[Reader-list] 4th post by Biswajit and Nilanjan: How children view the hanging

iram at sarai.net iram at sarai.net
Mon Jun 6 15:15:18 IST 2005

How children view the hanging

Fourth posting by Biswajit and Nilanjan

Hetal Parekh, the victim in the most talked about rape and murder case of
out time, was a schoolgirl. How did her peers react to the crime, the
punishment and the media coverage? We have seen some of them in the TV and
newspaper pictures holding up placards evidently prepared by grown-ups to
demand “exemplary” punishment of the convict, Dhananjay Chatterjee, or
silently standing in prayer lines. But beyond that? We did not know because
we did not want to know. As we started talking to the children, it became
apparent that not only did the mass media have a deep impact on young minds
(as expected), but the young ones, too, had important things to say about
the issues raised by the media and the way these were raised.
The first group we discussed with was an all-girl one. It comprised nine
students (class VI-IX) of Jagatpur Rukmini Vidyamandir for Girls, a rather
“ordinary” school in Behala at the south-west fringe of Kolkata. The
students mostly belonged to working-class families. Their fathers were
masons, gardeners, petty shop-owners or cab-drivers, or had left them in
the care of their mothers, who worked as domestic helps. Most of these
children were not yet born when the Hetal was raped and murdered by the
security guard of her apartment building, Dhananjay, in 1991.
Two of the children do not have TV at home while two others have no cable
connection. None of their families subscribe to any newspaper regularly.
However, their elders read newspapers particularly when some news turns
into hot topic. The children, too, read newspapers occasionally but watch
TV regularly, either at home or at some neighbour’s place.
What did they like to watch? Almost all of them named crime-related
programmes such as Police File, Crime Diary, Crime Files, etc., as well as
detective soaps like CID. There is an abundance of prime-time crime-related
programmes, both on Bengali and Hindi channels, where the highly dramatised
and gory reconstructions of violence, particularly crimes on women like
rape and murder are being dished out every evening. Our interaction with
these children shows that their perceptions – rather imaginations, fears
and hatred – about the crimes and criminals as well as values about the
punishments are greatly shaped by these programmes.
According to them, the elders in their families, too, avidly watch these
programmes and ask the teenaged girls to do the same to make them “aware
of the dangers ahead”. “My grandpa told me to watch the Police File to
know how the girl (Hetal Parekh) was tortured and murdered by Dhananjay. It
will enhance my knowledge about the dangers that girls face,” recalled
one of them. Another said that her father told her to follow the news on
Dhananjay’s hanging. “An aunt in the neighbourhood told me watch it to
learn about the bad things that boys do to girls,” reported one of them.
All of them came to know about the crime and punishment of Dhananjay
chattarjee from elders who were engrossed in hot discussions before as well
as after the judicial execution. “It was discussed everywhere – at
home, in the locality and school. TV and newspapers were also full of
stories on the hanging. This made us curious,” said one girl.
Most of them followed the news of hanging on TV channels. Like the elders,
they became conditioned to the gradual building of climax to the great
spectacle of the hanging, orchestrated by the media and the government.
“I watched the TV whole night on the day of the hanging. We have never
seen a hanging. I wanted to watch the hanging to know how a normal living
person was turned into a dead man,” said a girl. Others, too, were keen
to watch the episode.
The images of Dhananjay they had received from the TV reconstructions of
his crime were grotesque. They particularly mentioned the Police File
programme on Akash Bangla, the TV channel known as the ruling CPI(M)’s
unofficial organ. “The person who acted as Dhananjay was ugly and
fearsome. His loafer looks, bloody eyes and beastly body movements sent
chills through our spines. We began to hate and fear Dhananjay. This
portrayal of Dhananjay led us to support the hanging,” said Lipika, while
other girls corroborated her. But they were able to make a distinction
between the hyper-real and real. “Later, we saw Dhananjay’s picture in
the newspapers and TV news. He looked like a normal bhadralok in bridegroom
make-up and certainly not as horrific as he was shown in the Police File.
The Police File report tried to convince us that he was a bad man who
deserved the hanging. People came to favour his hanging after this episode
was telecast. In other episodes, there were commercial breaks, but this one
hardly had any,” observed Sebika and Lipika while others in the group
supported them.
The children reflected the divisions and swings in public opinion on the
death sentence. While the elders and the media influenced their judgments,
their ability to articulate was striking. There were arguments both for and
against the death sentence and taking a decision was not easy, they noted.
According to them, the hanging could be justified because: a) Dhananjay had
tortured and killed Hetal, b) if released, he would have committed the same
crime again, and c) this could have happened to them also. At the same
time, they felt opposed to the hanging on the following grounds: a)
Dhananjay had been in jails for years together, b) it was his first crime,
c) many criminals who had committed multiple crimes of similar nature were
still evading arrest or conviction, d) there would be no difference between
the killer and the judge if the latter ordered killing of the former, and
e) it was often found that courts rectified the previous conviction orders,
which had compelled innocent persons to languish in jail for long. There
would be no chance of such judicial rectification if the convict was hanged
to death.
“Initially, most of the people were in favor of the hanging. But the mood
changed substantially on the eve of the hanging. We, too, felt it was
better to keep Dhananjay in prison for life rather than killing him. The
government should stop hanging but imprison the criminals for life who dare
to violate the honours of women,” said the girls.
These children were aware of the class bias of our legal–judicial system
and made critical observations on that issue. “If the crime had been
committed by a fellow resident of the apartment rather than the security
guard, he would have escaped the noose. We know that ministers’ sons or
relatives go unpunished even after committing heinous crimes. Why was there
such a hue and cry over Dhananjay when such crimes are often committed?
Dhananjay’s poor family could not match the money power of Hetal’s
family and failed to engage better lawyers to save his life,” argued one
of them. When asked why they came to such a conclusion, they said, “Those
who were opposed to the death sentence said this during the TV debates.
These aspects were also discussed at our homes.” They even demanded that
the government look after Dhananjay’s parents who had lost all their
resources in the long legal battle.
Nevertheless, they would have favoured the hanging uncritically if Hetal
was their friend or a student of the same school. “If she was our friend
or a senior in school, we would have reacted in the manner the students of
Hetal’s school had reacted.”
Hangman Nata Mallick evoked a mixed response. While his name sounded funny
for them, his bizarre job evoked awe and fear. But the girls had their own
reading of the texts. “He was not eager to hang Dhananjay and fell sick
after the hanging. We have seen that on TV. He should not be blamed for the
hanging, as it is his livelihood. He just obeyed the government order,”
they pleaded.
Why did the media make a big hype over the hanging? The children put forth
an explanation. “There was no hanging for many years. Reporters have done
their jobs. Otherwise how can the news business go on?” maintained the
girls. Condoning the hype, however, these girls were critical about the
demonstration of the hanging or techniques of noose making in the media.
“Younger children, attracted to the constant discussions everywhere on
the issue and repeated media images on hanging, imitated it playfully
without realising the danger.” These girls in their early teens, however,
did not go for the temptation. “We heard that some children died while
imitating the hanging. Earlier, the same kind of deaths occurred when
children tried to imitate Shaktiman. But we knew the danger involved in
this game and also feared that parents would scold us if they came to
Do they feel safer after the hanging, now that the perpetrator of a grave
crime against women has been eliminated? “We feel more scared. Parents do
not want to leave us alone either at home or outside. They are always
scared that we could be abducted and tortured (throughout the discussion,
they seemed to be consciously avoiding the words like ‘rape’ or
‘molestation’). The men would not come to their senses even if they are
taught about the right virtues a thousand times. Girls cannot enjoy freedom
even if they earn money,” they commented. However, they made a
distinction between their friends and the unfamiliar males. “We have no
fear of our friends among the boys in our locality. But the situation is
different with others whom we do not know.”
Aware of AIDS and the use of condoms for safe sex through the TV and other
media campaigns, these young girls felt embarrassed by the sexist ads of
male undergarments (e.g., a youth with his genital area covered by computer
graphics crashing into a bathroom to make animated love to bathing beauty)
or soaps and shampoo ads (the Liril ad which suggests strong erotic
gestures with male and female characters chasing one another other after
the bath with green chilies and carrots in their hands). Nevertheless, they
are glued to the cola or shampoo ads which cast their favorite heroes.
Other ads, which attract these growing-up girls, visibly undernourished,
are related to food products such as ice-creams.
The second batch of students were from one of the city’s posh schools —
South Point School in south Kolkata. Among 12 students, 11 were boys. Four
of them were studying in class X and the rest in class IX.
All of them have television with cable connections and at least two
newspapers at home. Seven stay in high-rise apartments. Their parents are
middle-class or upper middle-class professionals – college teachers, bank
managers, engineers and public sector company officials.
Most of them came to know about the Dhananjay episode from TV as well as
newspapers. But their interest in the incident was triggered by the heated
discussion among the elders, both at home and outside. “Normally, we do
not read beyond sports and entertainment pages. But Dhananjay‘s story
became the hottest topic all around us. The stories on hanging hogged the
front-page headlines for weeks together. So it was virtually impossible to
ignore them,” recalled one of the students. Another admitted that he
began following the newspaper reports on the hanging after watching Police
The girl among these students stay alone at home after her school hours
since both of her parents are working. “After the reports on Hetal Parekh
murder, my parents warned me to be cautious while staying alone at home or
moving outside. Parents of my friends also gave them the same advice,”
said the girl, Suparna. The boys also reported some kind of heightened
insecurity among parents or tension about the security of the teenage
girls. Their parents, cousins and friends’ families had restricted the
movement of young girls at that time, they recalled.
Despite living in apartment buildings where employment of security guards
are common now, they did not recall any tension in the relationship between
the residents and guards or an attitudinal shift towards them even though
Dhananjay was a security guard. “Neighbours in our apartments discussed
the issue among them. But we never talked to the security guards on the
issue,” said one of the students. While the perceptions about personal
security were different among the boys and the girl, all of them pointed
out that the hanging of Dhananjay did not increase any sense of security
among them or their parents.
On the question of death sentence, it was interesting to note that all
except one boy were opposed to it while the girl was basically in favour.
It may not coincidental that boys could not recall Hetal’s name properly
while the girl could. “Being a security guard, Dhananjay betrayed the
trust. That’s why his crime attracted so much condemnation. The death
sentence was justified in view of the betrayal and the crime,” she
opined. But the boys condoned the crime on the ground that Dhananjay had
committed the crime “on momentary excitement”. “TV channels showed
him as a ghastly criminal. We think he was basically a good man. He
deserved punishment and served 14 years in jail. He could have been
detained for life, but the death sentence was not justified,” said the
boys. The sympathy with Dhananjay, a rural poor, was not missing despite
these students’ own urban upwardly mobile background. “Many high-class
criminals are still alive and free despite committing multiple murders and
crimes on women,” they reasoned.
All of them castigated media, both print and audio-visual, for committing
“excesses” in covering the whole episode. “Media should be held
responsible for the death of the children [playing the hanging game].
Particularly TV channels made the hangman a hero and showed his
demonstration of the hanging and preparation of the noose. TV channels and
newspapers carried his interviews. How can you focus on such a person whose
job is to reply violence by violence? Even after the hanging, popular TV
programmes like Khonj Khabar showed Nata Mallick’s business of selling
pieces of the noose as talisman. Was it necessary at all?” questioned a
student. Others expressed their reservation about the coverage of
Dhananjay’s last days at the condemned cell. “It was almost a running
commentary on his daily chores — what he was eating, how he listened to
the radio. Was it a circus?” remarked another. Another student reported
that cell-phone operators, too made it abuzz with the latest reports on the
hanging. “There was no way to escape it,” he recalled. But how
differently would they have covered the episode if they were journalists?
The students were at a loss. “That’s a difficult question,” one of
them grinned.
Out of the entire coverage, the lasting media images for the boys were the
front-page pictures of Dhananjay’s last journey to the crematorium and
the stories about the Bengali delicacies he had had before leaving for the
gallows. For Suparna, however, the climax of whole episode, the hanging
itself, was more memorable.
While all the boys like to watch the various crime-related programmes to
make themselves “aware and cautious about the criminals”, only one
reported parental objections to the viewing of such daily dishes of
violence. “One programme showed a child being killed by driving nails
into his body. That was excessive violence. They should not show such
brutality. There must be a limit,” observed a student. However, exposed
to round-the-clock mass media “representations of violent societal
reality”, these teenagers were clearly as confused over the “limit”
as the grown-ups.

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