The Rediff Special/ Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Mumbai: Citizen's indifference is the problem
A teenage girl is raped on a Mumbai suburban train on the night of August 13. Five commuters watch the crime being committed…
Forty-eight hours later, 10 men barge into a hut in Mumbra, a suburban township north of Mumbai, and rape a 19-year-old woman while threatening to kill her one-year-old child if she protested. The men said they raped her because they could not get alcohol to drink that day…
Since the incidents occurred in quick succession, the question haunting Mumbai residents is whether women in the city are safe after all?
Ammu Abraham, director, Woman's Centre, a non-governmental helpline for women, avers the city is still safe for women. "Mumbai is the best city for women in India but we have to understand that dangers for women have always been there," she said, "Mumbai is the only place in India where women from orthodox families can go out to work. I don't think one can say Mumbai is no longer safe for women because of these two incidents."
Lawyer Flavia Agnes, coordinator of the legal cell Majlis, concurs. "Mumbai is still safe. Women still travel on trains past midnight even after these incidents. One cannot imagine women traveling alone after midnight in Delhi, Kolkata or Chennai," she said.
"I feel it is the media that makes and breaks things. Since there was a journalist in the compartment when the rape occurred, the news shook the city. If there had been no journalist on the train, the incident would have probably gone unreported," she added.
However, Abraham cautions that women must take precautions like not sitting alone in empty train compartments.
What shocked Mumbai residents was the fact that when the girl was being raped, five male commuters present remained mute spectators, either too fearful or too indifferent to intervene. It is this Mumbai attitude of seeking to stay away from trouble ('lafde se door rehne ka') that is of concern. Nobody wants to get involved in the city; intervention occurs only if people are personally affected.
BANK employee Vidya Prabhudesai was being stalked for years. The stalker wanted to marry her, but she turned him down. One day, after she turned down his claim for marriage once more, the stalker poured kerosene on her and set her afire. This incident occurred in broad daylight in front of thousands of people near the busy Mumbai Central station. Not a soul bothered to help Vidya as she screamed for help. She died soon after.
Worse -- and a tragic reflection on the Mumbaikar's indifference -- is the fact that after the murderer was arrested, only one woman appeared in court as a witness; scores witnessed the crime, but no one wanted to get involved in the case.
Priti Patkar, director of Prerna, a women's organization working against commercial and sexual exploitation and trafficking of women, said one reason Mumbai residents do not intervene is because they feel it would make little difference even if they did. "When they see criminals go free, they are convinced one person cannot change the system," she said.
Shirish Inamdar, senior police inspector at the social service branch, Mumbai police, said while the police do their best to solve cases of sexual harassment, citizens too must help. "Society as a whole has to play an important role and defend the weak, especially women."
He pointed out that given the city's population, estimated at over 12 million, it is difficult to keep track of troublemakers who often disappear. "Assaults on women will only stop if society has a positive attitude towards them. We must have public education in the system on such issues. And for this, the police will need help from all sections of society."
But punishing a culprit is a harrowing process. In spite of the growing number of sexual harassment cases, convictions are negligible. One of Agnes' colleagues was being teased by a group of men at a Mumbai railway station. When the colleague protested, the brazen eveteasers attacked her. No one intervened.
"She took the matter to court. It took 10 years for the judge to sentence the eveteasers to three months imprisonment. This is the only case I have come across where a person has been convicted for eveteasing," said Agnes.
"Eveteasing is the beginning of passive sexual violence against women," says one women's activist. "It can aggravate into a bad situation. There has to be strict laws to punish offenders, putting fear in their minds. Unless this is achieved, violence against women is bound to be taken lightly in any society."
Fear in the Cities
Bangalore: At risk at home
Chennai: No longer a safe city
Delhi: 'Lacking a culture that respects women'
Kolkata: Safe streets, unsafe offices