The life and death of Scarlette Keeling has left in its wake a media feeding frenzy. To be sure, the rape and murder of the British teenager goes beyond your average “sansani” (sensational) crime story: There’s the sun and sand of “idyllic” Goa, a heady concoction of drugs and alcohol, a botched police cover-up, accusations of a powerful drug cartel with political links and, finally, the apparently freewheeling lifestyle of Scarlette’s mother Fiona MacKeown.
I have nothing but contempt for stories that focus on Fiona’s past escapades, lifestyle and lovers. I unequivocally agree with Brinda Karat who said in Parliament last week that you cannot victimize the victim.
The bottom line: Yes, leaving a 15-year-old daughter in Goa with a 25-year-old male guide was irresponsible. But nothing, and nothing, justifies either the rape and murder of Scarlette Keeling or Goa police’s Clouseau-like attempts to cover it up as an “accidental drowning”.
But just focus for a moment on what Congress member of Parliament Shantaram Naik actually said in Parliament (which caused Brinda Karat’s outcry). “Should young girls be allowed to move around alone on a beach at night?” he asked.
It’s a politically incorrect, but not an unreasonable question. And the answer is simple. Would you as a woman, young or otherwise, “move around alone on a beach at night” in Rio? In Phuket? In Ibiza? In Dover? In Mombasa?
Why assume it’s OK to do it in Goa?
Take another crime against a tourist in recent months that made it to the front pages—that of the rape of a Japanese woman in Agra. Once again, you have circumstances that are, at best, ambiguous. The woman went out drinking with two local guides who subsequently raped her.
Once again, nothing justifies rape. But, excuse me for asking another politically incorrect question: How safe is it for a woman to go out drinking with two strangers anywhere in the world?
The Ugly American is a stereotype of the sort of tourist who goes bumbling around the world, oblivious to local customs or manners.
In Goa, you have charter-loads of tourists who believe it’s alright to roll a joint for breakfast and then spend the rest of the day topless on the beach. Part of the blame lies with local authorities who seem to be in no particular hurry to enforce the law. Part of the blame also lies with a mindset that believes it’s just fine to carry on, regardless of where in the world you are.
There’s another angle.
A United Nations human rights expert, Juan Miguel Petit, has recently indicted India along with Cambodia and Thailand for allowing sex tourism to go unchecked in order to protect their economies. “Sometimes there are big pressures on governments, explicitly or implicitly, when there are enormous tourist activities going on, making millions of dollars,” Petit said in Geneva last week.
Nishta Desai, a sociologist who runs the non-governmental organization, Child Rights in Goa, told The Guardian newspaper recently: “We know of dozens of cases of tourist paedophilia in Goa, but despite overwhelming evidence of abuse of minors, it is so easy for foreign paedophiles to bribe their way out of trouble.”
The British media have been questioning whether Goa, and for that matter India, is safe for the average tourist.
Crimes against tourists are indeed on the rise in tourist staples such as Rajasthan and Kerala, leading to the tourism ministry to talk about setting up special task forces to ensure higher levels of safety (it would have been nice if the government also considered special task forces to ensure the safety of all women on the streets, but that’s another story).
In an ideal world, to go back to Shantaram Naik’s question, it would be safe for a woman to spend the night all by herself on a beach. But we don’t live in an ideal world.
Crime statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau show that 18 women are victims of crime every hour. The number of reported rapes is up 700% since 1971, from seven to 53 a day.
The issue is not tourist safety; the issue is the safety of all citizens—even those who don’t bring in precious foreign exchange.
Perhaps the time has come for the government to reconsider its “Atithi Devo Bhava h” (roughly translates to our guest is blessed) campaign. India is incredible, but India’s crime record means that every atithi, or guest, needs to look over his or her shoulder—as they would in most parts of the world.
Should we be alarmed?
If it’s any consolation, no country of significance has as yet altered its travel advisory. On the UK government website (at the time of writing), visitors to India are warned about potential threats from terrorism and cautioned about staying away from such hot spots as Jammu and Kashmir (excluding Ladakh).
As for crimes against women, the advisory is clear: “Female travellers are advised to observe and respect local dress and custom and to take particular care.”
That’s sound advice. Heed it.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org