Much of India is “outraged” by the “barbaric” act of molestation of a “teenage” girl on a Guwahati street. Not long ago, much of India was outraged when Ram Sene goons manhandled girls in Mangalore pubs or when women were molested or abducted outside Gurgaon malls and raped. Every time, we have vented our anger at the deteriorating law and order situation, police inaction and the depravity of the men and boys involved and then forgot all about it to be outraged all over again. What we refuse to accept is that our victims are collateral damage in a continuous and ever intensifying clash of many Indias created by our unbalanced policies of growth.
Even for its ample appetite, India has whipped up a bit too much of inequality in the past 20 years. Today, a rich India coexists with a not-so-rich, a poor and a destitute India. An ancient India is hemmed in by a medieval, a conservative and a liberal India. The proximity is often precariously close, the interfaces almost constant. Modern housing complexes at city limits are skirted by villages that supply maids, drivers and nannies to the apartment owners. Swank malls source their guards and sales people from the slums squeezed into their backyards. Exposure to riches and liberal lifestyles invariably triggers aspirations which often end in frustration. The youth, not yet resigned to destiny or the ways of the world, often chart dangerous paths.
The attack on bar-going women (or minor girls) is not necessarily a sign of disapproval. On the contrary, the offenders aspire to join such “modern” circles. But they do not socially (or financially) qualify. Their frustration is compounded when some of their own—the not-so-affluent and upmarket—having managed to join the liberal set, treat them with the derision which is the preserve of the traditionally rich and sophisticated. It is not a coincidence that majority of the victims belong to this transitional strata – pub workers, escorts, call centre staff etc. The pubs and hotels that usually report such crime are not the ones frequented by the rich and powerful but by youth who are probably the first ones in their families to discover some cheap beer and privacy with their partners.
Though women from the traditionally rich and sophisticated segments of the society do get targeted (few report it though), they usually get away with snubbing an “eve-teaser” unless confronted by hardened criminals. But ticked off by one perceived as their own, even the average left-out youth may turn vindictive and want to “teach the woman (or girl) a lesson”. Numbers or alcohol emboldens such resolve and all it takes is a lonely road, a moving car or an opportunity to exploit. Whatever be the trigger, a crime, particularly sexual, deserves the strictest punishment. But prosecution alone may not suffice in tackling this wave of social retaliation which is not a simplistic man-molests-woman story.
Last March, a girl from Mizoram was brutally beaten up in a Guwahati neighbourhood by a group of local women who were subsequently assisted by a couple of men. In the city to attend a wedding, the girl’s fault was that she lost her way to the guesthouse where she was putting up and knocked on a door in the neighbourhood to ask for directions. The women who thrashed her claimed that she reeked of alcohol. They resented that the victim spoke in English and was strangely (read affluently) dressed.
The ramification of this conflict among the India-that-has-already-arrived, India-that-wants-to and India-that-may-never extends beyond the occasional rape and molestation. Consider Khoda, a ghetto village on Noida-Ghaziabad border next to Delhi. A few years ago, the residents of Khoda infamously broke into a violent riot when a newly constructed housing society closed down a traditional passageway running through its walled complex. Refusing to suffer the detour of a few hundred metres, the mob vandalised the apartments till cops opened fire. Even today, the wide road-divider on NH-24 remains cut up, causing a perennial jam, because the villagers of Khoda see no reason to honour the right of way of the highway traffic, bulk of it the cars from the newly-built posh housings in the vicinity.
Khoda has no sanitation, little water and power and is considered the most crime- and disease-prone area in the region. Even home guards belonging to Khoda extort motorists caught in jams on NH-24. The new-fangled “cities” of Indirapuram and adjoining sectors of Noida depend heavily on Khoda to run their modular apartments and mega malls. Already, the villagers are a divided lot and, with other occupants of the neighbouring hinterland villages such as Ghazipur also in the fray, a complex three-way conflict—among the upmarket, the aspiring and the desperate—is resulting in a busy spate of crime. It makes headlines only when carjackers bump someone off or a woman gets raped in a mall basement.
The same pattern is unfolding in and around most Indian cities. What is worse, the desperate youth is getting emboldened to strike outside five star hotels (Mumbai) or target even the truly privileged including foreigners (Kochi). Sexual motives may expose the socio-economic divide at its ugliest, but our outrage at the mere symptoms of a dangerous and pervasive social churning may not arrest the trend. There is no excuse for not arresting the Guwahati criminals till the media got shrill. But the crime graph will continue to mount unless we address the lopsided growth chart. It’s time we figure out how to chase a better life without turning our own against us.