This Women’s Day, Khabar Lahariya takes you deep inside the saga of the lesser understood cybercrimes in small town India
While the cause and effect play of AI-generated imagery and its manipulation claim considerable newsprint real estate as investigations into deepfakes capable of swinging elections, a slightly less glamorous version of tech-enabled manipulation is writing a horrific tale of violence in the hinterlands of our country.
While news and media consumers in the Indian cities and metros recently read about the cute prank that popular actor Daljit Dosanjh played on the visiting American President’s daughter using photo-morphing tools, for young women in the smaller towns who do not have the privilege that comes with power of Trump-ian proportions, this the very technology that spells the end of her life as she knows it. With data plans that come as cheap as the tech know-how to use and manipulate, the power dynamics steeped in gender prejudice are growing deeper roots in the online worlds of smaller towns, manifesting ugly truths in the offline spaces. Access to smartphones and tech remains largely in the hands of the young, hot-blooded, unemployed male, and this implies a very real victimization of their female counterparts, particularly the ones who are tasting their own versions of digital empowerment.
As Suneeta Prajapati, a Khabar Lahariya senior reporter, had said at a conference exploring digital mobility and feminism, “I have earned my freedom. I know that one misstep on the internet and I will never be able to negotiate it back. This is why I have to be extremely careful.” Suneeta went onto share several stories of men sending her back her own DP’s, with comments ranging from ‘Beautiful, Ma’am’, to ‘Not all men are so nice to only appreciate from a distance. Aisi profile pic lagaane se pehle zara savdhani bartiye.’
In a village in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, a 21-year-old woman was shocked to hear about a photograph of hers going viral. Posted on Facebook by a young man of her village, whom everyone refers to as ‘Chaubey’, it was a picture of a woman’s naked body with her face. A morphed photo that garnered likes and shares and was soon moved to What’s App forwards. The woman in question who works at the local NRLM (National Rural Livelihood Mission), was determined to turn the perpetrator in, despite desperate pleas from her family not to risk her reputation. “What about her izzat? She’s unmarried”, her father had said to us, by way of explanation. The woman spent two weeks trying to actually get the image in question. She finally saw it – on the village pradhan’s phone. “I took him along to the police station since I finally had the evidence.” She was asked to speak with the constable at the thana and when the matter was escalated to the chowki in-charge, it went cold. This despite the identity of the perpetrator being well-known. “I see him hanging around”, the woman said, “He even approached me and told me smugly that I was wasting my time. All it meant to him were a few pay-offs to the tune of 5,000.” Awadh Singh, the CO of Kulpahad city in Mahoba where the case lies pending, confirmed the details to us and added that the investigation was underway, and the results were awaited.
Uttar Pradesh, which tops the list of crimes against women, according to the National Crime Records Bureau report, has also seen an increase in cases of cybercrime. Nearly 6,280 cybercrime cases were reported in 2018, a jump of 26% as compared to 2017. But with dowry deaths and rapes leading the crimes, the law and order enforcing personnel of the state often do not have the bandwidth, or even the inclination to actually pursue a cybercrime case. It is also a case of poor awareness, instances of which we encounter first-hand frequently, illustrated also at the Kulpahad city police station where the Mahoba woman’s case is all but lying in a dusty file. Going higher up in the chain of authority, it is the Anti-Romeo squad spiel that is often offered to victims and journalists like us reporting on these cases. (A squad that is only ever spotted outside universities and colleges in the sheher part of districts, never in the interiors where too young women step out for work, for coaching, on errands et cetera). According to the ex-SP of Banda, another district in Uttar Pradesh, women also do not step up enough and are hesitant to file complaints, especially when technology is involved. This is because there isn’t a substantial recognition of cybercrime as violence. Violence is rape, violence is a dowry death. The fact that a photo of yours that perhaps you had accidentally posted can be manipulated in a manner to harm you intentionally, is not your fault, isn’t entirely clear. The young woman in question fought back, but she was quick to confirm that she never used smartphones herself. As if that could be a crime too. “I only use the basic phone, and that too for work,” she stated.
But as Suneeta had shared, some women are staging a pushback of their own.
Another more recent story of Mahoba district illustrated this point too, when it witnessed a 14-year-old girl filing a police complaint against a few men who attacked her enroute to coaching. Walking with her friend, she fell behind when three men nabbed her and took her to an isolated spot behind the class where they disrobed her and took photographs of her. She has identified the men as Dhabbu, Gabbar and Pinku, and has stated in her complaint that one of them had been harassing her for days. “He had been constantly telling me that he loves me. I told him that I don’t love him and I am not even interested in friendship. He continued to follow me around.” Since the attack, the men have often visited her and have blackmailed her each time. “They keep threatening me that they’ll to leak the pictures on the net, they’ll make sure the pictures go viral.” The family has been supportive of her decision to pursue the case, despite suggestions from the local cops, they say, of “settling the matter”. Kulpahad police officer Abhimanyu Yadav, however, informed us in an official capacity, that an investigation into the incident is underway.
Written By Pooja Pande
An edited version of this article, and the video report, co-published on Newslaundry.