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Commentary/ Vir Sanghvi

No NGO has the right to pillory Pooja for refusing to do what it says

Pooja Bhatt If you have bought a copy of this month's Stardust you will know what the Pooja Bhatt controversy is all about. If not, here's brief summary:

According to the magazine, somebody put photographs of nude Indian actresses on the Internet. A Stardust reporter tried to download these pictures but was able to get hold of only one -- which purported to be a nude Pooja Bhatt. In fact, it was not even that. As Stardust reports, the picture was a fraud; it had Pooja's head on somebody else's nude body.

When I first read the story, I was drawn to it by the dramatic cover picture and headline (Actresses In The Nude On The Internet) which I found more than a little incredible. And sure enough, the story conceded the pictures were bogus.

I felt a little sorry for Pooja. It can't be nice to have some pervert morphing pictures of you on the Net. And I recognised while the lurid headline was probably factually accurate, it certainly promised much more than it delivered.

That should have been that. But events over the last fortnight have left me convinced we have become a nation that neither reads nor thinks. The manner in which the Pooja picture has been misinterpreted tells us something about the state of India.

For a start, large sections of the media merely looked at the photo and didn't bother to read the article. I have lost count of the gossip column mentions the story received from illiterate hacks who appeared to believe Pooja had actually posed in the nude.

Then the voyeurs got in on the act. If Pooja had appeared in the nude, then it was probably a legitimate news story. But considering she had been the victim of some pervert's computer manipulations, it did not seem to be an issue deserving much attention. Nevertheless, lots of other newspapers featured the Stardust story. Because it gave them an excuse to reproduce the morphed nude picture.

But this was nothing compared to what happened next.

By my reckoning, the Stardust cover was lurid but it was not obscene. But 20 years in journalism have taught me two things. One: obscenity lies in the crotch of the beholder. And sure enough there was no shortage of those who demanded the magazine be banned and its copies seized on the grounds of vulgarity.

It is possible to argue the magazine should have had to explain why it violated Pooja's privacy on the basis of a fraudulent picture. It is possible to go further and say it should be banned because of the damage it did to Pooja.

But the protestors didn't say that. They wanted it banned only because it was obscene. Never mind Pooja and the invasion of her privacy.

The second lesson I have learnt as a journalist is that no matter what the issue is, there is no shortage of self-righteousness in this country. Nor is there a shortage of hysterical women with nothing better to do than protest. Give them a cause and they will find the banners.

By any reckoning, a women's organisation should have taken up for Pooja. It should have seen her as the victim. But exactly the opposite happened.

Assorted mahila mandals gathered outside her house and raised slogans against her. Apparently, they saw her as a shameless hussy who had posed for a semi-nude picture. And so, they would turn up day after day and make a nuisance of themselves.

I can understand some confusion. Not everybody who saw the Stardust cover would have realised the picture was faked. You had to read the story to work that out.

But don't you think an organisation that gathers its members and demonstrates outside some hapless woman's house should at least read the article before setting off on its morcha?

I gather one of the organisations concerned is now claiming it only targeted Pooja because she refused to join its campaign. This is quick thinking after the event. But even this explanation doesn't wash. It is up to her to decide how she wants to respond. No self-righteous NGO has the right to tell her what she should do.

And it certainly doesn't have the right to harangue and pillory her for refusing to do what it says.

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