Minority report | Victimized by language


Minority report | Victimized by language

A story reported by The Indian Express earlier this week cited a Delhi court asking whether an honourably acquitted person accused in a rape case should be termed a “rape case survivor”.

A lot has been said about the legal dilemmas, wrongful confinement and lifelong scars caused by untruthful accusations in criminal cases. But the court’s remark on vocabulary for the innocent is something quite relevant.

Should those who walk free because they were not guilty be called survivors?

I would think otherwise. They actually are victims of personal or political vendetta—a punishable crime by itself.

Keen to explore the implications of language, I dug into what the word “survivor” meant in criminal vocabulary. Precise entries aren’t easy to find, but there is plenty of research available on police enforcement and crime vocabulary.

For instance, if you go to https://mintne.ws/1kXUppF, you find a list of 565 crime words, with everything from prevaricate to swear, vagrancy to violation, even verbs like quiver and fidget and nouns like trust and wisdom—all alphabetically arranged. “Battered woman” is easy to locate, but not “battered man”. “Survivor” and “victim” sit somewhere in this large assembly.

As you delve deeper, “victim” comes up incessantly. It is used both in a generic sense as well as a contextual one. A sensitively compiled guide book titled First Response to Victims of Crime, published by the US Department of Justice that’s freely available on the Internet, has entire sections devoted to dealing with various kinds of victims—those of human trafficking to those of mass assaults; those who are mentally impaired to those who are old and sick.

In such literature, the word survivor barely bobs up. So I asked a lawyer, a feminist writer and an acid attack victim now referred to as a “survivor”, why it began to be interchangeably used for victims of horrific crimes.

The lawyer said that in correct legal parlance, survivors are those who survive a family member killed in a criminal attack. Or who survive one themselves. It does not denote a raped or assaulted woman who has been disabled or injured.

The feminist told me that the word survivor began to be used consciously to offer dignity and acceptance to a crime victim.

Women don’t want to be seen in a permanent state of victimization nor do they view rape as living death anymore. It is like calling a blind person “visually-impaired” or a handicapped one “challenged”, she said.

After all, many rape and dowry victims, like cancer survivors, carry on with their lives, trying to turn misery to strength.

The acid attack victim who had suffered serious burns and subsequent disability admitted as much. Being called a “victim” till the media changed its label for her had indeed bothered her considerably. She had fought her way valiantly through the court cases; she also fought hard to stay alive and retain optimism despite the 27 surgeries she went through.

“Survivor” defines her even though the irony behind this survival—blindness, disfigured appearance, numerous physical ailments including skin degeneration—doesn’t escape her even for a day. She feels like a victim but deserves to be called a survivor, she argued.

Words matter as much in experiences and outcomes of crimes as they do in relationships and professions.

Last month, I accompanied a family member who had lost his wallet to a Gautam Budh Nagar police station. In the half-an-hour it took us to lodge a first information report (an application in Hindi is mandatory in a police station, we were told), I observed a wrangle between the policemen and complainants over vocabulary.

“Write this; don’t write that…,”said a policeman, sarcastically tutoring an illiterate man complaining that his son hadn’t returned home for the last 24 hours.

A working-class woman there to file a domestic violence complaint against her husband was being forced to say his name aloud. Unused to naming him, she referred to him as “Atul ke pitaji” (father of Atul), which was unacceptable to the policeman on duty.

She settled upon calling him “Sahib” even though he had almost broken her nose.

I would be curious to find out how she goes from being a victim to a survivor.

For polarized reasons, I also wonder whether actor Preity Zinta, who has filed a police complaint against her former boyfriend and industrialist Ness Wadia for abuse and molestation, will be called a victim; a term that can get easily converted to survivor as she is already an empowered person.

On the other hand, if Wadia is proven innocent of abusing Zinta, what should he be called: victim or survivor?

You decide.