The Curious Case Of Rhea Chakraborty: Anatomy Of A Witch-Hunt
The world is a cruel place; and the humankind can be incredibly spiteful. Actor Rhea Chakraborty, one of the key characters in possibly the biggest witch-hunt in modern Indian history, must have discovered this after her recent brush with hostile public sentiment. While her ordeal, in which investigation by central agencies could be the only miniscule yet reassuring part, continues, and she braces herself for a long fight in courts, it would be worthwhile pondering the arrival of the ‘witch’ or its equivalent on the urban mindspace.
Before we proceed, a bit about Rhea. She appears to have turned into a national hate object after boyfriend Sushant Singh’s death. What actually does it take to be one? It has to be grave crime against humanity that stirs the collective urge for revenge. Acts of terrorism and gruesome murders fit the description. So do heinous rape cases. It’s unclear why public perception would categorise one rape as better than the other though. The graveness is perhaps based on shock value graded on a psychological scale in-built in humans. The Aarushi murder, the Nirbhaya case, Sheena Bhora murder and the rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Hyderabad are some of the recent cases that fit the bill. Now, where do you place Rhea’s alleged crime on that scale?
The facts are clear as daylight. There’s nothing to link her directly to the death of the actor. The Rs 15-crore angle, which gave a fresh lease of life to the demand for probe, appears headed to a deadend. The matter of drugs, which has landed Rhea in custody, is peripheral, not central, to the case. Moreover, a motive is missing — why would someone eliminate a supposed source of financial benefit? In any case, top agencies are busy. They could be trusted to do their job. Beyond them are the courts. Ideally, the country should be in the wait and watch mode. Yet Rhea is still at the centre of a relentless vilification campaign, on television and social media. Public perception has been vitiated so much against her that if on the streets alone, she would be lynched in no time. She has been turned into a bona fide hate figure. People are less keen on finding what happened to Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14 than see her punished.
Why is it so? That should lead us to witches and witch-hunting. The modus operandi of witch-hunting in Rhea’s case is similar to that of counterparts in another age or place. The sequence is familiar: decide someone guilty on some pretext, spread the bad word about her around to fan mob fury, silence doubters, summon the kangaroo court to approve the verdict and hand over a punishment pre-decided, which need not be proportionate to the crime. The difference is only in the backdrop. The frenzied crowd in this case are not of lathi-wielding villagers, the people baying for blood are relatively educated people in comfortable urban homes; and the kangaroo court is the media. The lynch mob is more sophisticated. It would not have blood on its hands but would love to watch the alleged witch to bleed from a thousand pores.
In the rural and tribal hinterland of the country, ‘dayan’, ‘chudail’ and whatever other names they are known by have been a regular presence in the public imagination and culture. This species with unusual physical attributes (feet turned inward, to cite one), choice of residence (graveyards, isolated cottages) and feeding habits (raw meat etc), usually dabble in black magic and interact with characters of the netherworld. Their acts, according to popular belief, usher in diseases and devastation. Their spells can bring tragedies to families. Supposed to have their origin in the irrational middle ages, these creatures survive even now. Going by National Crime Records Bureau data, there are at least a 100 reported witch-killing cases in the country every year. While tribal Jharkhand accounts for a big chunk, the practice is spread across India. Cases going unreported or misreported could be more.
By now it is fairly known that it’s not their spells or charms or curses that makes them targets of mob lynching, but more earthy matters such as family property and personal dispute. But the myth of their incredible deviousness, and the power to put into action such deviousness, holds. It has crossed many boundaries. The witch has shifted shape and tweaked the personal profile to suit the urban imagination.
So how do you describe a modern wicked witch besides the fact that she is evil? Well, one can make a guess: She appears confident and self-assured, she is educated, she speaks English, she wears jeans and shorts, she exposes parts of her body, she stays in a live-in relationship, she parties, drinks and smokes, she speaks out, she appears dominating, she can live in a city alone amid strangers, she earns good money, and perhaps she eats chowmein in secret. We may not have a complete list yet, but, in short, a modern witch is one who makes men feel inadequate, insecure; and women groomed in the patriarchal tradition feel inferior. The black magic resides in the fact that she can entice, waylay unsuspecting men, and cause unspeakable damage to them. Of course, she could kill with no qualms.
That explains why Rhea would be accused of driving Sushant into depression, drug habit, indiscretion in financial matters, and finally, to his death. He was, as the popular perception goes, an innocent young man led astray. There is no way anyone other than the woman close to him could be responsible. She has some, if not all, attributes of the modern witch; doesn’t she? She could have offered him milk when he wanted a drink or a banana when he wanted a smoke; why didn’t she? More proof that she is evil. Well, we have not gone there yet, but rest assured, we will. Logical thinking was never a strong point with witch-hunting.
Yes, the world can be cruel. Rhea may or may not be found guilty. But she will remain branded for ever. We will move on to a new target. Because we need villains in our lives. If they don’t exist, we have to manufacture them.