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Womanhood is a handicap in India

September 23, 2004 15:52 IST

Have you seen the CBS programme Amazing Race? (I think it is currently being aired in India on the AXN channel.) Very briefly, it consists of a dozen two-man teams that are sent on a chase around the world, beginning and ending in the United States but covering almost every continent. India was the leg featured on one episode as the teams were asked to go from Mumbai to Ernakulam. On the first leg of this journey, they had to take a suburban train from Mumbai to Panvel. To cut a long story short, more than one female participant later complained of having been "groped".

This, please remember, was not Delhi (the "rape capital" of India) or Bihar (where human life seems to be remarkably cheap); no, it was Mumbai, reputedly the one major city where women are treated as professionals and can feel safe while travelling. To my shame, India was the only country where the contenders in Amazing Race underwent this humiliating experience. What message does this send out about India?

The participants in Amazing Race are far removed from the usual five-star crowd. They took the open poverty and overwhelming population in their stride – and didn't complain about the lack of creature comforts that Western tourists generally take for granted. But sexual misbehaviour is another matter, and several of the women taking part in the challenge later stated that they would never voluntarily return to India – a reaction mirrored by the audience.

The tourism ministry can spend as many millions as it likes, but I fear that a single programme like this one will carry far greater weight. The fact is that being a woman in India – and I don't necessarily mean one who is young and attractive – is to suffer a handicap.

That fact was underscored recently in two states separated by the breadth of a subcontinent, Manipur and Maharashtra. In the former, members of the Assam Rifles arrested a suspected rebel, Thangjam Manorama, from her house near Imphal; they allegedly raped her before proceeding to torture her to death. In Nagpur, where the Maharashtra assembly meets for its winter sessions, several women lynched Akku Yadav, a local thug accused of molesting and raping many women in his neighbourhood.

Nor, I am sorry to say, are these isolated incidents. On August 18, 2004, a 30 year-old woman was allegedly raped by a Railway Protection Force constable at the Hasanabad station in West Bengal while one of his colleagues held the victim's husband and child at gunpoint elsewhere. In Behrampur, a pregnant Dalit woman was reputedly beaten up by the West Bengal police.

Instances of such casual violence can be multiplied in every city in every state. We get to hear only of a few because the victims are usually too scared, or too ashamed, to come out. While journalists sprinkle their reports with 'supposedly' and 'allegedly', most of us soon realise that the victims are generally telling the truth.

Whatever the truth of the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama – and the promised DNA test may help – the fact remains that the security forces operating in the Northeast have won themselves a bad reputation. This is particularly so of the Assam Rifles (which, by the way, is not really a regiment of the Indian Army). Manorama's death was simply the last straw, igniting a popular revolt which may have started out with the women of Imphal, but soon spread to the men as well.

Manipur – the Northeast in general, if we are to be honest – is never really top of the mind in the rest of India. But Nagpur is about as close to the very centre of the country as any city can be. What made women there so desperate that they were driven to take the law into their own hands? The answer is obvious: the fact is that they knew that they could not trust the creaky machinery of the law to act quickly – and perhaps even justly. How else can you explain the fact that the deranged Akku Yadav was permitted to wander the streets with utter impunity for so long, terrorising women young and old?

I know all the arguments against 'mob law', but I really can't help applauding the women who pounded the wretched Akku Yadav to death. Had the courts and the police been a trifle more understanding, Yadav might still have been alive – behind bars. And until such idiots learn that there is a consequence for their actions, women – foreigners and Indians alike – shall continue to feel unsafe in India.

The Railway Protection Force constable in Hasanabad was caught when an angry mob surrounded the station. According to reports, many people were shouting, "Hang him like Dhananjoy Chatterjee!" I have heard all the arguments against the death penalty, but if that execution emboldened ordinary citizens to stand up for a raped woman, then I think that is all the proof I need to convince me that the death penalty should never be abolished.

T V R Shenoy