Long before the official verdict came in, the public already had theirs. At dining tables, tea shops, office spaces, and more, questions were asked about what Gaushala 26 was doing out of her hostel at such late hours. Questions were raised about Gaushala 26’s intentions and reputation while Lamichhane was spared the same. Being a man, Lamichhane could be out in the late hours, and if he could convince – albeit exploiting a social situation – a girl to enter a hotel room, he could do as he pleased. “Boys, after all, will be boys.”
Society conveniently ignores the fact that if Gaushala 26 was out beyond her curfew hours, Lamichhane was not allowed to go out at all. But the rules aren’t the same for the two – all the less none for a national icon. Expected to fit into predefined gender roles while simultaneously being blamed for any harm that comes their way, women face the double whammy of dealing with both the trauma of sexual assault and the burden of societal expectations. The patriarchal norms ingrained in our society perpetuates a cycle where women are silenced and their experiences are dismissed – all the more prominently seen in this particular case. While the public takes “innocent until proven guilty” as “innocent even if proven guilty” and worries about the small minority of genuinely false accusations, it forgets that in every case, the burden of proof lies upon the claimant – the person accusing someone of rape. The default struggle to prove her rape is dismissed by society while a man’s career and nationalism is deemed more important.
It is also important to note that the same patriarchal norms which are issued for the protection of women (read police) can also be physically detrimental at times. Take into account the disciplinary nature of protection. In this case, should we not raise questions about the situation the hostel forced the victim into? The hostel was supposed to be Gaushala 26’s safety net. She should have been allowed to enter no matter what odd hour if she felt her well-being was in threat. This opens up another dialogue, and not be a digression – after all the patriarchal structure of society perpetuates such constructs where women have to act in a certain disciplinary manner. Sometimes, like in this instance, the structure that was intended to “protect her” (read police) in the first place, went ahead and did a lifetime’s damage to her physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Ever since the incident came into the public domain, people have been curious as to who the victim was – despite the law clearly stating otherwise, and moral ethics demanding the same. For months, YouTubers, journalists, and members of the public would reach Maiti Nepal demanding she be made public. In the face of such unrelenting behavior, her identity was revealed. Hordes of people on social media apps like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) posted her photos and put captions encouraging others to share her identity for “being the girl that framed Sandeep Lamichhane.” The intent? We can, very clearly, imagine. However, the legal side does have something to say about these actions.
“The Supreme Court has previously made decisions to protect the identity of individuals in cases of sexual assault, violence, and harassment,” states Rastra Bimochan Timalsena, a lawyer and advocate practicing commercial and criminal law. “The publishing of the identity of individuals when they have asked to be anonymous in these cases is a violation of their Right to Privacy as granted by the constitution, as well as the Crime Victim Protection Act section 6 and also the Individual’s Privacy Act 2075. Thus, under the eyes of the law, any materials published electronically regarding the identity of a victim of rape, trafficking, or violence is illegal and is punishable by up to 5 years behind bars.”
Bimochan emphasized how the Press Council may take action against media organizations that expose a victim not wanting to disclose their identity. Responsible journalism means adhering to these standards, which in this case also means adhering to the law. While we may flag down the people we see posting this, the question remains: what action will the law and its guardians take against the many who have joined in on this trend further endangering the well-being of Gaushala 26? She has filed a complaint at the Cyber Bureau for breach of privacy against six social media pages. Is our judiciary and law enforcement resilient enough to show what justice is to all those who have taken the law into their own hands?
While the legal aspects are important, as members of society, it is also important to ask the reasons and motivations behind such behavior. The instances of revealing and shaming the victim’s identity increased significantly after Lamichhane was sentenced. Those who believed Lamichhane to have been “framed” were further enraged – and they resorted to sharing images with manipulative narratives of the victim’s intention. The laws should and does prevent people from doing so, but why do so many continue to share her images and defame her? Is it due to the lack of legal knowledge, or is it due to an inherent belief that they will get away from legal troubles? Are men used to being unaccountable for their actions – and the degree of unaccountability directly relate to the degree of power they enjoy? Furthermore, where does the rage stem from? Such is the nature of patriarchy – a system of power which resists the challenges through execution of systematic power, while at the same time manifests itself by the use of the same power. And while the sentencing of Lamichhane might get more people who have faced similar ordeals to come forward, does such acts of defamation deter them? Therefore, it may also be asked if an oversight of such actions actually perpetuates and manifests those in power?
This is not exactly keyboard-and-Photoshop vigilantism. Vigilantism means helping victims by punishing criminals. Here, people have committed crimes to punish a victim. We should not fail to consider everything that is at stake.
Being a national icon comes with influence and in turn power. We are perhaps so focused on under-the-table dealings that we fail to see the different forms that corruption and abuse of authority can take. In the case of Lamichhane, his level of fame put him on a pedestal of near-worship and because of this status, long before the official verdict came in, the public had already decided who they wanted to sentence. If law enforcement cannot deal with this outbreak of digital crime that has violated someone’s rights, the consequence is beyond just limited to her. This situation has added a cost to coming forward, and the necessary positive space for victims has been shaken.
This begs the question: Has Nepalese society failed to protect its women even after they’ve been raped?