It is being called a “mass molestation”. With all the creepiness and collective menace that the phrase conveys, the sketchy facts of the events of New Year’s-eve in downtown Bengaluru once again hold a mirror up to Indian society. Thousands of revellers had gathered in and around Mahatma Gandhi Road and Brigade Road to ring in 2017, as is something of a tradition in the city. But, according to reports that subsequently emerged, a large number of women were sexually assaulted around midnight. While no complaint had been filed, Bengaluru police have taken up an investigation based on the reports of women being groped and physically attacked. Another incident, reportedly also of the early hours of January 1, has come graphically into the public domain, with CCTV footage showing a woman being grabbed as she makes her way home in a residential street before she pulls herself free and escapes. This is unconnected to the so-called “mass molestation”, but reinforces the horror of the night in Bengaluru. In an aftermath that has echoed with Karnataka Home Minister G. Parameshwara’s effort to blame the violence on “western culture” , it is easy to understand why no women came forth, at least initially, to register an offence. All too depressingly and predictably, the Minister has closed the loop to show how state and society fail to ensure the safety of women.
Mr. Parameshwara’s insinuation that for women to wear “western” dress and be out and about having a good time is to invite sexual harassment, ironically, explains the reluctance of women to register offences. For, to do so is to very often court an accusatory glare, and be made to answer why they were out in a lonely street, after dark, in a place teeming with “boys” — or put simply, why they did not know better. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, passed after national outrage over the Delhi gang rape of December 16, 2012, had sought to bring clarity to the continuum of sexual offences and to simplify procedures for women to bring them to the attention of the police. To truly convince women that the state is on the same page, every crime against a woman must be regarded as a horror. But without an administrative ethos that does not flip an accusation on a woman and instead asserts a woman’s right to bodily integrity no matter where she is and what she is doing, no amount of law-making can significantly change things. This is the challenge before the Bengaluru police as they look for women to come forward and assist in the investigation.