A young girl in Guwahati was set up on by a mob of men and assaulted in full view of a crowd. Cue the media headlines, popular outrage, NGO-led protests, and grandstanding politicians. How could this happen?
And yet it does, over and over again, year after year. Rapes and assaults outside Gurgaon bars, on Chennai commuter trains, in Mangalore pubs, public stripping in Guwahati back in 2007. Each incident is treated as a unique, unprecedented horror -- until the next one comes along. Perhaps it's time to pay attention to what they all have in common, to the certain monotonous similarity that characterises these spectacular sexual crimes.
One, the victim is always engaged in some kind of "unconventional" activity. In Gurgaon, she worked as an escort at a nightclub. The Park Street incident in Kolkata involved a woman out alone at a bar. Bangalore recently witnessed a gang rape where the girl was drinking with her boyfriend and his buddies. There have been cases in Delhi when men have attacked women who were canoodling with their lovers. Other victims are often working women coming back home late at night.
The Class 11 student in Guwahati is no different. She attracted the attention of her attackers as she was leaving her bar. One of the men passed an obscene remark, and when she responded, they set upon her, teasing and taunting herfor drinking.
Any woman seen indulging in "unconventional" behaviour – as defined by the most regressive standard -- is an easy and deserving victim. When men want to act out their rage – and with impunity – she is the first victim of choice.
Two, the police is always slow to take action. It took three days and the TV video going viral for the Guwahati police to swing into action. There are also questions as to why they did not arrive on the scene earlier at such a public assault.
So what's new? Each such incident is accompanied by reports of police callousness, indifference, laxity et al. The policeman in Gurgaon couldn't be bothered to track the car of the kidnappers. The Park Street cops simply refused to file an FIR. These men behave with impunity because the guardians of law and order share their view of the victim: one, she was asking for it; two, sexual violence is a minor indiscretion. (A truth revealed most famously by a Tehelka expose of the police in the Delhi NCR area.)
Three, there's greater cruelty in numbers. Is it a coincidence that all these attacks involve a group of men as opposed to the isolated rapist? Would each the men in that mob be as likely to attack that girl if he was alone? Not likely. And it's no different in all those other cases that often involved four, six, seven men, ganging up against one, unprotected woman.
As Shiv Visvanathan noted earlier on this site, gang rape lets the individual attacker off the hook:
The genres of explanation for a rape and a gang rape tend to be different. A single rapist is confronted as psychology or pathology; he is law and order problem. A gang rape summons policy and prohibitions against the women. It is she who is seen as a law and order problem vitiating morals in a region. There is a touch of excess which works against the woman. Crime in collectivity seems more “guiltless”.
A mass assault also is an expression of "collective" male fury and solidarity against the modern woman – who becomes an expedient symbol of unwelcome social change. "Such fury often directs itself into a manhood that can be yelled out collectively - hence, the gang-rape, the ultimate weapon of pack sexuality, frenziedly asserting dominance on someone it believes weaker than itself," writes Srijana Mitra.
The video of the Guwahati assault evokes horror because it offers undeniable proof of this sense of common purpose and shared righteousness, writ large in the smirking expressions on the men's faces.
Four, we care, but not enough. We may tweet, comment, and even attend that rally to express our outrage. But don't expect an Anna Hazare-style movement to end sexual violence any time soon. The people looking on in mute apathy in Guwahati are more like us than we care to acknowledge. Women are unsafe in public spaces precisely because the public is unwilling to protect them.
“Mainstream news channels are flooding me with phone calls asking for the footage of the molestation incident. Some of them questioned me as to why my reporter and camera person shot the incident and didn’t prevent the mob from molesting the girl. But I’m backing my team since the mob would have attacked them, prevented them from shooting, that would have only destroyed all evidence," tweeted Atanu Bhuyan, editor-in-chief of Newslive, defending his team’s action.
So it may be, but that same fear of being attacked also kept everyone else rooted to their place. There are real consequences in taking on a pack of ravaging men – as we've seen in Kolkata and Mumbai, where men have been killed whilst protecting sisters and friends. Each of us does nothing because – unlike the attackers – we know there is no collective fury to bolster our actions. There is indeed safety in numbers, but for the attackers not their victims.
Our rage is reactive not active – it does little to prevent such incidents as they unfold, and may even abet them. Narrating a sexual harassment experience on the Delhi Metro, a young woman writes:
Thinking back I cannot still understand how literally the most ridiculous thing turned so ugly. I’m sure you are thinking, why did she do this, why didn’t she just leave, why did she even get in the general coach, what was she wearing, what does she look like to elicit such an incident. And you know what, that’s precisely the whole fucking point. It doesn’t matter what you think might be a cause or a reason. No one, NOT A SINGLE person had the balls to step up and help me. And all these 50 odd men, your regular joes, college kids, engineers going to office shouldering laptops, salesmen and just normal folks commuting. I have never felt this alone.
Economic freedom is the bedrock of all liberation, sexual or otherwise. The driving engine of social change in India is the increased presence of women in the public space, be it as students, call centre workers, sales clerks, bar escorts, or high-ranking executives. But all that much-touted emancipation has come at a price to their physical safety. Whether she goes to work, hangs out in a bar, or makes out with her lover, this newfound freedom is hazardous to an Indian woman’s health. Guwahati is just the latest example to confirm the same.
So what kind of freedom is this, secured at the price of women's bodies? Freedom in new India is no more than a bunch of of meaningless symbols: a glitzy malls with designer stuff, maids with mobile phones, corporate tycoons on private jets et al. A feel-good liberation that evaporates the moment you step outside its paper-thin bubble.