Indian Media Grapples with Tyler Clementi Cyberbullying Trial

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The cyberbullying trial following the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi in 2010 may be happening in New Jersey, but in India, the proceedings are being broadcast live as Indian-American defendant Dahrun Ravi faces up to 10-years in state prison. Ravi, 19, is charged with invasion of privacy (sex crimes), witness tampering, hindering prosecution, and bias and intimidation (hate crimes) after using a webcam to spy on his roommate kissing a man in his room and showing his friends in September 2010. Three days after the incident, Clementi committed suicide, sparking a national debate about cyberbullying and hate crimes. 

In the Indian press, there is a distinct sense of cultural kinship with Ravi despite the fact that he grew up in Plainsboro, New Jersey and spent most of his life in the United States. Dropping the Indian-American hyphenation, a number of headlines refer to the "Indian teen in the dock in US" or "Indian faces more serious charge in gay roommate's suicide." By and large, Indian print publications like The Financial Express, the Daily Bhaskar, Express India and India Blooms, have covered the case in an impartial, matter-of-fact tone you would expect from a U.S. news service.

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And just as in the U.S., as deftly chronicled in The New Yorker this month, a debate is storming over whether the tragedy calls for a strong punishment to combat homophobia or something less than that, taking into account Ravi's age and the difficulties in determining what was in his head when he shared Clementi's intimate moment. 

The issue prompted a panel discussion on NDTV, a major network in India, which invited a range of analysts to weigh in on the case, including Devangshu Datta, a technology correspondent for the Business Standard, who made the case for leniency toward Ravi. "I don't think it's bullying," he said.

Part of Datta's rationale is that Ravi never intended Clementi to know about the cam, and contrary to early press reports, Ravi did not share footage with the Internet at large. (Clementi discovered that Ravi had shared the video after Ravid had tweeted about the incident). "Dahrun clearly didn't expect Tyler to know about it." argued Datta. "When you're bullying someone, you're trying to get in their space and hassle them."

He went on to note that Ravi had a history of spying on people with webcams, as his lawyers argued, and wasn't motivated by malice or homophobia. "He has a record of voyeurism," said Datta. "When he was in high school he was setting up webcams... with friends showing what they were wearing when they were in front of the computer... He's merely watching for voyeuristic reasons: perhaps because he's interested in gay sex, perhaps because he likes watching people."

Datta's comments were followed by remarks by an Indian gay activist Pallav Patankar, who called for greater acknowledgement of homophobia and diversity. "I would like to figure out if we have to wait until somebody dies to really make this a media story," he said. "We don't speak about sexuality in an open way... There are a lot of people being bullied every day in campuses who may be educational dropouts because of ragging and bullying. Unfortunately, college administrators refuse to take cognizance of this kind of harassment until it gets out of hand."

Jonathan Shainin, senior editor of The Caravan, gave the most nuanced view of the trial, urging commentators not to over-simplify the case into a "hero-villain kind of story." He emphasized that Clementi was clearly the victim, either at the hands of Ravi or society at large. "Homophobia is a real thing. It's a problem. It's a traumatic experience for men and women to come out for the first time [but] we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.