In Meerut, 'Thali Gang' on prowl for sexual predators: Group clangs attention to perpetrators to ensure women's safety
Members of the Thali Gang in Meerut bang spoons against steel plates outside the homes of sex offenders to draw attention to their crime and ensure action.
Editor's Note: The latest National Crime Records Bureau statistics show an 83% increase in crimes against women, with as many as 39 cases reported every hour across the country. There are several thousand more instances that go unreported. And yet, such felonious acts represent only a limited view of the manner in which women in this country must face brutality. In this series of reported pieces, Firstpost examines those societal forces that, while beyond the ambit of law, have the same deleterious effect on women as criminal acts.
Meerut: When the clanging of a spoon and thali (steel plate) pierces the air in Meerut, it brings no joy to the listeners. While it heralded the birth of a male child at one point, it now shames men guilty of sexual offences. A feisty group of women is reclaiming the streets of the Uttar Pradesh city this way, armed only with the two small utensils and ample determination.
The Everest twins, Nungshi and Tashi Malik, were the first to turn on its head this common North Indian practice of announcing the birth of a male child by banging a thali with a spoon. This was how they had celebrated their ascent over Mt Vinson. Now, the "Thali Gang" of Meerut has shredded the stereotype further.
From schoolgirls to professionals and housewives, this group of diverse women came together on 11 May to fight sexual harassment. It runs under the leadership of social activist Atul Sharma and school principal Neera Tomar. Today, more than a 100 members from Uttar Pradesh's Meerut and Baghpat districts make up the gang, including 17 men.
The Thali Gang uses street plays and public shaming campaigns to raise awareness about crimes against women. They often bang the spoons against the plates in front of a perpetrator's house to let people know about his actions. Most recently, the Thali Gang helped deliver justice to a minor girl who was molested by a relative.
State of Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh is often in the news for its surging crime graph, general lawlessness and rampant sexual offences, to which the state government under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath responded by constituting "Anti-Romeo Squads" to "protect women". In spite of such novel measures, women remain unsafe in the state.
Enter the Thali Gang, which also aims to jolt the government machinery into action. Explaining the gang's modus operandi, activist Kadambari Kaushik said they keep an eye on incidents of assaults against women. The next step is to visit the victim's family and possibly meet the victim. Once all details are in, it is time for action.
"People, especially victims, are usually too afraid to seek police aid," Kaushik said. "There is a lot of social pressure. Our source of information is either a neighbour or close relative who wants their identity to remain secret."
She added that the media was their "second line of information", and that it made them wonder how the police missed these cases when the gang and the media could find the victim. "There is something wrong with the system," the activist said.
Family inaction the saddest part
The Thali Gang's findings have all made one thing clear — when it comes to the involvement of family members or close relatives in a case of rape or other sexual offences, saving the man is paramount for the kin.
One of the first victims the gang helped was a 16-year-old girl from Noida's Surajpur, who got pregnant after her paternal uncle raped her. Yet, after numerous meetings with the family, no one was ready to file a complaint. Not just that, the family also wanted the chacha to be safe and was planning to give the child so born to a relative.
"After many fruitless meetings, we decided to bang the thali at a crossing near the accused's house, going by our usual line of action," one Sanjog Sharma said. "The response was beyond our imagination. We could soon make out the social boycott of the accused and got help in the form of volunteers. People also started sharing our contact numbers, after which calls for help increased."
In a more recent incident, the Thali Gang helped rescue a Class 10 girl from the clutches of her married 38-year-old maternal uncle. He had taken the 16-year-old hostage three years ago and molested her frequently. Despite verbal complaints to the police, the uncle managed to keep her with him mainly because of the family's unwillingness to register a written complaint in the matter.
"We ran from the station house officer to the superintendent of police to the commissioner, but no one came to our help. Then someone recommended this gang, and we contacted them. I have no words for them. Due to their efforts, our girl is back home," the victim's mother, Suman, said.
The Thali Gang has taken up around 10 cases so far, according to co-founder Neera Tomar. Of these, six are minor ones and four, major. She highlighted the hypocrisy of society and the harassment women face often at the hands of known and trusted men.
"I got this idea as being the school principal, I hear daily complaints from our girls. We decided to use the thali as our weapon," she said, adding that the biggest satisfaction was getting justice for innocent victims who were unaware of the implications of the crime.
Tomar added that the Thali Gang had received a good response from security agencies and the police. The Baghpat Police especially are happy with the movement, which the women are set to take to other districts, she said.
"If a thali can be banged to inform about and celebrate the birth of a boy, then why can't the same be done to alert friends and family and neighbours to men indulging in molestation?" asks social activist Atul Sharma. "So we decided to take a thali and spoon with us and use this 'celebratory custom' to stop assaults against women."
However, their actions don't come without risks. The gang often receives threats, and perpetrators and their families frequently accuse it of working under someone's influence.
Rupal, a first-year B Tech student, bemoaned "the repeated sexual harassment girls face". "I was the head girl at my school and used to get complaints of assault, especially from friends and family members. The teenage girls were afraid to share their plight with parents or teachers. Dealing with their cases, we got hands-on experience, which was the turning point for us. We first started the 'Let me Speak' campaign and then the Thali Gang," she said.
While they are all proud of their movement, they are careful to never break any laws and regularly perform "nukkad nataks" (street plats) to raise awareness.
Meerut superintendent of police (crime) Shivram Yadav said of the Thali Gang: "Every citizen has the right to protest but within the limits of law. We came to know about the Thali Gang and have no objection (to their cause)... We are always ready to help and take swift action in cases of sexual crimes, too."
The author is a Meerut-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
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