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'Somebody HAS TO fight back, everybody can't be afraid'

November 08, 2011 17:13 IST

Strong steps, not placatory words, are what family members and friends of Keenan and Reuben, killed by eve-teasers in Mumbai, are seeking through their tireless campaign. Sanchari Bhattacharya and Sanjay Sawant meet the grieving group that has embarked on a mission to prevent the recurrence of such a horrific tragedy.

"If it had been your wife, you would have done the same."

Shane Santos is speaking about the last act of his brother Keenan who, along with his friend Reuben Fernandez, was killed while fighting a bunch of men who had teased the former's girlfriend Priyanka Fernandez.

"The kind of things they said, I can't repeat them to you; they were that obscene. The way they (Reuben and Keenan) reacted, anybody would have, if it had been their friend or girlfriend or wife," he said.

The tragic deaths of Keenan and Reuben -- two fun-loving, friendly boys from suburban Andheri in Mumbai -- have deeply affected the city's conscience. Several social networking pages have hailed their bravery, a massive campaign against suffering sexual harassment silently has been launched and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has declared that the state will seek the death penalty for the killers.

"So much has been happening since that day, I don't think we have even had the time to grieve properly. Maybe when all of this is over..." trails off Shane.

October 20, he recalls with remarkable calm, was just like any other day, till his father rushed in to tell his family that his eldest son had been stabbed.

Keenan and Reuben had been beaten brutally and stabbed by a group of over 20 men in front of the Amboli Bar and Kitchen restaurant. The duo, along with their friend Abhinash Solanki and Reuben's brother Benjamin, had gotten into a heated argument with some of the men minutes earlier for passing lewd comments about their female friends.

Both Keenan and Reuben, Shane reminisces, would often interfere in street fights and try to help the victim.

"They couldn't tolerate it if some 2-3 men were beating up a lone victim. They would try to break up the fight and tell those involved, 'don't gang up against one man, let it be a fair fight'," says Shane.

But there were no like-minded brave men in the crowd that watched, stony-faced, as Keenan and Reuben were fatally attacked by dozens of armed men.

Shane, Abhinash and Benjamin talk about the overwhelming support they have received from the media, from online forums and from the public. But they can't forgive or forget the men and women who had stood there, watching mutely as the four unarmed men took on the violent miscreants, who were carrying knives and sticks. Not a single person had stepped forward to help, to stop the murder of two innocent youths.

Before the fight broke out, the men had managed to push their three female friends back inside the restaurant.

"We could see the entire incident from inside. We kept on screaming, but nobody came forward to help. Even the buses and vehicles on the roads had halted to watch what was happening. But nobody offered their help, not a single person picked up their phone to call the police, nobody even hailed an auto to ferry them to the hospital," said Priyanka, Keenan's girlfriend.

"Sab wahan pe tamasha dekh rahe the (everyone was just watching the drama). There were at least 50 people watching us," says Abhinash.

When we visited the Amboli Bar and Kitchen restaurant, it seemed to be business as usual there. But the waiters, who were walking about briskly taking orders, wore a black ribbon around their arm -- an acknowledgement of the gruesome incident that they had witnessed a fortnight ago.

"We did try to help. One of our staffers helped take Keenan to the hospital. But we are ordinary workers here, how could we get involved in such a fight? Nobody wants to be part of that kind of jhamela (hassle)," said one of them.

Naved Bhaiji, manager of the restaurant, admits that the negative publicity has hit the inflow of customers. But he is quick to add, "Business is a secondary issue here. We also want justice for those boys."

On that terrible night, a grievously injured Keenan was already unconscious when he was brought to the hospital. He succumbed to his injuries one and a half hours later.

Reuben, a former body-builder, fought death for 11 days. His family members had hoped against hope that he would make it, but he didn't.

During the period Reuben was still fighting for his life, say his friends and family members, some policemen had "barged in" to question him at 1 am.

"How can you disturb a patient who is so seriously injured, that too so late in the night? Reuben was in the Intensive Critical Care Unit; even our parents were not allowed to see him. But the policemen just went in and started asking questions," said Benjamin.

Reuben, till his last moment, was not informed about his buddy Keenan's death. But, fears Benjamin, some of the questions by the police might have confirmed his worst suspicions.

"He kept on asking about Keenan and we had to pretend that he was fine and everything was fine to reassure him. But after the police interview, Reuben knew something was wrong. He was a very sharp fellow," says Benjamin.

But when queried if the untimely questioning by policemen had contributed to the deterioration of Reuben's already serious condition, senior police inspector of DN Nagar police station, which is investigating the case, Vijaykumar Bhoite said, "We never questioned him. We only talked to his doctor at the hospital."
 
Reacting swiftly to the public outrage generated by the incident, the policemen had sprung into action. They had conducted a combing operation at Valmiki Nagar -- a nearby slum where the miscreants lived -- and rounded up most of the young men there.

The residents of Valmiki Nagar are tight-lipped about the incident and openly hostile. According to them, quite a few innocent men have also been arrested in connection with the Amboli eve-teasing case.

"You can believe what you want to and write what you want to. We know we will not get any justice," said an elderly woman.

Locals claim that the youth from the Valmiki Nagar locality -- most of who work as sweepers -- are often involved in cases of eve-teasing and brawls.

During the fight, Abhinash had hit one of the goons on his head with a glass, leaving a deep injury. The unmistakable injury mark helped the police identify the man and his fellow culprits.

Four men have been arrested for the incident and will face charges of murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. The police have also rounded up 17 other men, who were suspected to be on the spot, egging on their friends as they stabbed the helpless youths.

"We will file the charge-sheet as soon as we can. We have a water-tight case," says Bhoite.

Speaking on the immense publicity the case has attracted, he says dismissively, 'This is a 20-day-old case. We have done our job and arrested the people who were responsible. The media needs something to happen, so it is playing up this case now."

But for the family members and friends of Keenan and Reuben, matters are not quite that simple. They don't want the deaths of the two bright-eyed boys to be in vain, and they are fighting to keep the issue alive.

"The media is supporting us now, a lot, but this issue can be dead in three days. We can't let that happen, we have to help justify their (Keenan and Reuben) lives," says Shane.

The accused are already behind bars, we ask them, so what are they fighting for now?

"If we just let this incident go, if we keep quiet about it, what will be the difference between others and us," asks Abhinash.

They point out that this is not the first time that a case of eve-teasing has blown up into an uncontrollably violent episode when someone has dared to protest against it. But if such incidents keep on recurring, and not much is done about them, that would mean Keenan and Reuben laid down their lives for nothing, they say.

They want the perpetrators behind the heinous incident punished, and soon. They don't want justice to get lost in the labyrinth of court rooms and endless legalities. They want stricter laws against eve-teasers, who right now manage to get bail after spending only a night in jail. And they want to send a message to those who were too cowardly to help them that night: stop being afraid.

"Keenan and Reuben could have locked themselves inside the restaurants and waited for the men to leave. But they didn't do that, they stood there and fought even though they were unarmed and outnumbered," says Shane.

But for the family members and friends of Keenan and Reuben, matters are not quite that simple. They don't want the deaths of the two bright-eyed boys to be in vain, and they are fighting to keep the issue alive.

"The media is supporting us now, a lot, but this issue can be dead in three days. We can't let that happen, we have to help justify their (Keenan and Reuben) lives," says Shane.

The accused are already behind bars, we ask them, so what are they fighting for now?

"If we just let this incident go, if we keep quiet about it, what will be the difference between others and us," asks Abhinash.

They point out that this is not the first time that a case of eve-teasing has blown up into an uncontrollably violent episode when someone has dared to protest against it. But if such incidents keep on recurring, and not much is done about them, that would mean Keenan and Reuben laid down their lives for nothing, they say.

They want the perpetrators behind the heinous incident punished, and soon. They don't want justice to get lost in the labyrinth of court rooms and endless legalities. They want stricter laws against eve-teasers, who right now manage to get bail after spending only a night in jail. And they want to send a message to those who were too cowardly to help them that night: stop being afraid.

"Keenan and Reuben could have locked themselves inside the restaurants and waited for the men to leave. But they didn't do that, they stood there and fought even though they were unarmed and outnumbered," says Shane.

Sanchari Bhattcharya