Three particularly shocking incidents last month brought the ominous foreboding that 1996 would only reconfirm Delhi's status as the city women fear most to tread. On January 23, Priyadarshini Mattoo, 24, was murdered inside her flat in south-west Delhi's sprawling Vasant Kunj. A university student, she had a personal security officer provided by the police because the family had complained that a man was following her each time she stepped out of her house. What is even more shocking is that the gruesome crime was committed by the son of an additional commissioner of police. "What's this place coming to? Will every young woman in this city need a policeman to shadow her around all the time? And even then, they get killed," said an agitated neighbour giving vent to the mounting outrage against the uncontrollable spurt in crimes against women.
A few weeks ago, on January 6, two women executives in their 20s were dragged out of an autorickshaw and repeatedly slapped in full view of a horrified crowd in Connaught Place, the heart of the city. The women had just emerged from a fast-food restaurant at around 10 pm and engaged the autorickshaw when a man on a scooter drew level, forced them to stop and commenced his indiscriminate assault.
The assailant turned out to be a policeman in mufti. His defence: he thought the well-attired executives were "women of easy virtue" and he was merely acting as the capital's moral guardian.
Ironically, just two days later, a head constable's wife, the 40-year-old mother of two children, was returning home with a bag of groceries in the city's posh South Extension area, when she was pulled inside a Maruti van by five drunken 20-year-olds, taken to a farmhouse and gangraped for six hours after which she was dumped back home. And it was only 7.30 in the evening when she had been abducted from a market teeming with shoppers. The youths confessed later they were only "out for a good time" and picked up the constable's wife "at random".
"Very soon the Delhi woman will have to crawl back home before sundown," says a disgusted Monica Chhabra, a post-graduate student of Delhi University. Not that Delhi isn't already making its demands upon women who dare to walk its streets. "Wearing western outfits when planning to commute by bus is out. Going home alone by auto after dark is unthinkable. So is going to late-night shows with a bunch of girlfriends. Learning to take lewd comments in one's stride is part of the Delhi survival kit," she points out.
Such self-imposed constraint, however, has had little effect on the mindset of the Delhi male. Police statistics reveal that last year molestation registered a staggering 78 per cent rise, eve-teasing increased by 67.69 per cent, kidnapping and abduction by 27 per cent and rape by 16.29 per cent.
A victim of this statistic, bank employee Suniti Biswas complains that even places perceived as 'safe' for women some years ago cannot now be visited without male escorts. Recalling the harassment faced when she and a group of girlfriends went for a picnic at the Delhi Zoo a month ago, Suniti says: "There were these goons who kept stalking us. Avoiding them didn't help either—the cheap film songs they were humming kept getting louder. Till we just had to leave because they actually walked up to us and insisted that we pose for photographs with them."
What is it that makes Delhi so disrespectful towards women when other metros (some with a higher proportion of working women) are significantly different in their attitudes? Says T.N. Mohan, head of Delhi Police's Crime Against Women Cell: "Delhi is peculiar mainly because of its hinterland. We have people coming to work from the outskirts where the norm is for women to be in ghunghat. They are excited by the sight of city women."
The police officer, however, points out that the majority of the perpetrators are from affluent backgrounds. "A car is almost always involved, although the age of the eve-teaser ranges from 16 to 60," he says.
This penchant for molestation probably has its roots in the fact that Delhi is close to the heartland of the macho ethos of north India. "The frontier culture of aggression lies below the surface of the city's apparent sophistication," argues Mrinal Pande, women's activist and joint editor of the Dainik Hindustan. "In this region, women have traditionally been treated as commodities rather than human beings with equal rights. The culture of purdah is also most prevalent here. This attitude changes as one travels east," she says.
Echoing her sentiments, Vinay Bhardwaj of the Mahila Dak-shata Samiti, a women's organi-sation, explains: "Whereas respect for women is ingrained in the culture of places like Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore and Madras, it is absent in the capital." Rapid commercialisation of values stemming from the sudden spurt of trade and industry in Delhi and its neigh-bourhood over the last three decades, appears to be the reason behind the yearly spiralling of such crimes. The collapse of the mohalla tradition means that molesters enjoy anonymity and do not fear social disapproval from elders and neighbours.
According to Kamala Man-kekar, chairperson of the recently formed Delhi State Commission for Women: "The most important factor contributing to crimes against women in the city is its culture of violence. The influx of a large number of people after the Partition led to Delhi's uncontrolled growth. Because the city expanded so rapidly, traditional values broke down and aggression characterised the behaviour of newcomers fighting for a place under the sun. This is reflected in their attitude towards women."
Poornima Sethi, MLA of Delhi's ruling BJP, says that besides such ingrained attitudinal problems, the cumbersome procedures involved in lodging complaints often deter women from taking the bull by the horns. She adds: "The police here are lax and the miscreants are let off the hook quite easily."
Lashing out at the police and their political masters, Madhu Kishwar, editor of the feminist magazine Manushi, says: "Delhi being the capital of our very corrupt licence-permit raj, it has attracted a large number of crooks from all over the country. To protect these VIP thugs and their hangers-on, we have a high concentration of police in Delhi. The crime rate anywhere always goes up in direct proportion to the number of policemen stationed in that area. Crime thrives around police stations and government offices, of which Delhi has a disproportionately large share."
Emphasising that the "rootlessness" of Delhi's population contributes majorly to such crime, social scientist Ashis Nandy says: "Delhi is a nobody's city. It has a huge mobile population which doesn't have a sense of belonging unlike Bombay, Bangalore and Calcutta which have sizeable stable populations. The growing incursion of the young nouveau riche from the rural areas around Delhi who are first generation urbanites has added to the problem."
Most women's organisations feel that exemplary punishment of eve-teasers, most of whom are not hardened criminals, would have a salutary effect. "Gender-sensi-tisation of the lower level policeman, too, would help arrest the trend. At present, most policemen look away when such incidents take place. They tend to dismiss these things as trifling matters," says Bharadwaj.
Kiran Bedi, the Delhi-born police officer who has had a wide experience of dealing with such crimes, both in the Capital and other parts of India, agrees that north India's 'distorted macho culture' pervades the city's police force, especially the lower ranks. However, she believes that a three-pronged approach may curtail this trend.
"The authorities should involve the communities in the task of policing by interacting with the local people. Undertaking a strategic policy by deploying more officers in crime-prone areas could also have a considerable impact. But, in the long run, the answer probably lies in encouraging women to come forward to increasingly share the responsibility of civic management. Preventive policing is possible and must be done," says the celebrated policewoman.
T.N. Mohan observes that the spurt in crime figures reflects the growing confidence of women in the capital's police force and argues that more women are coming forward to register such cases nowadays. "We should bear in mind that most of these crimes are not preventable. You can't police every square inch of the city. The answer lies in greater awareness, and a change in social ethics," the police officer asserts.
Such changes will take a long time coming. Till then, the capital's women seem destined to live with mounting insecurity.