THE OTHER HALF The sexual assault on a girl in Guwahati earlier this month raises several questions about women, the media and society.

Can we stop talking about the horrific incident in Guwahati on the night of July 9 as the “Guwahati molestation”? To molest, according to the dictionary, means “to pester or harass, typically in an aggressive or persistent manner.” What happened that night on Guwahati’s busy G.S. Road was a “sexual assault” on a young girl. So before we even begin talking about it, let us call a crime by its real name.

The full story of what happened that night is still unspooling. But enough is known to raise several crucial questions; ones that relate to women, to our society, to the media and to the law enforcing agencies. The incident might have occurred in what is usually considered a remote part of India. But its fallout affects all of us, including those who live in what people in the Northeast call the “mainland”.

Displays of insensitivity

Much has already been written about the July 9 sexual assault. Not without reason has the representative of the National Commission for Women, Alka Lamba, been asked to step down. In an astounding display of insensitivity, she revealed the identity of the young woman to the media. The Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, outdid her by getting his office to send photographs of himself with the girl to the entire media, and retracting after the pictures had already been circulated. So much for protecting the survivor’s identity.

The question of the media’s role is the subject of much debate. The Assam government has conveniently blamed the journalist who claimed credit for making the story public. It is possible that this journalist is culpable. Or he might have followed the example of many others, journalists who stood by and recorded horrific events without making any effort to intervene.

But journalists are also citizens. Even if there were only two of them against a mob, they had no business to go on filming for a full half hour without doing anything to stop the participants. In fact, when you watch the video, you realise that the attackers are enjoying being filmed. At the same time, the Assam government cannot absolve itself of all responsibility by blaming the journalist.

No one is surprised at the actions, or rather lack of them, of the Guwahati police. Why did they take so long to respond? Why did they not arrest many more on the spot? Did they have to wait to see the footage to identify the attackers? If they had acted with alacrity, would the main assaulter, seen grinning at the camera, have escaped? We end up asking these same questions repeatedly. When poor people demonstrate for their rights, hundreds of them are rounded up and taken to the lock-up. But if members of a political party go around vandalising and beating up helpless people — as they do with regularity in Mumbai, for instance — or when such incidents of sexual assault occur in a public place, the police sit on their hands and wait. Not just women but everyone has to be worried at this mockery of what is called “the law and order machinery”.

Chilling indifference

And what can we say about the “aam janata”? Anyone who has been to Guwahati will tell you that G.S. Road, or Guwahati Shillong Road, is a main arterial road. The pub where the girl was attacked is not in some isolated part of the city. Hundreds of vehicles ply on that road, as they did that night. Hence her ability to find an autorickshaw which she was about to take to go home. One of the most chilling sequences in the video is watching the girl running on the road, begging people to stop and help her. No one did until one man, another journalist, came to her rescue and stayed with her until she was handed over to the police. Why did no one help? Why do people not care, not want to be involved, to extend themselves for another person? This is one more example of the callous indifference that has infected urban life in India.

As for what this means for women, not just in Guwahati but all over India, particularly urban India, the message is clear. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Women might believe that they now have more rights, that they have access to public space, that they can make choices. The reality is that a patriarchal society will not accept that women should have these rights, that it will try and teach those who make choices “a lesson” and that violence is the currency that will be used to teach these lessons.

Depressing, I know, but sadly true. As a young reader from Guwahati wrote to me after this incident: “Some of us have the tendency to break things or bash up some objects when we were furious or angry. But nowadays we find that women have become potential objects capable of replacing inanimate objects to suit the whims and fancies of the diehard chauvinists of the country.”

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com