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Violated, by indifference


Mumbai's "lifeline" under a cloud

ON the night when India and Pakistan gained their independence from the British 55 years ago, a drunk man on a Mumbai suburban train raped a 12-year-old girl. Five grown men saw this happen, but did not intervene. For the women of Mumbai, Independence Day brought with it an ugly reminder of the reality of being a woman in a city that breeds indifference.

The story appeared on the front page of the leading English language daily in the city. A male reporter who witnessed the rape as he took the last train home wrote it. He said that he shouted at the man but was intimidated by the unarmed drunk. And none of the others did anything. One said he looked away. The drunk man raped the girl, got up and got off the train.

The reporter said they were paralysed by fear. What were they afraid of? That the man would attack them, push them off the train? Could he have tackled all five of the men in the compartment? Surely, as this puny, completely drunk man lay on top of that poor child, any one of them could have yanked him off? And why did none of them pull the chain, or shout for help when the train stopped at a station en route? Was it fear, or was it apathy and indifference, that turned these men into zombies?

The story has led to heated debates in the city. Women, by and large, insist that if five of them had been around, they would have found a way to do something. Even if they could not physically take on the rapist, they would have pulled the chain, shouted, called out for help. Many men have said the same thing. Yet, it was men like them who did nothing.

Mumbai's suburban rail network is its lifeline. Women, who have to work late shifts, including many women journalists, routinely take the last train home. The railways now post guards in the Ladies' compartment. But rather than sitting alone in a compartment with a male policeman, many women prefer to travel in a general compartment which always has a sprinkling of men. These men are often drunk, they always stare and incidents of some of them openly propositioning a lone female are almost routine. But Mumbai's working women have toughened themselves to this and continue to use public transport as there really is no alternative.

The rape on the night of August 14 has shaken even these toughened women. Not only the rape but also the indifference of the men who could have intervened. What if I was that woman, they ask? Would anyone come to my aid?

Yet Mumbai is one of the safest cities for women compared to other Indian cities. Women here have inhabited the public space for far longer than have women in other cities. They form a substantial portion of the over 80 per cent of the city's population that uses the trains and buses that ply through the day and most of the night. And most of the time, when women protest about a man's behaviour, others take their side. There have been many instances of bus conductors forcing male molesters to disembark from the bus if a woman complains. But there are also instances of these very same bus conductors brushing against young women. Life is far from perfect.

But coming back to August 15, just as we were reeling with shock at the news of this Independence Day rape, a worse horror story was reported the next day. Ten men, who had spent August 15 celebrating their "independence" by consuming large quantities of alcohol, decided that this was not enough, that they must have a woman, any woman. So they went to the house of some poor recent migrants to the city in a northern suburb, knocked on the door, thrashed the man who lived there and took turns to rape his young wife.

These two incidents bring into focus many different issues that are forcing many people to think about the city, about women's lives, about urban apathy. The first is the harsh reality of being poor and a woman in the city. You are an easy target for every man, even those given the task of maintaining the law. If we see a poor, homeless woman being molested, we rarely stop and intervene even if we hear her protesting.

But if the woman is more like us, we might stop, particularly if the man attacking her is from a lower class. On the other hand, if her tormentor appears to be from her class, we would hesitate. Perhaps it is a personal matter, we think. Perhaps they will sort it out. And so we move on. So although the poor woman is the most vulnerable, all women are unsafe in the city.

The other aspect is the link between alcohol, violence and sex. Look at our advertising. All liquor ads draw the link between sex and alcohol. All of them show women, always scantily dressed, sending inviting glances toward a man. Predictably, he holds a glass of the particular liquor being advertised. You see the two being irresistibly drawn to one another — fuelled by the alcohol, one presumes? Are these ads reflecting a reality, or endorsing and reinforcing it? Do they then sanction the uncontrolled urge of that drunk on the Mumbai train to rape any woman, even a child as young as 12 years? Does it explain the insane manner in which 10 men walked into a poor man's house and gang raped his wife?

And, finally, this troubling issue of selective indifference. Men are indifferent to other women being raped, but men and women are equally sanguine about other communities being attacked, butchered, their houses burnt. Have we not seen this in Gujarat, earlier in Mumbai and Delhi and other cities? How many intervened? How many stood by or cheered the mob? How many turned away?

This 55th year of our indepedence should be a time of some reflection, not of a populous form of empty nationalism that asks everyone to "fly the flag". Waving flags, shouting slogans, singing patriotic songs will not hide the ugly reality — that as a people we are becoming more indifferent to the sufferings of people living next to us, that our society is sanctifying the worse forms of violence against women, children, minority groups. A violent and insecure society can never be truly free or independent.

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