Witch-Hunting in the Age of Media

A Feminist Reading of the Strange Case of Anara Gupta


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


The following letter to the editor was sent to The Tribune and The Hindustan Times, both published from Chandigarh (India). It was not published. It is about the story of Anara Gupta, a teenager from the city of Jammu (India), who was crowned Miss Jammu in a local beauty contest. Some time later, the police got hold of a porn CD that featured a girl who reportedly resembled Anara. The police arrested her on suspicion and kept her in custody for 10 days. Subsequently, a forensic lab declared that the girl in the CD was not Anara.


But the police and the media had already done the harm, scarring the girl’s psyche and ruining her reputation –a terrible thing in a society that still cherishes the traditions of honour and inviolate virginity. Neither the police nor the media has, however, attracted any penalty, or for that matter even official condemnation, for violating a young girl’s basic human rights.



         If you thought witch-hunting had become extinct, you should reboot your OS (Opinion System). Witches are preternatural inventions and, for precisely that reason, immortal. Immortal, though historical. Societies reinvent them from the recyclable stuff of desire and fantasy.


         In spite of the feminist attempts at appropriating the witch as a sign of extra-patriarchal or anti-patriarchal female power, real women continue to suffer when branded as witches. They are hounded and stoned, quite often to death. But even when they are not so branded, they may suffer similar persecution because they embody the threat of mysterious overwhelming power. The sexually attractive woman lives, thus, a double life in the theatre of patriarchal projections: as half fairy and half witch. Pornography flourishes in this twilight of double consciousness: before the sex object that stirs with a sexuality of its own, the patriarchal defenses threaten to fall defenselessly. From the primitive and the feudal to the modern and the postmodern, nothing seems to change much. You are stoned, or shot with a camera. The paparazzi replace the urchins.


         In a bizarre way, the archaic has returned in the strange case of Anara Gupta to bewitch the Indian society in its moment of change. The post/modernizing Indian society bares its cannibal teeth to tear the flesh off a living young woman. As culture becomes the fastest growing sector of an economy that remains essentially patriarchal, the female body becomes the most productive site of cultural production. 


         It all begins with the police ‘framing’ Anara as a porn beauty queen: they ‘register’ a criminal case against her without adequate preliminary investigation and ‘represent’ her to the media as a porn starlet.  And the media succumb readily to the temptation.  Here, after all, is a news story that can stand against the lewdest advertisement copy.  After pornography has already entered the mainstream in advertising, is it not time it did so in news too? And if there is nothing to represent, something can be, well, simulated. It is a moment of trial for the entrepreneurial genius, which has to prove that India has whole-heartedly embraced the destiny of change called globalization and assimilated the cyber culture. It has to prove that in India too the hyperreal can be more real than reality.


         The logic of media under late capitalism, thus, fabricates an object that does not have any ground in reality. The competitive grabbing for audience attention allows room for no precaution because playing with an ordinary, small town girl’s name involves no great risk.


         Compare this to what happened a few years ago in Punjab. The grandson of Beant Singh, the then Chief Minister, abducted and allegedly raped a French tourist. But the next morning no newspaper disclosed the criminal’s identity. They just wrote that a boy related to an important functionary of the state had abducted a girl from a public place.


         Gender, money and political power do make a difference, don’t they?


         So a young woman’s (re)invention as a gorgeous but evil seductress by the morally ambivalent patriarchal media, which execrates her conduct even as it pruriently exhibits frames of the porn CD allegedly featuring her. The media would have the best of both worlds. And hand out the double deal to the audiences too. 


         In the competitive masculinist ecology of the globalizing market, the media has come to invest its stakes almost exclusively in libidinal capital. And it uses the ruse of impersonal technologies to let the sleeping dogs of conscience lie: it is humanly impossible – the juridical argument goes – to subject the cybernetic systems to surveillance. Like the CEO of baazee.com, the Chief Editor cannot possibly ‘know’ all that goes online. Welcome to the world of post-human technology, the technology that has not only gone way past human control but has begun to demonize and consume human beings.


         The ostensible uncontrollability of technology, however, sits pretty with the interests of global capital.  The will to sell unplugs strange new channels of creativity. Bodies and privacies can be put on sale. And bodies can be substituted or fabricated to sell living people.  The bottom line is the profit you can make, and make innovatively. It matters little if that drives some to the verge of suicide.


         Impersonal capital. Impersonal technologies. But are there really no actors in events of this kind? By what stratagems is demand produced? Where do profits from these transactions land? 


         Deep down in the space of images and simulation, the Anara episode is a replay of that terrifying episode from the Mahabharata in which Dushasana tries to disrobe Draupadi in the court of his blind father King Dhritarashtra. The epic archaic now returns in a postmodern avatar. In the competitive game of one-upmanship, each playing his baazee, they put a young woman at stake. Her human rights are abrogated. And she is turned into a commodity of exchange.


         Patriarchy, global capital, cybernetic technologies. The nexus is becoming impenetrably dense against an object that is common and clear: woman.



February 5, 2005


Published in www.yourblackeye.org

at http://www.yourblackeye.org/2Q05/Sharma_Witch-Hunting_in_the_age_of_Media_2Q05.html


Dr. Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala

E mail: sharajesh@gmail.com