A few months ago in Silchar, Assam, a young woman from a local women’s college was abducted by a group of men from right in front of the college gates. This incident occurred on one of the centrally located streets of the town, in full view of the people on the street and in the busy shops lining both sides of that street, at 12 noon on a weekday.
The abductors were led by the son of a much respected party worker of a prominent political party, someone with a lot of clout. The woman, an honours student, was hurled into a waiting car and whisked off to a suburban area a few kilometres away from the main town. There, she was raped repeatedly by the leader of the group, and then by his cronies. Near evening, the men brought her back to town and ‘dumped’ her, again in full view of the people on the same busy street.
The next day’s newspapers carried the story on the front pages, and stories of the arrests made the headlines for a week or two after. There were candlelight marches, and ‘dharna’ meetings by well-meaning (I am sure) women’s organisations and NGOs. A month later, the papers were no longer talking about the woman, or of the men who had ravaged her life. But I suppose this is just another small town story. “Yeh sab toh hota hi rehta hain,” as some would say.
My mother and other family elders are convinced that small towns are safer than big cities, and therefore it is best to make do with a permanent setup in Silchar. I agree to this point, however grudgingly. A small mofussil town like Silchar does have its safe side. Everybody knows everybody else here. There is little fear of being left stranded to face the music when one is in trouble. The spaces in such small places are more compact, and distances lesser than in big cities, which makes it easier for help to reach the distressed in time. There’s a more ‘safe-making’ social camaraderie in small town Indian societies one can really bank upon in times of need. A theft or a burglary in one house in the neighbourhood will still bring the neighbours to the rescue, as a fire or an accident will bystanders, which, I am told, is not the case in the cities (though I really wonder why nobody seemed to be able to rush to the young woman’s help in the incident I have mentioned above).
Are small towns actually that much safer, that much ‘anti-violence’ than big cities, in that people can live their lives without fear of being plundered, ravaged, hurt, beaten up, raped or killed? The answer is neither a resounding ‘no’ nor a unanimous ‘yes’.
A divorced woman used to live in our neighbourhood with her college-going son in a small one-bedroom flat in one of the new apartments that have come up here recently. She visited my mother early one morning a few months ago. Throughout the time she spent with my mother, I could hear the sounds of muted weeping coming from the room. Later, after the woman had left, my mother told me her story, which was not quite what I had expected to hear.
Apparently, the woman was being harassed by a local businessman, who is also a general secretary for the district committee of an important political party. He had borrowed money from her, almost all of her savings, and had decided not to refund it.
When the women had gone to the businessman’s office to ask for her money, he had shouted at her in front of his customers, and then dragged her out onto the street and had spat into her face, calling her a whore and other such names. Though she had lodged a complaint against the businessman at the sadar police station in Silchar, no one followed up on it. The police had told her it would be difficult to get any action taken up against that businessman as he was politically well connected.
A few months after this incident, I heard some people at our neighbourhood adda discussing her. When I asked them what they were talking about, they told me this woman ran a prostitution business from her house in the neighbourhood, and had been ‘handled properly’ by the aforementioned businessman. “She deserved it. I hope she stops doing those things now. This is a respectable neighbourhood, after all,” commented one person.
I was amazed at the direction things had taken. As far as I knew, the woman was a hard-working teacher who travelled early every morning to teach at a lower primary school in a distant village. She returned home late at nights, making me wonder when she found the time to conduct such a ‘business’.
The businessman did not have to pay back the ‘loan’, I am told, and the woman and her son moved away from the neighbourhood a few weeks ago. The matter was hushed up and since everyone knows of the businessman-politician’s remarkable political commitment, he emerged the righteous hero while the woman was relegated the status of a bad memory, something best forgotten.
I think the streak of almost misogynistic violence that runs through every strata of Indian society is growing broader by the day, especially in certain social and cultural spaces where a veneer of respectability is indispensable. Women must be ‘respected’ like a goddess in the public spaces. Whether that respect extends to their being treated justly or fairly in more exclusive spaces like the extended family or the household – let us not even consider their being treated on a par with men – is dubious indeed.
Violence against women in the Indian societal spaces I speak of here has since long crossed the boundaries of dowry deaths and domestic abuse, though these haven’t really stopped after all. It is violence of a different sort and magnitude that haunts small town Indian spaces now. I am sure this sort of violence exists even in the bigger cities. Only the parameters of how it is perpetrated are different in small towns.
When I talk of gender equality in class, or among friends, or comment about ‘gender trouble’, I am told this is “a small town and such things are meant for bigger cities where people have more money and different lifestyles, while we still subscribe to traditional cultural values”. I have very little to say in return; despite knowing ignorance breeds more ignorance, the safer thing to do in such cases is to nod in silence.
Am I being safe, or being a coward? I guess it is the same thing.
Arjun Chaudhuri writes when he is not reading or editing, which he does a lot of as he is the founder-editor of The Four Quarters Magazine, an online literary quarterly. He has many published poetry and essay collections, with the most recent one, Metrophobia, released in 2012, and the next collection, Rain Tree Deity, due at the end of January 2014. He lives in Silchar, Assam.