Railway rowdies: 'What do I tell my daughter when she asks how I helped?'

The rape of a photojournalist at Shakti Mills in Mumbai has once again raised the question of how India should react to rape as a society. The politicians and police have largely been the target of criticism. And there is no question they need to do more to make women safer, but as individual citizens we can also take action to make our cities safer places.

Dipesh Tank, a 29-year-old advertising professional, shows us this isn’t as hard as it might seem with his War Against Railway Rowdies campaign in Mumbai.

Last December, Dipesh Tank decided he had to do something. The Delhi rape case had left him fuming and he “felt ashamed to be a man”. So he resolved that he would step in whenever he saw a women being harassed.

“If I can’t stop him [the eve teaser] or fight, I will tell him this is wrong,” he told Firstpost.

Female commuters wait to board a train at one of Mumbai's railway stations. AFP

Female commuters wait to board a train at one of Mumbai's railway stations. AFP

He began to intervene in situations where he saw women being harassed. He has been beaten up more than once while attempting to help but succeeded in catching one or two culprits and taking them to the cops too. One morning at Malad station about a month ago, Dipesh saw a group of men on a moving train reaching out to grope women on the platform. That’s when he realised he needed to do more than just personally intervene whenever he could. He began to pay attention to who was harassing women and noticed they were regulars who were always looking for ways to take advantage.

He sent an email to the police and the railways detailing what was happening at the station and asked them to step in and provide protection. A constable was sent to help but he was not able to apprehend the men because the platform was too crowded.

This was when Dipesh and a few others decided to start War against Railway Rowdies. Dipesh was already a member of Youth For People, which was formed after the Mumbai train bombings in 2006 and describes itself on its website “as a movement to mobilize the power of youth and involve ourselves in the betterment of our society”. This campaign would therefore be an extension of that idea.

The others that helped found the campaign are his brother Paresh Tank (26) and three volunteers - Meera Damji (33) and Shweta Tiwari (27) and Vaishali Janarthanan (22). He wanted more data and evidence to take to the authorities because that would bolster their case that this sort of harassment needed to be dealt with more severely.

Together, the five of them went to Malad station every morning during the week of Independence Day and conducted surveys asking women about sexual harassment on trains and railway platforms. The women were asked how safe they felt travelling and whether they had personally experienced harassment or knew anyone who had been harassed, among other questions.

According to Dipesh, 85 percent of the 300 to 350 women they spoke to said they did not feel safe taking the train because of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

The group also has a Facebook page with an online survey so they can gather data from other commuters as well. They are in the process of putting together a report which they will then hand over to the police and the home minister in the hope that it will push them to crack down on eve teasers.

“By accepting them the way they are, you give them courage,” Dipesh said. “You have to stand up to them. Don’t accept what they do.”

Dipesh believes that if boys are punished for eve teasing, it will prevent them from becoming bolder and taking more risks with women, including rape. Considering that two of the five men who have been arrested for raping the photojournalist said they had raped rag pickers before and the lack of punishment and made them believe they could get away with raping, his theory has merit.

The survey has not been without its challengers, however, Dipesh said most women were unwilling to open up to men, which is why he needed female volunteers. But this proved to be harder than he thought. "People were not supportive. We needed female volunteers because female commuters were reluctant to speak to a man. But people did not want to be part of it. Only two girls volunteered.”

He was also surprised by how some women felt this sort of thing happens and that it was best to just let it go.

Still, Dipesh has persevered. He is now trying to find a spy camera so he can record incidents of sexual harassment and provide these videos to the police to help with catching the perpetrators. The group also posts information on its Facebook page such as helpline numbers and lets people know their rights. He says women have begun sharing their complaints and experiences on the page as well.

He does this because he does not want to have regrets later in life. “If I have a daughter, I don’t want to her to ask me what I did when all this was happening.”

If you want to help, you can get in touch with WARR at waragainstrailwayrowdies@gmail.com. You can also find them on Facebook - War Against Railway Rowdies.