Forget for a minute the visuals on television, the faces of those men, the girl in the middle, trying to escape, being grabbed by her hair and dragged back to be groped and slapped some more. Forget for a minute the utter bungling - local media, National Commission for Women, bystanders, the
chief minister, the police.
Forget everything for just a minute and ask only this: What now? Do we go forward? Can we? How?
Guwahati is the latest milestone in India's map of shame that includes Mangalore and Mumbai, Gurgaon and Kolkata, sites of attacks against women who are seen to step out of traditionally-perceived roles. And there are scores of other stories that simply go unreported.
A woman MLA is attacked for marrying a second time. A working girl is shot dead while returning home from office at night. A single mother is raped after drinks at the pub. Girls and boys at another pub are beaten up by thugs from a political organisation.
Each time the administration responds predictably: close pubs. Stay home. Don't be adventurous. Each time we turn the spotlight on the victim: what was she wearing? Did she ask for it? Others lament that patriarchy cannot cope with the pace of social change. We wring our hands. And then we forget the story.
But Guwahati is different. We were witnessing directly the sexual assault and the horror was brought home. This was not some crime story tucked away on page 5. This was real and visceral. Victims, silenced by false notions of shame, are now speaking of their own trauma. Elsewhere, commentators - men and women - are questioning how and why this could have come to pass, demanding action and looking at solutions.
Despite the early goof-ups in Guwahati, there has been action - arrests, resignations and the removal of the head of the city's police department. It is not enough but it is a beginning.
In Parliament, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, seeks to make sexual assault punishable by life imprison-ment. It is not enough but it is a beginning.
The NCW member who named the victim has been removed. The suggestion of its head, Mamta Sharma, a former Congress MLA, that women should follow a dress code has been rubbished (an aside: what was Draupadi wearing when Duryodhana sought to disrobe her?) and Sharma has sought to dissociate herself from the remark. Questions are being raised about the validity of an organisation where members are the recipients of political largesse. It is not enough but it is a beginning.
Uncannily, just as the Guwahati assault unfolded, came news of a khap panchayat's diktat (subsequently ratified by an all-women's group) in village Aasra, Baghpat: no mobile phones, no love marriages, no venturing unescorted into the market etc.
At the heart of Guwahati and Baghpat is a fight to define a woman's place in modern India. If Baghpat seeks status quo, the assault at Guwahati was targeted at a woman who goes against that status quo. But when a woman is attacked for working or speaking her mind or just being visible, then it is not just a women's issue. It becomes an issue of safety in public spaces that concerns every citizen. Every man who is a father, husband, son or brother must ask: If women hold up half the sky, what space on earth can we allocate to them?
It takes an incident of sufficient horror to provoke change. In the 80s, the sexual assault of Maya Tyagi by policemen, ironically in Baghpat, triggered off outrage that led to changes in the Criminal Procedure and Indian Penal Code. In Rajasthan the gang rape of a social worker, Bhanwari Devi, led to guidelines that now define workplace sexual harassment.
Will Guwahati become the tipping point? Or will we once again let our rage filter away and lapse back into silence? How many Guwahatis will it take for us to say: enough, no more?
Right now there is only anger. It is not enough. But it is a beginning.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal
© Copyright © 2013 HT Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.