It was a night of unending horrors. First came what is now known as the Juhu molestation case, a story broken by the Hindustan Times (HT).
(HT is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.)
Here’s the story: On New Year’s Eve, two couples were walking outside the JW Marriott Hotel in Mumbai. A crowd of men accosts them, one of the women retaliates verbally, the men get furious, tear their clothes and, in full public view, grope and molest the women. Two HT photographers are in the area on assignment. They photograph the incident, and lodge a police complaint. Fourteen men have been booked.
Even as the Mumbai story unfolded (and people were absorbing the shock of police commissioner D.N. Jadhav’s claim: “These kind of small things can happen anywhere”), another story was breaking on the east coast of India where in Kolkata, biker gangs ran wild that same night, groping and molesting women on Park Street.
The serial molestations continued in Patna, where drunk students of the Nalanda Medical College Hospital “celebrated” by ransacking the girls’ hostel and attempting to molest them when they refused to join the party.
In Kochi, a Swedish tourist complained that his 15-year-old daughter was groped at a party. And then, just when you thought the rash of bad news couldn’t get worse, comes news of a rape and murder that same night in Latur, Maharashtra, where a 14-year-old girl was raped and then strangled by four men after she refused to join them for a party. These are just some reported incidents. We simply don’t know how many women in how many cities have just suffered in silence.
The new year pattern has been around for a couple of years. The previous year, a woman was stripped and groped at Mumbai’s Gateway of India. In the absence of a formal complaint, the case was never pursued. In Kolkata, an army officer was arrested for misbehaving with a woman. Despite the fact that his colleagues vandalized the police station, the case was not pursued: no formal complaint.
There is a sense of déjà vu both in the facts of these incidents and in the realization that after the first burst of public anger, the molesters will get away. It was only a few weeks ago that I had written about Pearl Gupta, a Delhi university student who was killed while she was trying to escape sexual assault just outside her college. And it is obvious, as cases of sexual assault become rampant from Latur to Patna and Mumbai to Kolkata, that the system needs a good shake-up. Women simply have to claim the streets again.
That is easier said than done.
Flaws in the system
Sexual assault falls under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which speaks of “obscenity in public”, and Sections 354 and 504, which speak of the “violation of the modesty of women.”
There lies the first flaw. What is the “modesty” of a woman? And if I am an immodest woman because, let’s say, I drink at bars or speak loudly or wear flashy lipstick, does the law not apply to me? A survey published on Sunday by the Hindustan Times among 500 middle-class urban men, aged between 20 and 45, showed 46% believed that women are “asking for trouble” by just going to a pub with friends.
Second, most molesters get away because their victims don’t lodge a formal complaint. But if there is enough clinching evidence (photographs, credible eyewitnesses, police action), why can’t the law swing into action anyway?
Third, a system where cases drag on for years is rotten. A woman who has been sexually assaulted—and I can say with authority that there is no woman of my acquaintance who has not been subject to some form of sexual intimidation—doesn’t want to spend years of her life pursuing some sicko. She doesn’t even want to step inside an unfriendly police station where an unsympathetic cop will make her relive her humiliation and then reluctantly file her complaint, written in triplicate. She wants justice; she wants it fast.
Fourth, as Brinda Karat has pointed out, you really need a comprehensive law that recognizes the various degrees of sexual assault. As things stand, outraging a woman’s modesty runs the gamut from lewd remarks to public stripping. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all punishment.
Fifth, nothing is going to change unless attitudes change. If a senior police official can dismiss a public stripping by a lynch mob in India’s financial centre as a “small thing that happens,” what can you say about your average Amar, Akbar or Anthony?
Making the streets safe for women isn’t impossible, or even difficult. But it requires political and social will. Until then, it’s neither a happy new year nor are we likely to have one in the near future.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to email@example.com