For decades, the vicinity around Bangalore’s arterial MG Road was its entertainment lifeline as well. Then, in the 1980s, on these same thoroughfares was born the city’s modern reputation as a pub town. It’s these very streets where the season’s revelry the other week hit a crescendo and then dived into a low note, leaving some stark realities, plenty of debate and much common sense which have all now distilled down to the question: “Why is a woman to blame always?”
We probably need to rewind this narrative a bit, back into the early 1970s, perhaps, to a time when there were fewer restaurants and bars on this high street. Old-timers recall that Kwality restaurant on Brigade Road would have a New Year’s Eve ball and so would 3 Aces, a short walk round the corner on MG Road (both the establishments are now just memories). Round about midnight, people would stop by to have a look-see, taking in the season’s cheer. “I don’t remember it as a very big crowd,” recounts Mohammed Hassan from behind counter of his steakhouse The Only Place, one of the few iconic restaurants that’s still open today. “It never was a craze like this.”
As musician Konarak Reddy puts it, lots of people on the street knew each other and they’d wish each other. It was largely polite and innocent, as some recall, and things, well, could also get a bit spirited as some others would reminisce. You would see a beer-bottle crashing down, or a minor dust-up in what was predominantly a male crowd on the streets, but none of it caught too much attention those days. In the years since Y2K turned Bangalore around, however, you’d get to see bigger, raucous crowds that many would generally avoid. And, of course, a bit of caning by the police, closer to pack-up time just after midnight.
What then led to those unruly scenes in Bangalore on New Year’s eve when these narrow streets were packed with revellers and accounts emerged of women being molested, harassed and reduced to tears? Was it a policing problem? “Well, yes and no,” says Kalpana Kannabiran, director of Hyderabad think-tank Council for Social Development. “I’m actually very shocked because it also is an indication of how low we’ve fallen, isn’t it, in terms of dignity. Of course, it is a policing issue. For me, it’s also a much deeper, ethical issue. Is it safer for women on the streets if we remove men from the streets is not the point.”
A week later, the police in Bangalore have registered several FIRs based on newspaper write-ups and social-media posts of women being molested, but say they have not found evidence on CCTV cameras that could be of help in investigations. (A horrific molestation incident caught on camera in another locality was probed and a group of local boys arrested.) Neither are people approaching them with information. “Women don’t complain because the first thing is they are not believed,” says Dona Fernandes of Vimochana, one of the women’s organisations that have been holding demonstrations and candlelight vigils in the past week. “Disbelief is the first thing that puts off women from complaining. Even now, they are being told molestation didn’t happen. If it didn’t, why were so many women on TV channels speaking live and telling us what happened?”
A January 12 David Guetta concert was called off at the eleventh hour; the Grammy-winning French DJ-songwriter was to begin his four-city India tour from Bangalore. The effects of New Year revelry this time seem to be cascading.
There’s an unmistakable sense of frustration over repeated incidents of women being harassed on streets from across the country, and why nothing ever changes. “As a woman I can tell you, I’m willing to understand there are limitations to what reparations can actually be offered, but you aren’t even moving a small step,” says Kannabiran. “I hate it when people say why are women out because I want them to be out and I want them to be safe, right?”
Then there’s the often-heard argument about a rapidly growing, multicultural urban sprawl coping with change—too fast, too soon. Just as you’d hear well-meaning advice about venturing into a crowd, whether it’s street gathering or a festival procession. “Bangalore has had a problem of very rapid growth, but that is no excuse for hooliganism and ill-treating of women,” says retired bureaucrat Chiranjiv Singh. He was posted in Paris in 1998, and remembers walking through the street celebrations on the night France won the football World Cup. “We walked from one end of Champs Elysees to the other, just taking in the festive atmosphere. Believe me, not once was my personal space violated in that crowd. No one bumped into anyone else. So why is it that when a crowd gathers here, we are unable to behave in a civilised manner?”
Part of the answer, as former police officer and writer Vibuti Narain Rai puts it, is that many ‘Indias’ exist together at the same time. “A large section has moved forward and a very large section has been left behind. So, that conflict is always going on,” he says. Women have every right to wear what they want and move freely and the police naturally will have to take the blame for these situations because ultimately it is their job, he says. “You can think of Germany where a similar thing happened and it was obvious—a clash of two value systems.”
R.K. Raghavan, former CBI director, in a recent comment piece, cited the arguments of Prof David Bayley’s paper ‘Complexities of 21st Century Policing’ as being relevant for police in India. “For a variety of reasons, respect for law and the need for civilised behaviour in public have declined in most parts of the world, including the West,” he told Outlook. “This is why police professionalism has had to redesign itself on the basis of a need for rigour and a sterner response to deviance. In current times, the police have to be necessarily harsh.”
But, he also points out, the community expects too much from an under-equipped and under-resourced police. “When they fail—which is often—the police look for excuses and various alibis. This explains their criticism of women for their alleged lack of care in dress and circumspection,” says Raghavan. “And to take the stance that police alone are responsible for protecting women is preposterous. The police have huge limitations in terms of manpower and equipment and this is why self-policing is of paramount importance.”
However, the conversation we need to have, as Kannabiran reckons, is how non-negotiable it is for men to step back and to claim responsibility. “Willy nilly, what happened with the gender sensitisation programmes is that you had extremely well-intentioned people, but nothing on non-negotiability,” she says. “How does this incident in Bangalore diminish the collective dignity of urban men living in Bangalore across ages? Are you even seeing it as a collective issue for which you are responsible, if you don’t speak up?”