be wrong”: a clear-cut case of a class issue.
As in every case, principles of natural justice have been thrown out of the window and the ensuing media and social media trials have ensured that Kamaraj is labeled for life. As I write this, Hitesha’s original video on Instagram has amassed nearly 2.5 crore views and her follower toll has reached 100 thousand. A cursory Google search for ‘Zomato Kamaraj and Hitesha’ will bring forth numerous reports from her side of the story. When was the last time we heard from him?
There are three main takeaways from this case, up from the usual two that invariably arise out of such cases. The first is that of media trials and declaring one party guilty even before facts are known. In many cases, the man is automatically deemed to be guilty, and in this case, the class difference is also being used to add fuel to the fire. While in some cases, women are blamed – remember Mulayam Singh Yadav’s infamous “boys will be boys” comment – the media should stop taking sides because their callous attitude does result in an innocent life getting wrecked. One must keep in mind that a TV channel was fined for its lopsided and aggressive coverage of the Jasleen Kaur-Sarabjit Singh case in 2015. In 2019, Sarabjit was acquitted on all counts and courts found him innocent, but the damage had been done.
The second and more important takeaway is the law itself. Our laws, in the matter of sexual assault and similar crimes explicitly describe the victim as a woman and perpetrator as a man. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, passed in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 only protects women from sexual assault, voyeurism, stalking, and disrobing a woman. Prior to the act becoming a law, it was a gender-neutral ordinance that attracted heavy flak from feminists and activists, resulting in the government retaining only acid attacks and attempted acid attacks as gender-neutral crimes. When the law itself is skewed towards one group, how can we expect justice?
The third takeaway from this case is a new one – the actual influence of “influencers” on social media. Hitesha’s case only became viral because she has nearly 1 lakh followers on Instagram. Influencers are to social media what film stars and celebrities were to traditional media. Influencers have in the past done many controversial things, not just in India, but globally as well. While the Advertising Standards Council of India has released a set of draft guidelines for influencers, these are only to keep fraud cases under check and have no bearing on their non-commercial posts. Social media users need to be made aware and should question what they see. After all, if influencers can ask their followers to question the government, why can’t normal users ask people to question influencers as well?