December 31, 2016 will go down in the memories of Bangaloreans as a very sad day to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A city that always prided itself on being bold, progressive and safe for women proved to be a nightmare. On New Year’s Eve, over 2 lakh people took the Metro and thousands of people converged on MG Road and Brigade Road. 1,500 policemen were deployed . Over the last two years, the police had done an exceptional job in keeping miscreants under check with elaborate bandobast in all key areas. The police and citizens prided themselves in celebrating New Year’s Eve safely, year after year.
So what went wrong this time? Were we lulled into complacency? The horrific events of December 31 raise many questions:
Why were there last-minute senior-level changes in the police administration coinciding with New Year? Pravin Sood took over as the city’s new police chief on January 1. Did this lead to any lapses during handover at a very critical time? Why were senior police officers not to be seen anywhere?
What safety mechanisms were deployed ? Where was the smart use of technology in warding off potential trouble through CCTVs or camera drones monitoring ground action?
Police preparedness on various fronts, citizen awareness on Do’s and Don’ts – had adequate and complete information been shared?
More importantly, if there are thousands of people in one location on a happy occasion, yet women cannot be safe, what is wrong with our society? When can women feel safe? Can we feel safe at all in public spaces?
This brings us to safety in public spaces, and what people pass off all too lightly as “eve-teasing” as a serious offence amounting to sexual harassment and the role of bystanders and whether or not they intervened. We have always felt that there is safety in numbers. So what went wrong? Is there a sense of anonymity that creeps in on a crowded day when hooligans, stalkers, molesters feel that that they can get away with it? What was the role of the police who had deployed 1,500 personnel?
What gives people the licence to misbehave and resort to “mass molestation ” with impunity? Disinhibition under the influence of alcohol, mob mania which quickly transcends reason and norms of decency, potential for anonymity in large crowds, no consequences of abhorrent actions, lackadaisical law enforcement – all these combined in Bengaluru for extreme deviant behaviour.
Given the strength of the police force deployed that evening, and their apparent helplessness, was this a planned attack by groups of people looking to create trouble? If yes, how is it that the police did not have the requisite intelligence on this attack? If not, and it was spontaneous, what prevented the police from responding swiftly before the situation got out of hand?
This leads me to the next logical question, do we really believe that “eve-teasing” is a big offence? Inspite of the relatively recent 2013 amendments to the Indian Penal Code where Section 154 seeks to have a wide ambit of actions classified as sexual harassment including any unwelcome gestures or advances such as touching, groping, flashing, passing lewd remarks etc. attracting stiff punishment, somehow this particular topic is still not taken very seriously in India.
For years, women have endured groping and flashing in crowded place, in buses, ticket queues, and have suffered in silence. Even our popular subculture reflected through the lens of Bollywood cinema, has, over the years, glorified eve-teasing by the hero as an acceptable way of serenading the heroine. Possibly the Indian psyche does not consider eve-teasing as sexual harassment – which it absolutely is – and an invasion of woman’s right to privacy. It is possible that this subconsciously encourages or seemingly justifies unwanted advances in the minds of the perpetrators and tends to be either ignored or not given due importance by the police or any law enforcement agency. It is the first sign of such behavior that needs to be severely dealt with a firm hand without waiting for a Nirbhaya-type incident to take place.
Instead of being apologetic, the heavy-handed and dismissive responses from senior politicians stating “Youngsters who are almost like Westerners, they try to copy the Westerners not only in the mindset, but even the dressing” or “What were these women doing out post 10 pm?” etc only goes to show the patriarchal nature of society and compound the issue. The victim as usual is made the accused and made to feel guilty.
It is good that the media has covered the public outrage on the events of 31st December, but the real deterrent will be if the media relentlessly follows this news till the offenders are convicted. It is not the severity of punishment alone but also the certainty of punishment and the swiftness with which the police file charges and courts dispense justice that will prove to be a deterrent to such bad social behaviour.
If the police failed that night, citizens could have been good samaritans and come to the rescue of women if they had not been mere passive onlookers. It was our collective failure as a society to protect women in public spaces and we need to reflect on this.
Candlelight vigils and pink chaddi campaigns are symbolic gestures; we require much more purposive and decisive action which is preventive. Without that, we will see history repeating itself year after year with worse consequences…
This article was first published in ndtv.com