On December 16, a 23 year-old woman in Delhi, was gang-raped and almost left for death by six men in a moving bus. More shocking – this was the 636th rape in Delhi in 2012, according to the “reported” figures available with the National Crime Records Bureau. In Bangalore, two days after the Delhi rape, a girl was pulled into a shop in her own neighbourhood and raped by the owner, while his friends kept watch.
India was never very safe for women, but of late there seems to be a flagrant disrespect that is governed neither by societal nor legal norms.
It seems to be simply up to the men to perpetrate violence and for women to safeguard themselves as best as they can. The police are too biased to be effective. Tehelka magazine’s sting operation in April on senior police officials in Delhi-NCR, revealed that more than half chose to blame rape victims. ‘Unless a woman is fully covered from head to toe at all times, she wants men to rape her’, declared Arjun Singh, SHO of Surajpur Police Station.
With such attitudes, it is not surprising that victims are reluctant to enter our police stations and that most attacks go unreported. Technology also assaults our senses every hour. Mobiles share salacious details while TV stations broadcast them like prime time entertainment, instead of using the space to condemn or discuss such matters seriously, thus becoming active participants in gender injustice.
These crimes against women are part of a wider change where reactionary forces are becoming dominant. Globalization seems to have narrowed the space available for women even further by creating economic and social divides that provoke a conservative backlash from those who feel left out.
According to eminent Kannada writer Vaidehi, violence against women is as old as the Mahabharata. But the rapid changes in our society seem to be escalating the scale of this violence. Says William Dalrymple in the introduction to his fascinating book, Nine Lives, “The speed of development is breathtaking: the sort of construction that would take 25 years in Britain, comes up here in five months. So extraordinary is all this that it is easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. Within twenty minutes of leaving the Gurgaon headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts. This is a very different India indeed.”
And it is this different India – whether in Karnataka or Maharashtra or Haryana – that the new India needs to comprehend rather than ignore. Sharat Chandra Srivastava, violinist who performed at the GirlCott show, feels the mutual mistrust comes from the replacing of community norms by a highly individualised society. Agrees Sufi musician Rabbi Shergill, “I wish there were more neutral cultural spaces where the two (worlds) could’ve interacted a little more naturally. Gurgaon had a functioning society before we got there. The malls, pubs, multiplexes just seemed to look down on it; it seemed to grudge people their draw in the great lottery of life. You don’t just barge into someone’s house and act all loud. I’d like to see the discourse move to the countryside – where the eve-teasers come from – and start a genuine dialogue. “What do you dislike about us?”
But before dialogue can emerge, basic safety needs to be in place, with secure public transport, and open, well-lit public spaces. Gurgaon shows a horrific crime graph and its Mahatma Gandhi Road, connecting the many malls and swanky housing estates, is now called the Rape Mile. Women returning from work carry pepper spray; the streets are dimly lit and deserted by evening. Only 3,286 cops cover the vast urban sprawl. And nobody takes responsibility when anything goes wrong.
Says Richa Dubey, who initiated the successful Gurgaon GirlCott campaign in April, “We are trying to get back a sense of collective responsibility. This is where we live and work, we all need to work to make it safe.”
The GirlCott, provoked by the kidnapping of a Sahara Mall employee on her way home, decided to hit the commercial complexes where it hurt by a “no safety, no money” shopping boycott, and firmly put the spotlight on how the urban dream of Gurgaon had turned into a nightmare for its working professionals.
A host of citizens and organisations including Whypoll (maps unsafe places), Breakthrough (Bell Bajao), Indian Institute for Human Settlements, and Jagori, came together at GirlCott and are now working on a long-term plan for safety. As the Citizens Collective Against Sexual Assault says, Women have a right to be safe – In homes, on streets, in buses and in workplaces.