Yesterday, Guwahati. Today, Mangalore. Tomorrow, where else?
The outrage over the Guwahati incident has done nothing to stem the flow of similar incidents being reported from across the country. The naming and shaming of the perpetrators of the crime, the fact that the police managed to catch them and arrest them appears to have made little difference. On the contrary, it is almost as if the repeated footage from Guwahati played on television channels has encouraged others to do the same.
We must not forget that while the media went into over-drive on the Guwahati case, in another part of Assam, a young girl who went out to collect firewood was “molested” by Army jawans. She was saved when villagers heard her cries for help. How many more such cases take place each day in other parts of the troubled Northeast?
In action again
Almost matching Guwahati was what happened in Mangalore. We should not be surprised. In 2009, the self-appointed guardians of morality, the Sri Ram Sene, set about dragging women out of a pub, pulling their hair, hitting them — and all of this in full view of television cameras. On July 28, a mob belonging to the Hindu Jagaran Vedike decided that a group of boys and girls enjoying a birthday party were attending a “rave” event. Do they know what is a “rave”? Certainly not. But definitions do not matter because these upholders of public morality decided that what was happening was “immoral”.
Armed with cameras from local television channels, the men barged into the venue of the party, dragged, hit and molested the women, punched and hit the men, including the birthday boy, and made sure every minute was captured on film. There is a pathetic shot of several girls cowering on a bed, trying to cover their faces and bodies with pillows while the cameras continue to film. Even after the police intervened, the cameras did not switch off and kept trying to literally “uncover” the women as they left.
Still in the South, at Bhoovanapadu beach, a popular tourist spot in Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, a gang of five young men pounced on a couple seeking a private moment. The man was beaten up while the woman, a 20-year-old college girl had her clothes ripped off. According to the police, the men had pinned her to the ground, had taken off her gold ornaments and were getting ready to record what would follow on their mobile phones when the police arrived.
In all these cases, the victims are deemed “immoral” while the attackers believe they are the torchbearers of decency and morality. We keep hearing this repeatedly, even from those who should know the law, given that they are the lawmakers. Yet recently, when a man at a Kolkata railway station attacked a girl returning from tuition classes, the Trinamool MP Chiranjit Chakroborty had this to say about the crime: “Eve-teasing is a very old thing. It has been going on for ages. One of the reasons behind the increase in incidents of eve-teasing is short dresses and short skirts worn by women. This in turn instigates men.” Really? “Eve-teasing?” Has no one informed the honourable MP that there is no such word?
The horror stories do not end. In Mandya, Karnataka, a 19-year-old garment worker was thrown out of a moving train when she tried to resist a gang of men who were harassing her. She is now in a hospital with multiple injuries, having fallen 25 feet from the train onto a rocky riverbed. She said none of the other women in the compartment intervened even though they saw the men harassing her, offering her money for sex.
Even as these attacks on women were being reported from different parts of the country, the cabinet has approved the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that suggests changes in a whole range of laws that have a direct impact on women. Space does not permit a detailed discussion on the changes contemplated. But suffice it to say that while the law must be strengthened, it will not work as a deterrent unless the law-enforcing machinery actually enforces the law.
At the same time, the law-enforcers cannot become a moral police, literally giving a license to any other group that chooses to follow suit. The example of some in the Mumbai police is a particularly bad one in this regard and the outgoing Inspector General of Police in Mumbai has rightly emphasised that “enforcement of law is meant to uphold human rights.”
A new and stronger law will also fail so long as we allow and encourage a culture of impunity, where one group of people decides that it will enforce its own version of morality. In the long term, it is the Taliban-like actions of groups like the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, and the example they set, as well as the oxygen of publicity that the media appears to be granting them, that is cause for serious concern for the future.