As India fulminates after a 16-year-old student was slapped, dragged, groped and stripped on a Guwahati street last week, it is clear this abomination is not about one woman against a mob of opportunistic, brutal men.
This is a story of a dangerous decline in Indians and India
itself, of not just failing morality but disintegrating public governance when it comes to women.
First, the moral failures of emerging India. The girl fails every test of the hypocrisy that governs public logic: she goes to a bar; she gets into an argument with some men, possibly shaming a man trying to film her; she walks out alone. The mob outside passes every test of public immorality: on the shamed man's urging, men - seemingly normal men with jobs and no criminal records - drag the girl by her hair onto the street; many watch, no one intervenes, except for an older man; 20 men join the assault. A journalist at the scene, perhaps the same man who bickered with her, instead of calling the police, calls in a camera crew. The girl is barely home before her trauma is broadcast on television.
Second, the governance failures. The first calls to a local police station go unanswered, and the station house officer is suspended for dereliction of duty but only after national attention. The search for suspects does not get underway after the broadcast of the assault. It starts nearly two days later, after the video goes viral and posters of the assailants appear in Guwahati. Only after the video hits national television do the police chief and a deputy make public statements, deeply insensitive ones (chief - the police are not an ATM machine dispensing instant service; deputy - a "stray incident hyped by the national media"). The government reacts to the outrage with strange, tired logic, ordering a 10 pm shutdown for Guwahati's 127 bars, never mind that the assault occurred just after 9 pm. To calm the victim, the National Commission of Women (NCW) sends a representative, who promptly reveals the girl's name. The chief minister does the same, even emailing photos of his meeting with the girl to the media. Later, the NCW chief cautions women to be "careful" of how they dress because "such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West", and the CM now sees the assault as "a conspiracy" against his government.
We know that India is the land of Sita, Draupadi, Lakshmi and a pantheon of divine sisters. We also know it is no country for women. We point to all the wonderful things that the Gita, the Koran, the Bible and the Granth Sahib say about women. Then we, Indian men, set unwritten limits for our women, and if they do not stay within those limits, we perpetrate the worst abuses against them. Almost any woman is fair game, but if the woman appears independent, confidant and articulate, she must not escape. If Kali - the goddess with the big attitude - lived among us, she would be an especially tempting target.
Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male, as two surveys released last month indicated.
India is the worst place to be a woman in the G20, a group of the world's most powerful economies, ranking below Saudi Arabia, according to a poll released last month (it studied perceptions among gender specialists from 63 countries in five continents). Another survey ranked India among the five worst places to be born a woman, better only than Afghanistan, the Congo and Pakistan.
Don't be surprised. Even when a woman is raped, those in authority tend to blame the victim's dress and demeanour. Yet, in about 90% of all Indian rape cases, the woman knows her attacker; many victims are babies or grandmothers.
The incident in Guwahati represents street sexual harassment, a growing form of abuse, as more women are educated and join the work force.
"Fearing restrictions on their mobility, young women often hesitate to report incidents to their families; if and when they do, they are discouraged from filing official complaints with the police," says a report released last year by The Prajnya Trust, a Chennai-based advocacy. "Very often, incidents are dismissed as one-off or trivial, as merely 'eve-teasing'."
When the perpetrators are caught, as many have been in Guwahati, national outrage may demand everything from lynching to castration, but after the furore dies down the punishment is mild.
India has no special law against sexual assault or harassment. Three sections of the Indian penal code (509, 354 and 294) variously deal with incidents that "insult the modesty of a woman" or "intrude upon her privacy"; assault or use of "criminal force" with the "intention of outraging a woman's modesty"; the reciting of obscene acts, songs or words in public places. The maximum punishment is a year's simple imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
Sexual harassment on the street is not categorised in national crime records. General crimes against women have risen over the last five years, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all crimes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Sonali Mukherjee, once a pretty cadet with large eyes and larger dreams, is a case study of how the State fails women. Nine years after she rejected the advances of three neighbourhood tormentors in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, and acid was splashed on her face, it is hard to look at Mukherjee. She is blind, partially deaf and her face looks like it has melted away. Her attackers made bail and are back on the streets, regularly threatening her against pursuing a case that doesn't seem to end.
For the girl in Guwahati, the trauma is only starting.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal
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