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Give us a safe city, not police protection

Shock and outrage all over again. How else would we receive news of the gang rape of the 22-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai? This wasn't the familiar Mumbai where women assume a minimum degree of security. Smruti Koppikar writes.

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2013 23:51 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai photojournalist's gang-rape,Narendra Dabholkar,Satyapal Singh

Shock and outrage all over again. How else would we receive news of the gang rape of the 22-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai? The young woman was attacked by five men while doing a photo shoot. The spot in south Mumbai was secluded but she was accompanied by a male colleague, and it was barely 6pm.

This wasn't the familiar Mumbai where women assume a minimum degree of security. This was a mutating and uncertain Mumbai that women are being made aware of every passing day.

Shock and outrage also greeted the murder of rationalist and reformist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune. Two killers shot him from behind, barely 50 metres away from a police chowki.

Dabholkar had been threatened by religious groups for his campaign to bring in a law to make superstitious and black magic rituals illegal. Reformists in Maharashtra have been vilified but their progressive ideas — girls' education and emancipation of lower castes, among others — eventually became rooted in society. Dabholkar's murder forced many to ask if a changing Maharashtra meant a return of non-liberal ideas.

The two incidents last week may seem unconnected aberrations. They are anything but. The night of the gang rape saw a six-year-old girl molested in a lower-middle class area of south Mumbai. Next day, a 21-year-old woman was raped in suburban Mumbai and 11-year-old girl raped and murdered near Pune.

The rise in incidents of crimes is not an accident. Crimes and criminals thrive in a climate of impunity. What's there to fear about the law when its long arm is unlikely to reach them, or even if it does then the excruciatingly delayed judicial system all but returns their lives to them?

Five days after Dabholkar's murder, the killers have not been identified. Two of the five accused in the photojournalist's rape case have criminal records. Mumbai Police commissioner Satyapal Singh dismissed, a day after the gang-rape, the rising crime graph as our perception.

It's not a perception; it's the reality. The statistics are a summary of the gut-wrenching narratives of those attacked and abused. It's to do with a steadily growing climate of insecurity perceptible especially among the marginalised and disempowered sections, including women.

Crimes against women do not occur in isolation; they reflect the criminalisation of society. Gunning down intellectual opponents does not happen in a vacuum; it's part of the culture of intolerance that has received political sanction.

Home minister RR Patil spoke the language of protection. Women journalists and other professionals, he advised, could seek protection from the nearest police station when they head out to desolate places or at late hours.

It's a ridiculous and insensitive suggestion. To see rape as a crime against women is itself problematic, for it instantaneously places it in a different category and helps a deeply patriarchal society to shift some of the blame on to women.

The gang rape will be used by fathers (even mothers) and brothers to curtail the freedom of movement of their daughters and sisters. It's likely to influence the career and life choices of young women. Freedom and choice were the hard-won victories of women's movements.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, women journalists in Mumbai had to wage battles within and outside newsrooms to work night shifts, do political and defence reporting, work on the frontpages of newspapers that call for mandatory late shifts. It would have been much the same in other professions that required women to venture beyond "safe thresholds".

They did not seek protection; only the right to work and be treated on par with male colleagues. They sought a safe city in which they could exercise their natural rights.

The 22-year-old woman was manifesting those rights. Why should we seek extra protection while out on work? Mumbai ought to promise a minimum level of security for all its citizens.

The distinction between security and protection is an important one. The difference between the two is a thin line, often drawn by patronising men in powerful positions such as the home minister.

He is constitutionally obliged to ensure security, not just for women who work late but, indeed, for all citizens including those like Dabholkar.

First Published: Aug 25, 2013 23:41 IST