Why Did a White Girl Writing About Rape Get Kicked Out of India?
Sabrina Buckwalter, an American reporter living in India, wrote the first feature on the Khairlanji massacre. Months later, her visa was denied, and she was given 72 hours to get out of the country.
Photo via Flickr user jordibernabeu
It was just another rape story. In September of 2006, a mother and daughter belonging to an "untouchable" lower-caste family in a small, rural Indian village were raped, ceremoniously paraded around the village naked, and savagely murdered by over 30 members of a higher-caste mob. The mother's two sons were subsequently murdered as well. The mob's motives remain disputed to this day. Some say that the mother of the family had been carrying on an affair with the local village cop, prompting the violence; others claim the killings were the product of a land dispute between members of the upper caste and the slain family.
Sabrina Buckwalter's story in The Times of India was the first feature to do the Khairlanji massacre justice. Infatuated with India, she was a young American reporter who dropped out of Georgia State University and moved to Mumbai to report for the country's largest daily newspaper.
According to Buckwalter, only one other news outlet had covered the massacre, an afterthought in the nation's cultural memory. The lack of coverage wasn't surprising. The case dealt explicitly with two of India's quiet cancers: the caste system and rape.
For an American, Buckwalter possessed unique insight into the hyperlocal tensions that played out in this village. It was a story consistent with India's narrative of paradox—why can't the world's largest democracy teach its men not to rape? And why does it still have pockets that cling to the caste system, that rigid social structure that tells kids that they can only dream so big? Her reporting was detailed, humane, and sympathetic.
That was the problem.
In May 2007, nearly eight months after her story was published, her visa was denied. In July, policemen came to the lobby of her office. Supplying her with paperwork, they gave her a diplomatically firm nudge to get out of the country within the next 72 hours.
"Imagine losing everything that means anything to you in one moment," Buckwalter told VICE. "Your home, your job, your boyfriend, your sense of right with the world, your idea of the future. It is traumatic."
Though nearly a decade has passed, Buckwalter's ordeal feels more relevant than ever. Even now, she is barred from traveling to India. Today, both the Indian government and influential figureheads within Indian society have become quiet enemies of free expression, particularly as it applies to foreign writers. It's a country where the privilege of the offended reigns supreme, and, to many Indians, the mere acknowledgment of India's hard social truths feels like some flagrant assault on national character. It's doubly egregious to them when that kind of news is delivered from a foreigner. Who are they, as strangers, to comment on how India can cure its many social ills?
Now, Buckwalter lives in New York. At a bar in the East Village, she told me about the things she loves about India. She adores Indian literature. She loves bharatanatyam, the dance my sister was trained in. She's a big fan of classical Indian music.
Like many young Americans, Buckwalter fell in love with India. After studying abroad in the country during her freshman year of college, she moved to Mumbai to pursue an internship with the Times of India. It was an internship that had no promises attached to it, but she didn't care. She said she'd make it work, and she did. Within three months of her internship, she became a full-time features reporter.
Unlike most young Americans, though, Buckwalter wasn't stupid. Her view of India was tough and clear-eyed. She knew that India, like any other country in the world, had corners that were a special kind of hell.
It's a hell she witnessed firsthand after she traveled 17 hours by train, and two more by bus, to reach Khairlanji. The tiny 200-person village was the site of a grisly massacre most Indians pretended didn't happen.
"As a journalist, you're supposed to be someone who's impartial, reporting the facts," she told me. "You're supposed to extract yourself from the emotion of the story. But when you've seen dead bodies that are strewn about like rag dolls, you have a hard time maintaining composure."
Buckwalter showed me the pictures she was given during her visit. In them, the bodies don't look human. They've been beaten to a pulp. Their lips are almost comically swollen; their limbs are charred. The images alone are enough to inspire outrage. With added context, they're numbing.
So I understand why, after all these years, Buckwalter's eyes started to well up when she talked about what she saw. Her voice became violent when she recalled interviewing the neighbors, who said they didn't see anything on the day of the murders. She still can't bear that an entire village could work together to cover up something so inhuman.
At the time, Buckwalter became so incensed that it bled into her reporting. Her trail of interviews took her to the chief investigator of the case. When she spoke to him, she was obviously infuriated. She talked back to him. They fought. She made sure he knew that his handling of the case was piss-poor, and he didn't take kindly to it.
"Do I think that he's behind a phone call?" she asked me. It's been over eight years, and she still hasn't been given a clear reason why she was forced to leave. "I do. I think that there's a good possibility that he made a phone call to somebody he knew within the state government, so that they could make a case about me, leading to the non-renewal of my visa," she said.
Buckwalter's return to the US wasn't an easy one. She had been making the equivalent of $300 a month in India, so she barely had money for a plane ticket back to the States. When she got there, jobless and homeless, she struggled to find her footing. Her determination eventually won out. Ultimately, she went back to school, obtaining Bachelor and Master's degrees from Columbia University alongside stints at Al-Jazeera English and ABC News.
As we spoke a little more about the bureaucratic hurdles she had to dance through, Buckwalter told me that her story isn't that bad. It's nothing compared to the many non-Indian writers who've suffered fates far worse than hers when working in the country. Unlike them, she got the diplomatic treatment—the kind exit.
Though freedom of expression is enshrined within the Indian constitution, journalists working within India are given little protection by way of Indian law. According to Freedom House's latest Freedom of the Press report, blasphemy, defamation, and hate speech laws have effectively bulldozed that bedrock principle. Among the laws that chill journalistic expression is Section 124A of the penal code, also known as the sedition law, which criminalizes any expression that causes "hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government." Section 153A of the penal code criminalizes language "promoting enmity" between groups; Section 295A outlaws any speech "intended to outrage religious feelings." Section 66A of the Information Technology Act punishes any sender of electronic communication deemed to be "grossly offensive," of "menacing character," or "for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience."
In India, offense has become the primary ground for censors to shut up the kind of speech they just don't like, especially when that speech comes from the mouths of foreigners. One year ago this month, noted Indologist Wendy Doniger had her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pulled and nearly pulped by Penguin India due to protests from right-wing Hindu groups. It was a project that Doniger, a woman who obviously knows her stuff, had worked tirelessly on. But no matter—she was a white woman.
And that's just in the past year. Some other high-profile cases include that of Andrew Buncombe, the British journalist barred from covering the 2012 Delhi gang rape trial for reasons we still don't quite know. In 2011, David Barsamian was deported from the country for reporting on Kashmir's political tensions. In 2009, Der Spiegel correspondent Hasnain Kazim was denied a visa because Indian authorities deemed his articles "overly critical and biased." In 2002, British journalist Alex Perry was threatened with deportation after penning articles for Time magazine suggesting that the reigning Prime Minister liked whiskey and fell asleep during cabinet meetings.
The condition isn't exactly hunky-dory for native Indian journalists, either. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for example, Shirin Dalvi, an editor of Urdu-language newspaper Avadhnama, was arrested and went into hiding because she republished satirical cartoons of Mohammed, offending Muslim religious sentiment. In September of last year, Jaikhlong Brahma, a broadcast journalist for a privately-owned news channel called News Live, was thrown in jail after interviewing the commander of an outlawed separatist group for the purposes of a story, accused of conspiring with the group's rebels. Hartosh Singh Bal, the former editor of Open magazine, received a letter of termination in November 2013 after publishing articles critical of two highly revered political leaders. In January 2011, Sudhir Dhawale of Marathi-language monthly Vidrohi was arrested and jailed for 40 months after reporting on abuses on lower-caste peoples by state officials.
Sabrina's case is buried somewhere in this growing mountain, and it's depressingly easy to understand why her Khairlanji story could be construed as "offensive." By now, India's unfortunate status as the world's "rape capital" is well known. It's a pejorative, not entirely unearned, that's been gifted to the country in the wake of the 2012 Delhi gang rape. It's a shitty badge to wear, which is why so many Indians are trying in earnest—and often defensively—to shake it off.
As social movements to reduce sexual and caste-based violence across India have intensified, the press has played a vital role in bringing these issues to light. This kind of violence, and its unfortunate prevalence, has come to command a public conversation both within and outside of India. It's ignited activists who want to see the injustices perpetuated by such systems rectified.
But even this breed of activism can turn counter-productively violent. So, predictably, government officials in India have begun attacking the press, seen as the messengers who report truths so brutal that this reporting leads to social unrest. And, to officials, that civil disobedience risks undoing the fabric of the nation itself.
It's an unfortunate theme throughout the subcontinent: the idea that the press should be tightly wound, so as to protect some imagined national unity by quelling discontent. India's direct neighbors, Bangladesh and Pakistan, have become similar enemies of the free press, predicating expressive restrictions on people's tolerance for offense. In Pakistan, the killers of journalists often go unpunished due to lax protections afforded to those journalists, especially if they report on politically-sensitive issues. In Bangladesh, journalists can routinely be hit with the accusation that they've "hurt the feelings of the nation." It points to the tensions that have stayed with the three countries since the 1947 Partition of India, a break that's opened historical wounds that are still mightily sore.
But these historical wounds—and the cultural sensitivities they've produced—can't serve as apologia for the injustices that Buckwalter and her peers have endured.
"My story bears being told because this shouldn't be happening in the world's largest democracy," she said. "You should not be able to make a phone call and bar a reporter from doing her job because of a personality conflict."
I can tell, though, that it was more than a personality conflict. Her reporting exposed a profound cultural rift. If there is an untouchable within Indian society, perhaps it's that delicate national psyche that chooses to cover its ears when told that it's done wrong.
And it's for this very reason that foreign writers working within India are at a special kind of risk. If these foreigners point out the hypocrisies they've seen with their own eyes, they risk being silenced. After all, they're perceived as outsiders to India's storied, rich cultural vocabulary. Thus, critics may claim that white girls like Buckwalter are unequipped with the requisite knowledge to begin remedying the country's systemic problems. They're problems that have roots deep and firm in India's bruised history.
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