On December 31, 2016, the streets of Bengaluru became one of the most dangerous places in the country for women of all ages. On New Year’s Day, photographs emerged of terrified women there clinging to police officers as mobs surged around them, and reports described the brazen spree of mass sexual assaults that occurred overnight.
On the same evening, in another part of Bengaluru, an unrelated violent attack on a woman walking through a dark alley was captured in a spine-chilling, two-minute CCTV video.
The two sets of visuals from Bengaluru that night were mirror images of shameful events that occurred elsewhere in the world, including the “taharrush” (collective harassment) attacks that have, since 2005, blighted the epochal political events in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, and the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, Germany, among others.
Yet, as countless women would confirm across India, where, paradoxically the female essence is apotheosised as god, and mother, sister, and daughter are regarded as sacred and pure in the pantheon of religiosity, mass molestations run parallel to brutal everyday acts of leering, catcalling, verbal abuse, threatening behaviour, groping, and violent sexual acts across the spectrum.
It is a fact that the freak show of sexual perversion in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve could have happened just about anywhere in the country, in any nook or cranny into which the grotesque ghoul of Indian masculinity finds its way.
Learned behaviour for men
What is wrong with men in general, and Indian men in particular, that they have lived comfortably for this long in a moral vacuum, in a world where the schizophrenic divergence between their proclaimed conservative mores and their repressed, distorted sexual impulse does not produce an evolutionary response towards a more civilised ethos?
In part, the answer is that in India, masculinity and the progression — some would justifiably call it descent — from boyhood to manhood has never been governed by taught principles or enlightening examples in the majority of cases.
Machismo, the objectification of women , and that deranged ability to regard some women with pious fidelity and others with unbridled, disrespectful lust are learned behaviours for most Indian men, whose fathers, grandfathers and higher forefathers have all carried on in the same vein.
However, the notion that 586 million citizens out of a population of 1.2 billion can be subject to daily threats of attack and humiliation must be anathema even to consequentialist political leadership of the sort that the country has now, and proactive policy attention must focus on practical solutions that can genuinely impact the ground realities.
Given the sheer weight of India’s patriarchy, and the historic-psychic inertia of its two-faced conservatism, creative thinking is needed to encourage the emergence of a new breed of more gender-sensitive men who may be capable of teaching themselves, fathers to sons and one generation after the other, to respect women not only in the privacy of their family settings but also in wider society and in public places.
This new, imagined cohort of men will have to contend with the misogynistic forces of globalisation, including everything from the numbing effects of pornography , which has surged into the country since the globalisation project of India took hold, to the dehumanising impact of the trafficking of women for prostitution. In this regard, Indian men would, however, be no more disadvantaged in their prospects for becoming more humane than their counterparts across the open global order.
A useful tool in curbing runaway sexism and sexual violence could be a much greater degree of advocacy for gender sensitivity by the government, starting with gender education from the primary school level, through the years of high school and university learning.
Yet the mission to secure the safety and dignity of women in India cannot wait on such a grand, softly-softly type of project. There is an urgent need for the legal system to deal with sexual violence with an iron fist.
The magnitude of the problems that abound in this domain are daunting. In the aftermath of the 2012 gang rape case in New Delhi, which was one of those rare occasions that seemed to focus the minds of the political leadership on practical legal solutions, Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code was revamped to give it more teeth and make prosecutions more expedient and, hopefully, effective.
Yes, fast-tracking of legal cases of extreme sexual violence and mandating harsher punishments can help, but surely more is needed to address the horrifyingly commonplace sexual assaults that women and girls face in so many everyday situations, from the walk down the street to the grocery shop, to the celebration of New Year’s Eve in public to that all-too-familiar tragedy of a young girl who spends a nightmarish afternoon in the home of a relatively unknown older male relative, to be scarred for life by what he did to her.
In this context, it is the overall interpretation of the statutes by law enforcement officials that need to be more sensitive. Specifically, police attitudes in dealing with victims of sexual violence need to be forced into a more sensitive mode through aggressive monitoring and carrot-and-stick incentivisation, if India is to become even marginally more secure for all women and girls. If not, then ever more crimes against women will go unreported or under-reported and male impunity will rise even higher.
Changing primitive notions
In terms of broader social attitudes, the preoccupation with the anachronistic notion of “outraging the modesty” of a woman needs to go. Why is being “modest” a precondition for getting the protection of the law from sexual assault? Doesn’t every woman, regardless of her attire, her attitude or her locational and physical presence, deserve rock-solid insulation from any and all such assaults?
Directly related to this colonial-era legal anachronism is the morally indefensible and logically flawed puritanism of blaming women who wear “Western attire” for “inviting” sexual assault, as indeed at least two political leaders insinuated in the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve incidents in Bengaluru.
When all of these patriarchal notions have been unceremoniously shoved into the dustbin of history, when retribution for sexual assaults is swift and just, and when boys learn from their fathers that all women have an inviolable right to space and untrammelled dignity, then alone will the creeping moral rot within India be arrested and the country become egalitarian.