Even though the police has barely begun to establish the facts behind the disappearance of Sheena Bora, hard evidence is scant and there is no clear motive for her apparent murder in sight, there's been an amazing amount of moralising. Much of it is based on crude judgments, extrapolated at speed from what is essentially raw footage — contradictory, confusing, unsifted testimonies extracted by the media from some of the main protagonists, as well as mostly unnamed relatives, neighbours and family friends.
Words like deviant, debauched and dysfunctional, uttered with saintly facial expressions and tones of deep relish, dominate studio patter. Trite comparisons are being aired every day between "good mothers" and "bad mothers", with a former society columnist even congratulating herself on live TV the other day for being a better mother than prime suspect Indrani Mukerjea. Another mother who denied having a daughter in a property case she eventually lost is a daily fixture in this studio morality play. Much of this chit-chatting crowd has, of course, already convicted Mukerjea for killing her daughter, Sheena — this before she has even been formally charge-sheeted.
Journalism of easy virtue
Forget the studio patterers for a moment; or lurid India TV, with its comic book sketches of a grimacing Mukerjea and her leering ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna closing in on Bora; or the 2015 version of "Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai?" — in which a husband gets to be asked by Arnab Goswami if he believes his wife is a murderer. Even the usually reputable sections of the media have been quick to arrive at conclusions underpinned, it appears, by deeply conservative notions of what constitutes womanly virtue. Shyamal's Mazumdar's recent column in Business Standard is a virtual primer (for men, clearly) on how to spot, and avoid, the femme fatale, an account that seems to paint every one of Mukerjea's husbands as her victim. The Hindu, which is normally measured, weighed in, too, with a lofty editorial broadsideagainst "a once-traditional society's speedy metamorphosis into an acquisitive FMCG economy with its attendant attributes of obsessive ambition and ruthless self-indulgence." This, of course, is epitomised by the story of small-town girl turned "jetsetting society lady" Indrani Mukerjea. The woman, TheHindu opines — on the strength of what must surely be meagre information about her exact domestic circumstances — "appears to have had no qualms in abandoning her first husband and two young children in her search for the good life". Her second, Khanna, was "jettisoned quickly", says the editorial, relying heavily on his version of why the marriage ended. Moreover, Mukerjea's chronicle and the mores she represents (and you could see this one coming from a mile off) "reject the one value so dear to old India – the sanctity of motherhood".
Since editorials in The Hindu are not taken as lightly, as say, Neeta's Natter, a question to ask, perhaps, is how coloured might a judge's view be by this masterly summation of Mukerjea's character, lifestyle and conduct, when he one day finds himself presiding over her trial?
Not the same as Jessica Lal
Amidst all the hand-wringing over a woman's, and a society's morals, relatively few bells have been rung about the media scrum developing around this case. Last week, on NDTV's show, The Buck Stops Here, Barkha Dutt asked the journalist Anil Dharkar, "Is this all of India lapping up everyone's private demons or is this a legitimate criminal investigation that journalists must probe?" Revealingly, no one on the panel, not even the anchor, seemed to like Dharkar's answer: "This is a criminal investigation that has to be probed by the police. It is really not something the media has to do." Misplaced comparisons were drawn with the Jessica Lal case, and the claim put forward — with only a lone Dharkar protesting — that the media was justified in playing an interventionist role and taking the story forward.
Dharkar said that the media should get involved only when the police is not doing its job — as was the case with the Jessica Lal investigation — and not when the police is actually doing its job, as it is in the Sheena Bora case. But Tavleen Singh and others insisted the media has a very important role to play since the police had ignored this case for three years. Dharkar gamely pointed out it was the police that took it up again, on the basis of an anonymous call, and is actually on top of the job, but his conclusion that there was no reason for the media to get so involved had no takers.
We are, of course, talking about the same media that has hauled up and judged almost every member of Indrani Mukerjea's complicated extended family, with rent-a-quote psychologists, minor Bollywoodactors and chick lit novelists holding forth on "What do you think X is hiding, and do you think Y is guilty?" This is also the media that's been airing on front pages and prime time the so-called "incest theory" about the case, based on leaks from police investigators who are clearly loathe to put this spicy stuff on record, but not perturbed about having it out in the ether. This "incest theory" — contradicted by a welter of other theories in the public domain — carelessly shreds the reputation of Indrani's father, Upendra Bora, an 80-year old bedridden man in Guwahati, who has actually had, according to a report in the Sunday Times of India, a TV cameraperson climbing up to his window (to avoid his guards) to ask him questions. "Taking the story forward", on Monday, a report in the same paper, basing itself on unnamed family sources, said " ..not many know she (Mukerjea) had a traumatic childhood in a dysfunctional family and was often whipped by her drunken father."
The irresistible pull of a trial by media
Back in the day when the Aarushi case was playing out, with a similarly insatiable quest for the salacious, journalists like Vir Sanghvi and Shoma Chaudhury were part of the minority that took a stand against trial by media and the purveying of smut. Is it a reflection on "our times" (as The Hindu might say) that Catch News, the media website of which Chaudhury is editor-in-chief, was ahead of the pack laying out, in explicit detail, the "incest angle", and Sanghvi was on prime time last Friday, tossing out a tasty morsel to the slavering media beast — that Indrani had told him, and others, that she had been molested by her step-father? Granted, this was not the main burden of his song (he was far more intent on remoulding a media narrative he thought was overly kind to his old adversary Peter Mukerjea), but it generated more headlines than anything else Sanghvi said in this interview, and became the signal for some newspapers, at least, to lay out in cold print what Catch News had reported. Sanghvi did qualify his statements by calling Indrani Mukerjea a "fantasist" with a "tenuous grip on reality" but then, if he thought her capable of making up serious allegations against her parent, should he have been repeating them on prime time TV? There is also the little matter of a legal proscription on revealing the identity of victims of sexual abuse.
The Sheena Bora murder may well replace the Aarushi saga as the most talked about, viewed and net-searched case in our times. As before, the media seems to feel hugely secure about stigmatising those caught up, in one way or another, in murder investigations, knowing it will probably never be called to account. As Avirook Sen narrates in his recent book, Aarushi, a false story was planted the media — and picked up by some of the country's major news channels — that the parents of the dead Aarushi, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were part of a wife-swapping ring. "The CBI issued an official denial," writes Sen. "And the channels? Not a word of the story was recanted. No apology was offered."
No fear of defamation
The media is safe because hardly anyone has the money and the stomach for a legal battle that could last years, least of all those who have been caught up in a murder case. The dead are of course even less likely to go to court, so they can be opened up early on for speculation and defamation. This is already happening to Sheena Bora in the digital "wild west" of the media. For example, the Quint, which is not some tawdry website run out of a bucket shop but a well-funded offering from media mogul Raghav Bahl, is putting out tale after lurid tale without a shred of evidence to offer. But worry not, the site's ace reporter is on hand to "join the dots" in video conversations for the benefit of readers. This turns out to be a serious looking, bespectacled, middle-aged man, who says with quiet conviction: "They took care to burn the burn the body … The objective was to destroy the foetus that Sheena Bora was carrying in her womb."