Something rotten: On Sushant Singh Rajput death and the media mob

Photo credit: The wire

A young talented Bollywood actor tragically ended his life on June 14. But the events that followed Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide have been even more shocking. On full display in the subsequent weeks were some of the worst regressive traits of Indian society, from misogyny, invasion of privacy, voyeuristic glee to a collective loss of clarity. All hell broke loose soon after his family accused the 34-year-old actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, 28, of foul play; the grief-stricken father said she had poisoned his son and filed an FIR charging Rhea with ‘abetment to suicide’, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A section of the media pounced on Rhea, terming her a gold digger, and handed out instant verdicts in the newsroom. Anchors appeared to have little time to discuss India’s crossing four million COVID-19 cases, the 23.9% GDP contraction or the heightened border tensions. That Sushant hailed from poll-bound Bihar added a political dimension impossible to ignore. The actor, reported to have been suffering from depression, lived in Mumbai, which is now ruled by estranged Bharatiya Janata Party partner, the Shiv Sena, together with the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress, and his demise has become political fodder crossing limits of decency, drawing in other Bollywood celebrities.

Three top government agencies, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Narcotics Control Bureau grilled Rhea for days. The NCB finally arrested her on September 8 linking her to a drugs case in Sushant’s death probe. Rhea has denied any wrongdoing, telling the media that she didn’t speak after Sushant’s passing away out of grief and respect for him. Whether Rhea has committed a crime the law will decide, but as she and her family fight this battle, the spotlight is firmly on Indian society and its deeply entrenched prejudices. Women’s rights activists have spoken up against the demonisation of Rhea, and how gender, the clothes she wore, the undefined relationship she had with the actor, all played a role. What is perhaps more disturbing is that many women, far from empathising with a girl who lost her boyfriend in such circumstances, have been quick to pronounce Rhea guilty of any number of wrongdoings. That people could erupt with joy at her arrest on charges not directly related to the death is an indication that vague demands of justice for Sushant have played out as a blood sport. A mob that seems to find its voice through TV anchors and social media appears to have overruled ideas of justice, fairness and even the law. It is important that India’s criminal justice system delivers justice in this case.

~Manish kumar

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