No, kohl-rimmed eyes and exceptional saree-draping skills do not magically turn the collective community of Bengali women into witches. The fact that this clarification even needs to be made in writing is a ridicule in itself. But in a country like ours, where media trials and cyber trolls determine the fate of court cases even before CBI probes, it isn’t much of a surprise that people have fallen for the easy bait: demonizing women.
In the days leading up to the CBI handover of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the direction of the police investigation was dictated by multiple events. One of them included the lodging of an FIR which named actress Rhea Chakraborty as one of the prime accused in the SSR case.
Rhea, who was dating the Kai Po Che actor for around a year prior to his death, was accused of abetting Sushant to commit suicide. The FIR, filed by the actor’s father KK Singh, also alleged the former MTV VJ of “unlawfully confining Sushant and criminal breach of trust.”
Unsurprisingly, the turn of events has put the 28-year-old actress at the front and centre of all action. Her name has since been plastered all over the news, with clamorous prime time anchors debating (and self-deliberating) her case, and eventually, turning it over to the ultimate altar of speedy justice – social media.
What has, however, come as a complete surprise is how the media trial has targeted an entire community of women that Rhea belongs to. From #JusticeForSSR, this has now turned into a witch hunt targeting Bengali women.
How a tweet sparked a storm of digs
It all started with a single tweet. A user, by the name of Barkha Trehan, in the light of the FIR and the allegations lodged against Rhea, took a nasty shot at the actress and wrote, “Bengali girls are dominating, they know how to make guys fall for them.”
“They catch big fish, good looking highly paid guys. If you want to be her servant and financer and are okay to leave your family and join her family then go ahead (sic),” she added.
STAY SAFE MEN / BOYS .
Bengali girls are dominating, they know how to make guys fall for them.
They catch big fish, good looking highly paid guys. If you want to be her servant and financer and are okay to leave your family and join her family then go ahead😊😊#RheaChakroborty
— Barkha Trehan / बरखा त्रेहन (@barkhatrehan16) July 31, 2020
The tweet in question – posted on July 31 – appears to reference Rhea and Sushant’s romance, and more alarmingly, it takes a dig at women while making a sweeping statement about an entire community. Unsurprisingly, the post was met with strongly-worded criticism and equally sarcastic response.
“Yes I prefer Rui or Bhetki, then fry it in mustard oil and finish it off with steaming rice with some green/red chillies. Bengali women out there. Anyone wants to join in? (sic)” tweeted Sushant’s Dil Bechara co-star Swastika Mukherjee.
Bengali actor and Trinamool Congress MP Nusrat Jahan also chimed in, writing, “We "Bengali Girls" also run around - cook n conquer the world. Stop disgracing a community for your Agendas. I'm sure you don't know your Maach-Masala-Mishti well.”
Four More Shots Please actor Sayani Gupta joked, “I prefer Ilish/Hilsa or Rui. Must be fried in mustard oil. Slowly debone while I eat it with steamed rice, ghee and green chillies. Don't leave the slightest meat with the bones. Also buy the fish myself. All my Bengali Girls.. how do you like your Big Fish?”
Don’t worry. Bengali women are least interested in the men and boys that this is addressed to. Forget Bengali women, any beautiful, smart woman is least interested in this audience. https://t.co/EMhjYU1k9y
— Rohini Singh (@rohini_sgh) August 1, 2020
On the surface, this entire conversation surrounding Bengali women appears (in most parts) to be a hilarious and savage banter. But scratch the surface and you will see the humour dissolve to reveal an oppressive thought-process, which is quick to judge and even quicker to label.
Dig deeper, though, and you might hit a bedrock cemented with fear.
ALSO READ: In The Name of #JusticeForSSR, Kangana Ranaut Attacks Mental Health Champions
How the viral exchange made way for cyberbullying
In a different time, when judicial trials were limited to the court of law, Barkha’s tweet could have been passed off as a silly dig. But in this socio-political climate, where millions are glued to their screens, waiting with bated breath for each new development in this high-profile case, an implicative statement is more damaging than it seems.
In this context, the impact is proportional to the rise in the cases of cyberbullying and harassment targeting women belonging to a particular state/community.
"This is a worrying trend and specifically after the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Just because a Bengali girl is under investigation, the popular perception is that she has killed Sushant and thus all Bengali women are being trolled," Leena Ganguly, the chairperson of West Bengal Commission for Women (WBCW), was quoted by media reports.
Leena’s fears are justified; in the aftermath of Sushan’t death and the subsequent back and forth between Police, Supreme Court, media, and now CBI, the WBCW has received numerous complaints of online harassment. At least 30 complaints were registered in the first week of August, and in most cases, victims alleged that attempts were made to abuse and defame “Bengali” women.
In fact, data analysing the rise in cases of cyberbullying in India at large, resonate a similar story. According to National Crime Records Bureau, between 2017 and 2018, the incidents of cyberstalking or bullying of women or children increased from 542 to 739. This marks a 36% increase within a span of a year, and it is reflective of the dire state of the security of women and children online.
Suddenly, words like “witch” and “black magic” and “gold digger” have resurfaced on social media. And it’s not in connection to a spoof or a parody ‘thug life’ video but with regards to real women, indicating signs of cyberbullying, a much serious and more consistent problem.
(Edited by Athira Nair)