The molestation of a young girl by a gang of thugs on a busy Guwahati street on July 9 seems to have roused the nation’s conscience. The fact that this incident occurred in the city regarded as the hub of the northeast perhaps gave it an additional dimension of urgency. Many in the national media depicted the incident as Guwahati’s ‘shame.’
They were undoubtedly influenced by the fact that virtually none of the bystanders came to the rescue of the distressed girl. While the media led the initial onslaught, bigger forces soon appeared on the scene. The sheer scale and force of the national response and intervention, however, have taken the people of Assam by surprise. Now that the dust has somewhat settled, we can perhaps discuss a few larger issues.
I was actually outside Assam when I saw footage of the horrendous episode and my blood boiled and my stomach churned. A frail, helpless girl was outraged and it seemed like a bestial orgy, satisfying some deeply buried impulses of sadism and bloodlust and sexual perversion. It was, indeed, shameful to think that the beasts were fellow Assamese.
After coming back home, I was exposed to what can be called alternative viewpoints. Most people I met roundly condemned the behaviour of the goons. However, perhaps because of the unusually heavy metropolitan intervention, murmurs of discontent started to appear. Of late, there has been widespread discontent with what is seen as unbridled hedonism among the youth of Assam and part of this discontent has fed into the Assamese responses to the July 9 episode which other Indians may find disappointingly tepid.
The custodians of traditional Assamese values find themselves shaking their heads in despair at the changes dismantling the deep structures of society. While boys and girls are perceived to be equally enslaved by the new regimen of keeping late hours, indulging in reckless consumption of intoxicants and flouting the diktats of elders, a special concern is reserved for girls who have burst out of their cloisters and cocoons, sampling the newly discovered freedom.
While there is no dearth of people to support the right of girls to wear revealing ‘western’ clothes, it has also been pointed out that they are entrapped by a consumerist culture, fitting blithely into the image of commodities themselves even as they celebrate their freedom of being the citizens of a brave, new world of unapologetic consumerism. I would borrow from the wisdom of the traditionalists to say that it is precisely the new culture of consumerism with its underlying credo of selfishness that shackles the hands when it comes to speeding to the rescue of a fellow human in distress.
The recent history of abuses inflicted on girls/women from the northeast now forms a curiously contrary backdrop to all this. The National Commission for Women has not played a proactive role in these recurrent gender-based violations, leading to the charge that the metro takes an interest in the margins only selectively. This time around, a dramatic footage was made available; information was handed on a platter. What about obscurer instances of women being ravished, brutalised, oppressed in all kinds of ways?
The women of the northeast have it hard because the vulnerable sections always bear the brunt of lawless, violent behaviour in an impoverished, unquiet land. Their lot will improve if sustained attention is given to the region as a whole rather than treating a single episode as a ‘showpiece’ and thereby drag the Assamese through the mud. All this takes place in the context of continued indifference to the northeast. On July 22, a well-known commentator and analyst conjured up the following sweeping image of the nation while taking part in a TV discussion on the presidential elections: From Kanyakumari to Kashmir, from Gujarat to Bengal …
The omissions are telling.
(The writer is an Associate Professor of English in Guwahati University and translator and writer. He recently co-authored the book Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas (Rupa, 2011) with Homen Borgohain. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)