In Pursuit Of Justice

The recent attack on a young woman in Guwahati is not an isolated incident, but part of a growing trend of moral policing of women

Guest Blogger Farhana Tahshin works as Assistant Editor in a newspaper in Assam. She has been contributing articles to magazines and other  newspapers.

During the episode on dowry on Satyameva Jayate, Aamir Khan had applauded at the fact that women in the northeastern region of the country were given a lot of respect and that the practice of dowry was pretty non-existent here. Perhaps he spoke a little too soon because what happened on the night of July 9 in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, left the entire nation stunned.

A young girl, who had perhaps had a drink too many in a bar located at GS Road, a busy and upmarket area in the city, was molested by a mob. The molesters abused her, tried stripping her and molested her. This shameful incident was captured on the voyeuristic camera of a local news channel. In a desperate bid to win the TRP game, this channel aired the footage on TV, initially without blurring the face of the victim. The video went viral after it was uploaded on Youtube and soon reactions started pouring in from all quarters. It did not take long for the whole country to explode in anger.

Rape, assault on women and molestation are nothing new in this part of the country, which for decades had battled with insurgency. In fact, while the nation was boiling over the molestation incident in GS Road, reports came in of an Army jawan allegedly trying to rape a college girl in Sivasagar district of Assam on July 14. What becomes a cause of concern in the GS Road molestation case is the fact that this crime was done in the name of moral policing.

Guwahati may fast be growing into a metro. But the mindset of a section of people has not changed.

This is not the first case of assault on women in the name of moral policing. Some weeks ago Congress MLA Rumi Nath and her second husband were brutally assaulted by a mob. Her fault? She had separated from her first husband and converted to Islam to marry her second husband. We will not go into whether she was wrong or right in doing so. The bottom line is that nobody had the right to beat her mercilessly, especially when she was heavily pregnant with her second husband’s child. The footage of Rumi Nath being beaten and dragged out to the street was aired on news channels. There were protests against the incident. Assam’s civil society demanded punishment for the guilty. But till date this has not happened. The MLA’s assaulters are still on the loose. The Congress government in Assam failed to protect and give justice to its own MLA.

It is largely because of the inefficiency of our police and the loopholes in our legal system, which allows offenders to wriggle out, that people are slowly losing their fear for the police and the law of the land. How else can we explain the fact that the molesters in the July 9 incident were grinning while the reporter of the news channel was filming them while they groped her, mauled her and tore off her clothes. Each one wanted a pound of her flesh.

A voice in the video said, “You come to the bar everyday and now you don’t want to show your face to the camera.” So is it people like these who define the personal freedom of the women of our society? Do they decide what women should wear, where they should go and what they should eat and drink? Will molestation and rape stop once women confine themselves to their houses, not daring to move out on the streets, and remain fully-clad? A placard during a protest by a women’s organization against this molestation puts it aptly, ‘We should be respected, no matter what we wear, eat or drink.’

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Questions have been raised on the role of the media in the whole incident. The cameraperson of the local news channel went on filming the incident, without making any attempt to save the girl. The channel authorities have claimed that the cameraperson tried to save the girl but when he realized he couldn’t fight the mob, he decided to shoot the molestation so that the culprits could be identified later.

This reminds us of photojournalist Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer for his photograph of Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture in 1993. Carter was criticized for not helping the child and using her to take the photograph. His critics said that he was another predator, besides the vulture in the photograph. Carter committed suicide a year later.

The cameraperson had a social responsibility and it was his duty to save the girl. But he went on filming, perhaps thinking that this could be his shot at fame.

Even as the debate on the reporter’s social responsibility was going on, RTI activist Akhil Gogoi alleged that it was in fact another reporter of this local news channel who had instigated the mob to assault and molest the girl. The activist even produced footage to substantiate his claim where the reporter in question is seen barking orders at the mob to hold the girl while the camera rolled. The activist has submitted the raw footage to the police authorities. Police are looking into the allegations. If proved true, it will be one of the darkest chapters in the history of Indian journalism – a journalist orchestrating the molestation of a girl just for the sake of TRPs.

The police and administration has, in the meanwhile, done what was expected of them. On the night of the incident, the police reached late, when the girl had already been stripped of her modesty. Heads started rolling only after the national media focused on the incident. The DGP tried to make light of the incident initially and justified his force’s delayed action by saying that police were not like an “ATM machine” which can be present at the crime scene the moment one inserts a card in the machine. This comment immediately earned him the debuke of the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram.

The district administration, instead of concentrating on providing protection to the people, issued orders that bars should be closed down after 10 pm, bar owners should verify the age of their customers before allowing them entry, CCTV cameras should be installed and no music of any kind can be played in pubs and bars. The administration and government adopted a myopic view of the whole incident, as always. They refused to look at the real problem and chose to take up such token measures. This is what encourages people like Amar Jyoti Kalita, the main accused in the molestation case, to strip a girl in a busy road in full view of TV cameras under the pretext of protecting our cultural and moral values. Amar Jyoti Kalita has still not been caught. Whispers that he is being protected by a powerful lobby is doing the rounds.

The police will have to do a conscience check and the government will have to make the brave attempt of addressing the real issues. Unless this happens, the moral police will continue to be on the prowl, in search of the next victim to pounce on.



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