Look on, look away: Molestation of Rohtak sisters and Gauhar Khan shames aam janta

Here are a few questions for the average Indian woman who wants to step out of her home and into a public space, because women, like men and unlike doormats, are wont to do.

Do you expect to be winked at by a co-passenger on the bus before he melts into the crowd and gets off? Do you expect to be hooted at from a bike that whooshes past your auto? Do you fear men making sly lunges at your breasts, thighs or buttocks if you happened to board the general compartment of a crowded train? Do you fear being hit or maybe even slapped? The answers to all these questions, at any given place and time in India, are likely to be a resounding 'yes'.

In fact, one of the first lessons most adolescent girls are administered are ways to dodge - not essentially fight - the predatory male gaze in crowded public spaces in the country. Carry a big bag, no eye contact, don't look lost, walk fast - the list of survival tricks for a woman in a public space, to which she has an equal right as men, is both exhaustive and exhausting.

The fact that such traditional wisdom is actually necessary and not merely alarmist in the context of our country has been proved yet again by two incidents that hit the headlines today. One was about two girls in Rohtak who had beat up three molesters in a crowded public bus. Another was about a popular TV actor who was molested and slapped by a man who managed to break a security cordon and pounce on her.

Gauhar Khan, one would say, was in a space that would be ticked off as 'safe' by average standards of women's safety in India. She is a celebrity, she was on the set of a TV show produced by a popular channel, she was surrounded by people and the place was teeming with security personnel. Where could a woman possibly be safer, if not there? Yet, a man had the gall to walk up to her, deride her for her choice of clothes and then not only grope her, but slap her. If you were to consider the root of this audacity, it evidently stems from the idea that women are the second class occupants of the public space in India and can be easily shoved around as and when fancied.

 Look on, look away: Molestation of Rohtak sisters and Gauhar Khan shames aam janta

Screengrab from the video showing the Rohtak girls beating up a molester.

The sisters from Rohtak have now proved otherwise to three men who tried to molest them on a bus. They have been immediately branded 'bravehearts' by TV channels and the new chief minister of Haryana has reportedly also decided to reward them for their 'bravery' with felicitations and cash awards to be dispensed on Republic Day. However, none of that should come as much comfort to the rest of the women in this country.

Because, if you look at the video, here's what you see: two skinny, young girls lunging at a man twice their size in a crowded bus. While one girl whips out her belt and starts hitting the man in question, she gets pushed away and almost trips. While she tries regaining her balance, the same man, pins the other girl down on the seat, nearly throttling her until she claws back and manages to stand back up. Her sister by now has lunged at the man and is trying to beat him.

The bus is full of young men and some women. The only time any of men in the bus moves a muscle is when the girls, struggling against the harassers, lose their balance and look like they would fall on the men seated in the bus. The other men only raise their hands to shield themselves against the girls falling on them. Finally, a burly man intervenes and instead of reprimanding the molester, tries to pull him away from the girls. We are told by reports that the girls were later thrown out of the bus.

So, two young girls had to fight off three men, while a bus full of people watched. They beat up the said men but were also molested, beaten up, and punched in retaliation as a bus full of people silently looked on. Now that the media has caught on to the story, the authorities have stirred and woken up and decided to reward them.

What if - like we have seen it happen in other cases - the girls weren't so lucky? What if one of the punches landed on their faces and broke a bone? What if, in the scuffle, they got thrown out of the bus? What if one of the men had a weapon? Chances are the girls would have been the only ones bearing the brunt of the consequences of facing up to their attackers - a bus full of perfectly healthy people, with working limbs and perhaps brains too, would have sat and watched. Because, after all that was not their battle. The men didn't harass them or one of their own and in India, it is best to mind one's own business.

And mind they did, like those people who drove past the December 16 gangrape victim and her friend, as she lay bleeding, each second robbing a bit of her life away.

After all in India, a public space doesn't come with a sense of responsibility, rather, it comes with a strong sense of entitlement. Spit where you can, throw your empty packet of chip on the road, fight over leg space in a bus,  or honk at a traffic signal insanely because you car gives you the privilege to do so.  It is the same kind of entitlement that thinks it's perfectly okay to grab a woman in the same public space.

The man on the Rohtak bus and the man who walked up on a stage in Mumbai amid 2,500 people and 250 bouncers and slapped Gauhar Khan, know the one key characteristic of the Indian public: They have yet to grow a spine.

Maybe it is time to drill some accountability into the public. Perhaps identify the people, who were enjoying the show on that Rohtak bus, and at least get them to make one trip to the police station, even if to give their statements. Get the CCTVs in public spaces fixed so that assailants and onlookers don't escape with ease. It is perhaps time to tell people that staying silent isn't going to keep them out of trouble. Because honestly, I see little difference between a molester and ten others who facilitate his exploits by turning a blind eye.

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2014 10:28:05 IST