"When I walk on the road, I feel as if just about everyone who even looks at me has watched the video,'' a terrified gangrape victim told Hyderabad-based social activist Sunitha Krishnan.
The victim's rapists had videographed her sexual assault and threatened to upload it on the virtual space if she even squeaked.``Aap guarantee doge kya ki video baahar nahi aayega? (Will you guarantee the video will not leak?),'' she asked Krishnan, who had no answer. The victim never reported the crime.
Another victim in another similar case asked Krishnan, ``Even if I testify, is there closure for me?''
In a recently reported case, a victim from Thrissur in Kerala, a 35-year-old mother of two, was allegedly gangraped by four men with the horrific act reportedly shot with a mobile camera. The perpetrators threatened to make the video public if she reported the crime to the police. She dealt with the trauma, all by herself. Scared, scarred and silent for three months until her husband realised something was amiss. When she finally broke down and told him, he compelled her to report the incident.
According to Krishnan, rape videos, which until recently, were just recorded to blackmail victims, have become a huge commercial industry in the past year or so. And India has emerged as one of the supply centres to meet a "global demand."
So huge is this demand that rape videos are reportedly a separate genre in pornography and these videos can be bought for as low as ₹30.
As an Al Jazeera report recently exposed, rape videos are now available even at small stores and pan shops in small towns and cities.
The videos circulating in the grey market cut across all sections of society. A number of them involve minors and many of them are instances of rape where unknown men have attacked a girl and her boyfriend at a secluded spot and have raped her.
In 2014, a 'snake gang' of seven members would scare couples using snakes, loot their valuables, take them to isolated spots, assault the girl, videograph the act and sell the videos that went viral on WhatsApp. The gang, which was found to have raped 37 women, was sentenced to life imprisonment in May this year.
In February 2015, Krishnan went to the Supreme Court, armed with eight such rape videos that she had received over social media. The CBI was asked to investigate and the agency was able to get to the bottom of six of the eight cases.
But while doing so, the sleuths stumbled upon a Bengaluru-based person who had 479 videos on his laptop. The ensuing interrogation revealed that he would use his contacts to access such videos for a price and supply them in the market.
That meant the mobile footage was no longer just a threat and pressure tactic to stop the victim from complaining to the police. In many cases, the commercial value of the heinous crime acted as an incentive to commit the crime and use audio-visual evidence to make money.
Once online, a video circulating on WhatsApp is like a virus let loose, and it's next to impossible to block it, say officials.
"Site blocking and content filtering are difficult because of the procedures involved. There are so many proxy programmes which can undo an IP address blocking. This is the technical difficulty we face,'' says Rema Rajeshwari, SP of Mahbubnagar district in Telangana.
For the victims, the videos only add to their existing trauma, making it extremely difficult to cope with the horrific incidents.
Shockingly, the police cannot deal with these videos as rape because there is no complainant or forensic evidence. If the perpetrators are arrested by tracking them through the video footage, they can at best be tried under the IT Act for publishing offensive content, which gives a maximum punishment of two years. To make a strong case of sexual assault, the victim's testimony is needed along with medical evidence.
But in most such cases, too much time elapses before the crime has even been discovered.
Krishnan has demanded that the Ministry of Home Affairs must consider setting up a national sex offenders registry to make public all sex crime offenders.
An MHA task force on sex crimes is also on the wish-list, as is a public-friendly mechanism to report such crimes and to ensure quick action in cases where offensive material pops up on social media.
The police need training not just to deal with sex crimes but also their circulation on social media. The country would certainly not want the `Make in India' tag on rape pornography content worldwide.