दुष्कर्म. And रेप. The paradoxical language of बलात्कार in a Hindi newspaper

A look at 16 issues of Dainik Bhaskar

A Hindi newspaper reader in the Prithviraj Road area of Delhi. In Dainik Bhaskar, one of India’s most-read dailies, rape is politely referred to as दुष्कर्म. Photo: Víctor Iniesta, CC BY 2.0

There is an international spotlight on India’s ‘rape culture’, and continuing outrage by the Indian media and public about it. And every day, there are stories of rape and sexual violence in the newspapers. But the public reaction is generally one of indifference. Is that because people have seen too many news items about rape? Or is that because of the way in which such news is reported? What impact could the language used to present rape and sexual violence have on the minds of newspaper readers?

With these questions in mind, I decided to parse the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, looking at issues from May 16 to May 31, 2018.

What struck me right away were the terms that the newspaper used to describe sexual violence — some were euphemistic, others minimised the incidents, and in some cases, Hindi transliterations of English words were used, perhaps as a device to distance from the severity of the crime.

For sexual harassment and assault, words like छेड़छाड़ (‘chhed-chhad’, teasing), बदसलूकी (‘badsalooki’, misbehaviour), अश्लील हरकत (‘ashleel harkat’, obscene act) and यौन उत्पीड़न (‘yaun utpeedan’, sexual harassment) are used.

Rape is usually politely referred to as दुष्कर्म (‘dushkarm’, misdeed). In other cases, the English word ‘rape’ is transliterated into Hindi (रेप). The reason for this use of another language is unclear, since there exists a Hindi word for rape — बलात्कार (‘balaatkaar’). It hints perhaps at an underlying perception that rape is alien to the readers, and they should be ‘protected’ from the idea of it. The correct Hindi term for rape was used only once in the 16 days that I looked at Dainik Bhaskar.

This reticence is not evident in the language used to describe sexual crimes. These details often shape the way readers view the victims — “नुकीले सामान और लोहे की रॉड से हमला किया गया” (attacked with sharp objects and iron rod), “बच्ची की चीखें” (the screams of the girl), “हवस का शिकार” (prey of lust), “चाकू की नोक पर धमकाकर” (threatened at the tip of knife). This kind of language evokes fear as well as pity for the victims. Rarely do we see empowering messages such as “पीड़िता युवती ने हिम्मत नहीं हारी” (victim did not lose courage) and “पीड़िता को इंसाफ मिलना चाहिए” (the victim should get justice).

The headlines of stories about sexual violence are also problematic in that they focus excessively on victims — where they were, what they were doing, their profession, their age. They are spoken of as passive subjects of crime, while the rapist’s agency is glossed over. For example: गुरुद्वारा नानक प्याऊ में महिला सेवादार से छेड़छाड़, मामला दर्ज (Volunteer at Gurudwara Nanak Piao molested, incident reported), महिला बॉक्सर से बदमाशों ने सरेआम बदसलूकी की (Woman boxer harassed openly by miscreants), 6० साल की मेंटली रिटायर्ड [sic] महिला से रेप का आरोपी वीडियो के आधार पर गिरफ्तार (Man accused of raping 60-year-old mentally challenged woman arrested on the basis of video).

In headlines such as these, the victim’s identity or characteristics can be seen to define the story — readers are encouraged to focus on her, rather than the perpetrator’s criminal actions. The content of the stories also reflects this tendency to highlight the victim’s behaviour — while she is rarely shamed or blamed openly, there are insinuations that her actions played a role in the crime. For example, in this story about an abduction and subsequent rape, certain details subtly gave information on how the victim’s decisions sealed her fate — that she was a club dancer and the “matter unfolded late on the night of May 27” (“मामला 27 मई देर रात का है”).

It is curious to note the paradox of journalists graphically describing incidents and freely giving details about victims, but avoiding the use of बलात्कार, the correct term for rape. To me, this reflects a fundamental disconnect — rape is more than a दुष्कर्म or misdeed. It is not an import from the West that must be written of using a foreign word. Rape is a universal problem, but it is also an Indian problem and we can start to address it by acknowledging it unflinchingly in our own language.