It Could Happen to You

When today's bravehearts turn into tomorrow's dark knights

No one knows if the girls are right to get violent or if the lynch mob is taking advantage of a sensitive issue to bully someone.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  3-minute read |   26-08-2015
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Ten thousand-plus victims of street harassment in India every year. And countless others who suffer in their bid to save them. They pop out at us from some corner of newspapers only when something terrible happens to them. And then disappear into the fog of collective amnesia.

Say, girls like Priyanka or Veena, both 16, taking their own lives out of helpless rage: Priyanka couldn't bear being harassed every day on her way to tuition in Kanpur and set herself on fire in January 2010; Veena, a Mumbai girl, tried to consume poison In June 2011, after some boys forced a mangal sutra down her neck.

Then there are those who lose a limb or life trying to save girls like them: a 24-year-old auto rickshaw driver, whose right hand was sliced off in Alappuzha, Kerala, in August 2010; a software engineer who was beaten up badly in Mumbai in October 2011; a 50-year-old who died of a heart attack in Bangalore after he was pushed and shoved in May 2012; a young Kolkata man, who was shot in February 2013.

Nobody noticed when the change started. The quiet revolution - initially of safety pins and pocket knives, as girls started stuffing their bags and pockets with home-spun sharp objects - not good enough to withstand serious assaults but quite useful against individual perverts.

Also read: Social media naming and shaming: Is it really justice?

It was in 2011 that five students of Wilson College in Mumbai started "Chappal Maroongi" (Slap you with slippers). With a symbolic 5-ft tall prototype slippers, cut-outs and boxes stuffed with shoes, it was clearly a call-to-arms against street harassers. It was also the moment to claim a woman's right to dignity and safety.

Today, new headlines are up. "Chappal Maroongi" is more than a coinage. Thanks to smartphones, television and social media, every other day there are images of aggressive girls beating someone up: from the Rohtak sisters of 2014 to the Pilibhit school girl (who thrashed a boy inside a police station) to Jasleen Kaur of Delhi (who named and shamed her harasser).

Something else is also happening: In the name of tackling "eve-teasers", young men are being beaten up, tonsured, made to ride donkeys by lynch mobs across the country: Agra to Bhilwara, Meerut to Hyderabad.

Unfortunately, while viewers relish the sight of harassers being punished, almost every case is plagued by controversy. Investigations remain shoddy and inconclusive. No one knows if the girls are right to get violent or if the lynch mob is taking advantage of a sensitive issue to bully someone. Who knows? Everything is possible in a country where Dalit grooms have to wear helmets against upper caste threats to ride a horse for their wedding processions.

It's as if, "eve-teasing" has become the universal evil - the justification for taking the law in our own hands and for every excess we commit. All our collective anger against all those lives destroyed - Nirbhaya, the Shakti Mills case, Gudiya and many more - is finding an outlet. After all, today's "eve-teaser" can become tomorrow's rapist. And, at the end of the day, it's easy to catch "eve-teasers".

But sensible solutions are also coming up: Hyderabad Police, for instance, has started SHE teams under the Nirbhaya Act in October 2014. They crack down on eve-teasers, arrest and counsel them along with their parents, making them take pledges. In the questionnaire they are made to fill up, it was found that 80 per cent harassers believe they are innocent. Although 50 per cent say they would be angry if their mothers or sisters were harassed, the standard response is their victims were "at fault" for dressing in a particular way and moving about freely.

May there be many more such experiments. An eye-for-an-eye is at best a slippery slope, dotted with doubt. Nothing can be sadder than bravehearts of today turning out to be dark knights of tomorrow.

Also read: Time to shame and name men


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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