In 2004, while I was a student in an all-girls’ missionary school in the north Indian hilltown of Dehradun, an incident took place a couple of hundred kilometres away, in India’s capital city New Delhi. A male student from the highly reputed Delhi Public School (DPS) shot a phone video of his girlfriend giving him a blowjob in the school premises, uploaded it on Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), and shared it with his friends. This was the time when there were no WhatsApps or social media, and things didn’t just go “viral”. Millennials were still grappling with the pervasiveness, and the subsequent dangers, of the digital world. But here it was, this 2.37-minute video, which truly, for all intents and purposes, went viral.
In the early 2000s, you knew things were viral if TV news channels ran segments on it endlessly, sometimes the whole day. That’s what happened to the DPS MMS case. It became, for the lack of having any kind of vocabulary to define it at the time, a “scandal”. At a time when porn and other sexual content were still hidden in covert corners of the internet, which not many had access to or knowledge about, the MMS clip became a household name. I was one of the many kids who watched those segments with parents who, on normal days, pretend that their kids know nothing about sex. On normal days, even an on-screen kiss would set them ordering us to fetch water from the kitchen, or, better, change the channel (yes, real subtle). But this was different. This was the news, a somewhat “safe” content for families to watch.
Unfortunately, television news took a jarring turn because, for the sake of TRPs, this content was to the audience like moths to the flame. Words like “sex scandal”, “porn scandal”, “ashleel (vulgar)” or “lewd” came up consistently. One even called it a result of “bare-all, dare-all” internet generation. Suddenly, millennials were an overexposed lot who will obviously veer towards immorality. Somewhere in those news segments, I deduced thinly veiled glee over such an “expose” involving kids from upper-class families, that came with very toxic but very real warnings. Millennials—who were increasingly spending time online and watching too many “western” movies—were to learn from this incident and not bring “scandal” to their homes. Some sociologists in urban Indian pockets talked about the importance of sex education in all of this, but of course, that conversation didn’t even touch my small town.
From our middle-class homes, we watched this news go in several directions—from the fact that the boy sold the MMS clip for a meagre Rs 40, to the girl’s family’s “dishonour” and how they suffered. After the “scandal” broke, the boy managed to get admission in another elite school, while the girl was packed off to Canada. And then there were the “blurred” stills from the MMS, you know the kinds that showed nothing, yet everything. It reminded me of the nuns in my convent school showing us images and videos of abortion procedures or STDs during our “sex education” classes. Looking back, I wonder what joy boomers got from feeding us a visceral combination of voyeurism and toxic morality. In the meantime, the Delhi Police took no action against the boy for circulating the clip. There was another lesson in this: That the abusers always get away with their crimes.
Today, experts look back at the case and acknowledge how the case “changed” the way Indians look at technology, or come to the realisation that millennials can be, in fact, sexually active, or have sexual awareness, from a very young age. They’ve made films about it; some stand-up comics make jokes around it.
For me, the DPS MMS case (not “scandal”, even though Wikipedia still calls it so) was the most insensitively reported criminal offence (which it is still not looked as), which is now covered under the Indian Constitution’s Article 21 (which makes publishing a visual that is “embarrassing, mental traumatic” or causes “a sense of insecurity about the activities the person in the photograph is involved in”, illegal). Of course, it took the Delhi gangrape of 2012 (which has been called one of the most gruesome act of violence against women in recent times) to include voyeurism and cybercrime as an offence worth jail time and a fine.
The brunt of the stigma and shame has almost always fallen on a woman, but the MMS case ensured that we were vilified for it too. And so, for me, the #MeToo movement over the last two years proved to be hugely cathartic (although it can’t be discounted that it still has very limited reach) mostly because it broke that chain of silence around everyday misogyny, patriarchy and violence against women. The DPS MMS case was part of that problem.
Another momentous shift was the change in the vocabulary and language while talking about harassment and violence. Be it on social media where abusers were being outed, or television media which was reporting it, the language of the #MeToo movement carried the seriousness and urgency of the issue, as opposed to the implication of moral depravity that words like “scandal” fling on survivors.
Early this week, when the ‘Bois Locker Room' case broke, I joined in the collective and very vocal outrage against rape culture, which has now trickled down to the Gen-Z in India. But what struck me the most was how these kids were talking about it: With trigger warnings, or with notes on being sensitive to underage kids, even the perpetrators. I looked back at the time when television news channels competed to catch viewers’ attention with some of the worst graphics or titles. If only there was a “trigger warning” before those segments for us, it would have given parents a chance to decide whether the content that involves sexually exploitative behaviour and language for the survivor would be good for their children. Or, better still, we would have had the chance to choose whether we want to watch it or not.
The ‘Bois Locker Room’ media coverage, in complete contrast, was not only nuanced but also empathetic towards the girls who were the target of obscenity and morphing. Talking to my 19-year-old colleague about this issue (who wrote about it on VICE) made me starkly aware of how the two generations—the millennials and the Gen-Z—are growing up and looking at women’s issues in vastly different ways. The “scandal” of my time is a #MeToo call for her. While the survivor of my generation had to disappear from the public eye, the Gen-Z joined forces to ensure that abusers don’t get away (the Delhi Police arrested the admin of the Bois Locker Room group on May 6).
So yes, misogyny will probably persist in the Indian society, as will impunity given to abusers by our flawed legal system (as evidenced by the legal failure of #MeToo). But there is one hope from this all: That we will probably (and hopefully) never repeat our failure to support survivors, the way we inadvertently did with the survivor of the MMS case. Because one act of silence can affect one whole generation of young girls. But it also took one act of courage in 2017—when law student Raya Sarkar, then 24, outed predatory professors in Indian academics—to break the silence of hundreds of women. And we cannot afford to go back again.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.