January 26, 2017, marked the 68th Republic Day of India. As the country celebrates the day the constitution of India came into effect, it is important to look at how the laws that govern the land impact a significant section of its population: its women.
On the very first day of the new year, Indian newspapers carried details of a mass sexual assault incident that took place in Bangalore. Prominent areas in Bangalore, like MG Road and Brigade Road, which were the site of revelry on New Year’s Eve, saw men, intent on mobbing party-goers, outnumber the policemen that had been deputed for safety.
Eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence, including the women who came forward to tell their stories over the subsequent days, slowly helped build the narrative regarding what happened night. Despite the 1,500 cops deputed by the city, a significant proportion of the women celebrating in these areas were harassed. The fear over this utter lack of safety was palpable, and in the days immediately after the incident, no complaints had still been registered, causing some to question whether the mass sexual assault had been real or fabricated.
To add to this, CCTV footage from the area of Kamanahalli in Bangalore showed evidence of a woman being molested on the streets before the attackers got away. When this came to light, equal parts horror and vehement denial and erupted in the city. Some argued that this was an isolated incident while others said that it was among a few isolated instances with actual proof that this was indeed the reality for women in Bangalore
Making matters worse, Bangalore was not the only place where such an incident had occurred. That same night, a similar incident reportedly occurred in New Delhi. There are no ways of knowing if any other places saw similar or worse horrors that went unreported and even now there is no credible report of the Bangalore incident with estimates and numbers that the police can take action against. However, the incident and the attention it drew on both traditional and social media through the rest of the month points to some systemic problems that the sketchiness of the available narrative failed to successfully address.
To begin with, two hashtags emerged in the days following New Year’s Eve. #YesAllWomen collected stories from beyond Bangalore and from beyond that night – stories of harassment and sexual assault that women shared, showing solidarity to the victims in Bangalore, ultimately intending to spark a larger national conversation on pervasive harassment. #NotAllMen, meanwhile, collected angry and reactionary opinions from men who were annoyed at the reputation slapped upon the city and its men as patriarchal, fearsome, and unsafe.
While the former did its best to push forward a conversation that begins in India every time an instance of harassment is given focus in the media, the latter hashtag undercut its power in so many ways by making the conversation about the city, arguing that the unknown aspects of the incident called Bangalore’s reputation to question. Within two weeks, in the mainstream media, the remnants of the conversation moved from the question of women’s safety to a debate over what exactly had happened in Bangalore.
The reactions to the New Year’s Eve incident bring to light some important themes in India today, even when we set aside the probe into what happened that night. The first is how safety is framed in the context of these incidents. The all-too-common tactic of victim-blaming and the sleights-of-hand that allow politicians to once more dismiss these sorts of incident as an unfortunate consequence of any crowd both reared their heads. The victim-blaming naturally extended to question the decisions the women made, to step out on that particular day to participate in normal social activities in the clothes that they happened to wear. Safety here was no longer the onus of the 1,500 policemen who failed to tackle the abusive mob, but fell on the individual women who failed to anticipate it.
The second is the knee-jerk reaction on social media that quickly prioritized the intangible reputation of Bangalore over the emerging stories of the women who had faced harassment. The focus here seemed to veer toward dismissing the incident rather than encouraging a probe into it – toward quickly reminding those following the story that such incidents were rare in Bangalore and that men in the city had several redeeming qualities. This was aided by the lack of credible footage and a broader inclination to disregard eyewitness or first person accounts as credible.
Finally, even among those that decried the incident and condemned the lack of action – views collected under the #BangaloreShame hashtag – there was a strong undercurrent sentiment that the women in Bangalore deserved protection, that they were vulnerable to the unruly forces of the mob, and that decent men ought to have come to their rescue. While this does place the onus of action on mute spectators and is in some sense a call to recognize the importance of women’s safety, it was articulated through highlighting a need for male protection as opposed to actually empowering the women in a manner that would prevent such incidents.
Bangalore continues to be important one month later, not because it is especially patriarchal or because the New Year’s Eve incident was unheard of in other Indian cities. It continues to be important because it is a symbol of the larger trends that have increasingly begun to follow every incident of harassment or assault that is brought to light, starting with the gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012 that gripped the entire nation and drew international attention. The same pattern of denial, followed by misplaced anger and the need to apportion blame, finally leading to the eventual dismissal of the core factors that allow these incidents to occur, remains far too recurrent for comfort.
As India celebrates its 68th Republic Day, it has become startlingly clear that a push for better laws is barely adequate. While this push by itself requires immense political capital to transform into better legislation – that prioritizes women’s safety and metes out justice in the face of its denial – it is important to revisit the implementation of existing laws in parallel, to remind both the citizenry and the government along every step of the way that the safety promised by law must be granted.
As January winds to a close, the aftermath of Bangalore and the lessons it teaches us must not be forgotten.