The recent Mumbai gang rape adds to the already piling statistics of crime against women in the country. A photo exhibition in the Capital offers a flashback to the city’s outrage against the horrific December 16 incident

It could’ve been me. The thought disturbed many in Delhi after the brutal gang rape of December 16 last year. Next morning, many of them took to the streets to agitate against the lack of safety for women in the city and demand their rights as citizens. One of them happened to be a 24-year-old photographer and student of philosophy, Chandan Gomes.

As the Mumbai gang rape and its victim continues to make headlines, Gomes’ collection of photographs of the Delhi protests titled ‘The Unknown Citizen’ — currently on display at the Press Club of India — offers a flashback into the outrage expressed in the city, when one of its ‘own’ was raped and brutalised. Chandan joined in the protests with a camera in his hand, and along the way, began to document the outpour of people on the streets.

At first, the news of the gang rape didn’t even affect him, he said. “Then, as I went through the photographs from that night, it occurred to me that on the same night, my friend and I had boarded an empty bus, too; we had had a good time at a party afterwards. But that was not to be for two strangers on another empty bus. I felt guilty, and decided to go to the protests.” So, on display is a picture from that night: Chandan’s friend, a young woman with a faint smile, looking away from the camera, juxtaposed against the empty, almost ominous backdrop of the empty bus. The image strikes you: elsewhere in the city, perhaps it was a girl like her, in a bus like this.

Other black and white photographs capture the protestors standing in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, shouting angry slogans at Jantar Mantar and covering their faces after tear gas shells and water cannons were fired. In yet others, the crowd turns sombre: youngsters sitting through candlelight vigils and marching in the night along some of Delhi’s “less familiar” streets of Vijay Nagar and Mukherjee Nagar. Most of the faces in the pictures are blurred, as Chandan said he wanted to convey the idea of the “facelessness” of the movement. “It was a movement with no leader; it evolved organically and everybody was a part of it,” he said. He referred to his images of the curious onlookers, the passers-by and the “silent spectators” inside a Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus, insisting that they were “all part of the movement”. 

What it meant for these “silent spectators” or curious onlookers might be debatable, but for Chandan, his gaze was not from a perspective of a photographer, but that of an “insider”, a protestor. For once, despite the normalisation of violence in society, people such as him were shocked, moved and shaken, he said. “It made me think: we need to take a look at ourselves.”

A look at ourselves might reveal practices such as that of blaming the victim, trivialising the issue and cracking sexist jokes, all of which contribute to what is termed by some ‘feminists’ as “rape culture”, said Dr. Abhilasha Kumari, director of the non-profit Apne Aap Worldwide. The non-profit had organised the photo exhibition in conjunction with the Press Club of India. At a panel discussion held here last Saturday, Dr. Kumari said that there was a need to go beyond “knee-jerk” responses and understand the factors that have led to a rise in the number of cases. The sociologist also pointed out that incidences of rape didn’t make news or created outrage when the victims were poor women or sex workers. Or, one might add, when the perpetrators were not poor men. Perhaps Chandan’s pictures will help us reflect on some of these issues.

(The writer is a Fulbright scholar and an independent journalist)