Standing up and saying no when atrocities are committed in public spaces: a primer. Jo Chopra
The violent attack on a young woman in Guwahati (my daughter, one of my staff, my little sister — it helps to think about it like that) is far enough in the past now to allow us to analyse it beyond the immediate feelings of outrage and disgust.
There has been plenty written about the men responsible and the ones who filmed the whole appalling spectacle — I don’t feel like giving them any more space. In any case, I think it’s time to think about the bystanders, those people on the street who stood by and watched an innocent person being brutally beaten. Although most of us cannot picture ourselves as one of the attackers, it’s all too easy to imagine being one of those who looked the other way.
Our training — particularly in India, particularly for women — tells us to do just that: Look the other way. Don’t get involved. It’s not your problem. It’s none of your business. You don’t know the whole story.
What would I have done, had I been on that busy street where no one responded? What would I have done if I had seen my daughter, one of my staff, one of the children I work, with being molested, attacked, abused?
I would have pounced. I am, in fact, a serial pouncer. I am burdened with a heightened sense of my own importance and an unfortunate conviction that I was sent here to solve everyone else’s problems. I don’t know about you. I can’t help myself.
I have a history of scooping people up off the road — accident victims, people having epileptic seizures, women in labour — and transporting them to the hospital. No emergency room has ever turned me away and, in spite of all hype to the contrary, I have never yet been charged with any crime or held responsible for the victim’s injuries.
Even more interesting, I invariably find that when one person stops to do the right thing, all those indifferent bystanders suddenly remember their shared humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of willing helpers. People will lift bloodied bodies, flag down passing cars, give up their shawls and chunnis, find water, call for assistance. It’s amazing. All it takes is one brave soul.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice:
Wade right in. One of the advantages of white hair in Indian society is the instant authority and respect it commands. If you have been smart enough not to dye, use your age. A loud voice and a sense of confidence, outrage and withering scorn can sometimes be enough to disperse a mob.
Poonam Muttreja (a well-known Delhi-based feminist) and my husband, Ravi Chopra, were patrolling the streets of Delhi as part of a group of citizen activists at the peak of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. They came upon a crowd of men about to set fire to a store. Before anyone else had time to react, Poonam jumped down from the jeep they were in and marched into the mob, eyes blazing. “Tum log kya kar rahae ho?” she demanded in a loud, angry voice. The men dropped their torches and ran away. Mobs are full of cowards. Remember that.
Use the element of surprise.
The last thing people behaving irrationally, hatefully and despicably expect, is a voice of courage and righteousness. Caught off guard, they lose focus. You swoop in for the rescue right then.
When I was 18, I heard a gunshot followed by a woman’s scream in a tough neighbourhood in Baltimore. Without pausing to think, I walked down the street to where I found a large man standing on the sidewalk, waving a gun and screaming obscenities at a woman cowering on her front porch. “What are you doing?” I said to him, scolding like a grandmother. “Come with me,” I said to the woman, holding out my hand. Stunned, robot-like, she followed my instruction. “What the f***?” I heard him mutter as we reached the car, but by then it was too late. We were out of his reach and she was safe.
Change the dynamic. Throw water on the perpetrators. Grab another bystander by the hand and pull her/ him along with you. Say urgently: “It’s up to us to stop this!” Sing the National Anthem. Remind people that they are better than this. If all else fails, toss a shower of coins and ten-rupee notes into the melee.
I know these are risks. I know it’s asking a lot. But what alternative do we have? Mobs are crazy by definition. Without having ever made a decision, they are out to get someone — anyone. They aren’t open to reason; they won’t be swayed by logic or goodness. They are not a force of nature, but they act like one. Like children in the middle of a temper tantrum, they are begging to be controlled, to be contained, to be put in their place, yet their very existence defies restraint.
Thinking about mobs makes me think about fire drills and evacuation plans, about preparation and thinking in advance. Catastrophes and emergencies come upon us suddenly, without warning. No one ever expects a disaster. Yet it is only through continued, regular practice in calm moments, when there is no danger, that we develop the skills to respond purposefully and without panic when there IS danger.
Thinking about mobs makes me remember how we need to practise being brave and acting decisively too. These things don’t come naturally. Without discipline and repetition, they don’t come at all.
Mobs like the one which attacked an innocent young woman in Guwahati remind us of the power of one. Had just one brave soul stood up and said no, believe me, others would have joined in and that mob would have fallen to pieces. But brave souls do not emerge from nowhere. They are forged on the anvil of struggle and commitment and they survive because they continually practise what they preach.
Practise while it’s easy. Pick up the accident victim and take him to the hospital. Intervene in the neighbourhood dispute over whose turn it is at the pump. Stop the school bully. Acknowledge your own power to change the world. Flex your muscles. Stay in shape.
When the big moment comes, when that woman in Guwahati is being assaulted by a mob, oh, man: you’ll be ready.