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Culture of Scapegoat Arrests: Rhea Chakraborty’s Arbitrary Arrest & Media Lynching

Did Rhea push Sushant to the verge of suicide? Was she involved in Sushant's 'alleged' homicide? These are questions which no journalist can or should attempt to answer, as these are being investigated for by the CBI. However, a valid question that can be raised is regarding the legitimacy of the charges levelled against Rhea, and what her arrest shows about our law provisions. If the charges levelled against her lack legitimacy, on what grounds (or the lack thereof) were they applied? How is Rhea’s witch-hunt by our media houses' related to her arrest? The arrest has unraveled the shortcomings of two institutions which are fundamental to the sustenance of a healthy democracy: law and the media.

A shocking demise 

The nation was rightfully shocked when the news of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide flooded the internet on June 14. As some might argue, the shocking event made the bollywood actor into an even bigger star than he was alive. Bureaucrats, politicians, and popular figures from all walks of life expressed their remorse by posting obituary messages in the actor’s remembrance. However, the discussion about the suicide did not just end with the obituaries. What followed, apart from lopsided and uninformed discussions about mental health, was an obsessive conjecture about what might have possibly led to the suicide. “What could have caused the suicide of such a celebrated bollywood actor?”, the naive fans couldn't help but wonder. 

Kangana’s conjecture

Five days after the event, bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut took to Instagram and posted, as some might say, a frivolous video blaming the nepotism in the film industry for the actor’s death. “He begged for roles, he wanted recognition but did not get it”, said Ranaut in a video which went viral. What followed was a vast amount of speculation over who all were responsible for the suicide, if it was really a suicide and not a murder; and Rhea Chakrabory, Shushant’s girlfriend was not spared. Soon, a video of Chakraborty went viral where the actress had made some controversial remarks about her partner, Shushant in an intoxicated state Consequently, Rhea faced the brunt of extreme social media hatred, trolling and rape threats. The hedonistic vilification of the model cum actress was much apparent, especially when the targeted hatred for Rhea went beyond Instagram and Twitter, and reached the doors of our newsroom studios. 

Trash journalism at its best

A lot can be assessed about the state of media when TV channels run debates like “Sushant par Rhea ka kala jadu” (AajTak), “Love Sex Dhoka” (CNN News18’s) and when Arnab Goswami shouts “Mujhey Drug Do” during a ‘news debate’ on Rhea Chakraborty. The media channels indeed spared no effort at increasing their TRPs by pandering to the fans’ naivety. If getting your character assassinated on national television wasn't enough, Rhea was mobbed by the media who in turn reported her smallest of actions on national television, completely breaching her right to privacy. From being  callied a “manipulative woman” and a “gold-digger” to claims that she “drove him to suicide”, the media channels had no shame in assassinating Rhea’s dignity. 

A sexist and hypocritical witch-hunt

Rhea’s vilification by the media is not just convenient and hypocritical, but is also unsubstantiated and gravely misogynistic. Firstly, the vilification is heavily convenient and unnecessary. During these unprecedented times where India’s GDP’s bore its worst contraction ever at 23.9% percent, where more than 200 migrant workers reportedly died during the lockdown, where jobs continue to disappear, and when the farmers are in grave distress, the media’s focus on the Rhea’s alleged involvement is immoral and grotesquely absurd. 

Secondly, the speculation by the media is also uninformed, given the lack of evidence in the public domain. What does the media attempt to achieve by their dull-witted and shamefully hedonistic attempts at their so called investigative journalism when the relevant authorities are investigating the case? 

Furthermore, the vilification reeks of our society’s misogyny. Even after considering the spooky circumstantial evidence available hinting towards Rhea’s alleged involvement, the gross amount of hatred and the nature of trolling she has been slapped with brings out the misogyny in our society. Blaming the female romantic partner for a man’s suicide is by no means a new phenomenon. Rekha faced a similar media backlash and public fury following her husband Mukesh Agarwal’s suicide back in October 1990, wherein she was blamed for abetting the actor to suicide. Be it Rekha or Rhea, the fact that their partners’ suicides immediately led the media to question their character though uninformed media trials, makes the media’s misogyny worryingly conspicuous. 

The scapegoat’s arrest

Thanks to our media houses and Kangana Ranaut, it seemed as if every household in the country needed to know who was responsible for Sushant’s death. Almost as if everyone had been looking for someone to put the blame on, perhaps an easy target. Soon after, the Narcotics Control Bureau opened an investigation into Sushant’s alleged drug consumption to probe a possible linkage between his drug usage and his death. The NCB commissioned Rhea on 5th September for questioning regarding the case, and interrogated her again to investigate allegations against her for procuring cannabis for Sushant.

The successive interrogations resulted in Rhea’s arrest on 8th September, 2020 under Section 20B, Section 27, Section 28 and Section 29 of NDPC. If Rhea is found to be guilty in all these sections, she would have to serve from 10 to 20 years in prison. 

As explained by The Logical Indian, ”The Section 20(B) of the NDPS Act is applicable to those who produces, manufactures, possesses, sells, purchases, transports, imports inter-State, exports inter-State or uses cannabis, shall be punishable. Under this section, the accused can be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years. Section 28 of the NDPS Act includes punishment for any offender slapped with the NDPS Act. Section 29 of the NDPS Act mentions the Punishment for abetment and criminal conspiracy.”

However, the question over legitimacy lies over the arbitrariness of the arrest. These sections whenever applied are levelled against drug kingpins who manufacture and supply drugs inter-state. In the history of NCB, these sections have never been slapped in a case of this level. Furthermore, the NCB has not retrieved the contraband in question, and the only evidence backing the arrest are Rhea’s WhatsApp chats. 

Even after taking the WhatsApp messages into consideration, Rhea by no means is proved to be a consumer of the said drug. Also, being Sushant’s partner, if she pays to retrieve some grams of cannabis for Sushant, does that by any means imply that she’s a part of a drug syndicate? The provided evidence and the sections slapped don’t match. There is no denying that Rhea could possibly have something to do with Sushant’s death which is exactly why she is a part of the investigation. However, the charges levelled against her were in no way related to Shushant’s death, they were instead related to drug procurement.

Some Bollywood celebrities did not shy away from commenning the arrest. Tapsee Pannu in a tweet said, “These people have lynched a human being of her right to live even before being proven guilty.” Vidya Balan too criticised how Sushant’s death had been made into a “media circus”. “My heart breaks at the vilification of Rhea Chakraborty,” she said. “Isn’t it supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, or is it now guilty until proven innocent?"

Why aren’t the elite socialites of Delhi and Mumbai being arrested? Why haven’t these sections been slapped at the Saadhus in Kumbh Mela who proudly consume bhaang? Why do these Saadhus get to have the privilege of receiving protection by the government when in reality they need to be arrested for cannabis consumption just like Rhea? The only answer is that these arbitrary laws will be slapped at whosoever the state deems fit. Rhea was meant to be used as a scapegoat to diffuse the energies of the uninformed Indian masses. As a result, she was arrested for procuring cannabis which in today’s time can be bought over the counter in countries like Canada, Uruguay, and many states in the USA.

Over 2500 signatories and 60 organisations have signed an open letter published on Feminist Voices, condmening the media’s coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case and particularly, there villification of Rhea Chakraborty. The letter addressed to the media has been signed by celebrities like Anurag Kashyap, Gauri Shinde and Zoya Akhtar, actor Sonam Kapoor. “Hunt news, not women. We write to ask you, the news media, to stop this unfair witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty and to stop fuelling moral polarities of good women to be deified and bad women to be crucified which endangers all women.” Furthermore, the letter pointed out how the media had given a clean to Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan, two actors with a detailed criminal history. The letter read: “We know you can be different — because we have seen you be kind and respectful to the Salman Khans and Sanjay Dutts of this world, urging us to think of their families, fans and careers. But, when it comes to a young woman who has not even been proven to commit any crime, you have assassinated her character, egged an online mob to demonise her and her family, fuelled wrongful demands and called her arrest your victory. Victory over what? Young women daring to make their own lives in a society that grudges them their freedoms?”

What lies ahead for Rhea and her troubled family? How many more Bollywood stars would be detained in this probe? Will our media houses realise the grossness of their journalistic practices and wake up to their responsibilities? Only time will unravel. 


By Amitoj Singh Kalsi

Amitoj works as the President of The Symposium Society and serves as the Publisher of Hindu College Gazette. A raging queer feminist who happens to be a public policy, marketing and history aficionado. Can be found networking on LinkedIn whenever he isn't binge watching a TV Show. He is currently a History major at Hindu College, University of Delhi.

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