In our cities there are bubbles, deceiving ‘secure’ bubbles. Bubbles that look like glass offices, bubbles that are gated apartment complexes and bubbles that are embellished with disco lights and artsy decor, serviced by valets and secured by beefy bouncers. We pay exorbitant cover charges to enjoy ourselves wearing what would otherwise be termed “provocative” clothes and take lifestyle altering loans to live in high rises equipped with separate service lifts, intercoms and CCTV cameras.
Our interaction with the city is cautious. We leave one bubble, navigate the seedy city in fear, and tiptoe in relief into another bubble. We are fostering generations in fear, as if they are fugitives, redefining their code of conduct. Don’t show skin, venture out in groups, no trains after 10 pm, carry a bottle of pepper spray, SMS the number of the cab to a friend, don’t ever use the subway if you’re alone, wrap yourself in a stole or a jacket when travelling, don’t make eye contact with strangers, don’t argue with a rickshaw driver over anything post sunset, don’t enter a bus if it’s empty (of course, it’s better to get groped in a crowded bus than being raped in an empty one).
But do these self-imposed curfews stop women from getting harassed, molested, stalked or raped? Hardly.
Less than two months ago, a female friend and I left work earlier than usual and drove to a theatre in the central suburbs of Mumbai to catch the 9 pm show. Around midnight, after the movie, we drove out of the parking lot that opens up right in front of Ghatkopar station, which, even at that hour, was buzzing with activity. The exit to the main road from the parking lot was blocked by two men, one on a motorcycle and his friend standing right next to him. They saw our car approach; I assumed they’d move. They didn’t.
I waited, flickered the headlights, honked after a few seconds, then rolled the window down and made eye contact. They stared back, but didn’t move. I waited for a few more seconds, then finally got out of the car and walked up to them. They were reeking of alcohol. They misbehaved. I told my friend to stay in the car and call the police helpline number. Meanwhile, an argument followed. The crowd of people around – the rickshaw drivers, food stall owners, shop owners and passersby – all just stood and stared.
Some time before the police arrived, the man on the bike announced that the he didn’t have time for them. “Bhai ko phone kar, he’ll take care of her. I’m going to the bar, they can come and find me there,” he told his friend before racing off. His friend waited, telling me more than once to forget the incident and leave the spot. I refused. He continued to argue, knowing that I had noted down the bike’s number, but still not admitting there was anything wrong in the way he and his friend had behaved. He eventually gave up, ran towards the station and vanished.
I sat in the car and waited for the police to arrive. I asked my friend what she had told the police helpline and what they had said. “A lady received the call and asked why we were outside on the streets at this hour. I was stunned, I didn’t know how to answer that question, she made me very uneasy,” said my friend. Angry, I asked her, “What did you tell her? Did you say that that was none of her business and that we called for protection, not to get judged on moral grounds? Are you sure she said that?”
“Yes. I have the call recorded. I put my phone on auto call record mode because I was taking a few interviews for a story today, and I forgot to turn it off,” my friend said.
Fuming, I waited in the car for the police to arrive. They took 19 minutes, the time in which I saw groups of drunken men riding dangerously, three or four to a single motorcycle. On the pavement, a group of boys was smoking something that certainly did not smell like cigarettes. There were others too, lone men with a quarter of alcohol in one hand and cigarettes in the other.
The moment the two police constables arrived on a motorcycle, I recounted the incident to them. They looked flabbergasted – not at my story, but more at the fact that I made a police compliant for such a trivial issue.
While I was speaking to them, more two-wheelers with three drunken young men to a vehicle passed us. I asked the policemen to stop one of the bikes. They didn’t have a choice, so they did. The man who was riding the bike and the one sitting at the end got off, but the one sitting in between them zoomed off on the bike, and the police did nothing to even try to stop him. When I demanded why they had allowed him to get away, one of the cops just smiled.
The constable asked me what I wanted to do next, since the person I had complained against had left. “I have his bike number, I want to register my complaint,” I said. He asked me to come to Pant Nagar police station. “I’ll reach there. Bring these two to the police station, I want to register a complaint against them as well,” I told the policeman, pointing at the two drunk men who had got off the bike. He nodded and said, “Please proceed to the police station, we’ll be there.” “Make sure they are with you,” I stressed/insisted.
I reached Pant Nagar police station in less than seven minutes – 12 less than the 19 minutes that the beat marshals took to reach me after I had called the helpline number. I entered the station, much to the surprise of at least half a dozen police personnel there.
“What happened, madam?” they asked. I told them I wished to file a complaint and was waiting for the constables to arrive. A lady officer, who should have ideally taken down my complaint sat and stared, while a very polite senior inspector took down my complaint. I narrated the incident and gave them all the details I had. I also pointed out the absolute lawlessness I witnessed at the station. The response I received was absolute silence. The inspector noted down my complaint, a non-cognizable offence, and gave me a copy.
While I was leaving, I saw the two constables who had arrived near Ghatkopar station in response to my friend’s call. They entered the station, but the two men I had asked them to bring along – and they had agreed they would – were nowhere to be seen. I asked them where the two men were, and they just flashed awkward smiles. I was stunned all over again at their lackadaisical attitude. But it was past 1 am and I chose to leave, mostly because I saw my friend was getting uneasy.
I had reached the end of my tether. The city I had been vehemently defending vis-à-vis the national capital had started to let me down. The moral policing had started a few years ago. I saw the first signs around 2010, when police patrol vehicles started to visit Marine Drive, Carter Road, Bandra Reclamation and other popular spots in the city and started to send people home, especially women.
On countless occasions in four years, I have heard the constables on what I call the “sadakon se hatao, maryaada bacchao abhiyaan” questioning my “upbringing”, asking me if I have parents and then commenting on how “irresponsible” and “unfortunate” they are. I’ve had them ask me if my parents are aware that I am out on the streets, pointing out the “shamelessness with which I roam on the streets post dinner-time” and attempting to send me on a guilt trip by saying how “people like me invite trouble and become a liability for the hardworking police force”.
Angry after leaving Pant Nagar police station, I began muttering in the car, “How can they ask me what I was doing out in the night? Why did the cop not bring those inebriated hooligans to the police station? What kind of policing is this? How can the police restrict my movements in the name of safety and let drunken men and drug addicts roam the streets? Why do they have to wait for someone to get raped before taking action? They took four minutes to register my complaint, if I am getting raped and manage to connect with the police control room, will I have four minutes to convince them to send help? Is the help that’ll arrive 20 minutes later going to be of any use? I can live in safe, enclosed spaces; what about over 70% of the city’s population that lives in the slums and are homeless? The police pass moral judgments, the crowd watches silently and the women are asked to ‘respect the society’ and get comfortable with the idea of constant vigilance. Is Mumbai becoming Delhi?” My worst fears were coming alive.
Each day since, I’ve thought to myself, is there a sure shot way to avoid getting raped? Is keeping a low profile and not standing out in a crowd going to ensure I don’t get groped? The police may be securing me by getting me off the streets, but am I the real problem? I am not.
I belong to a privileged class, whose voice will be heard, whose protest will be registered, and who has a secure home to go back to. Will my absence from the streets make the city any safer? It won’t. The perpetrators of crime will still be out there. They’ll continue to prey on homeless women and abuse street children. When they don’t have any women to prey on, they’ll beat up other men, they’ll rob, they’ll commit murder. They’ll find ways of getting violent and exercising their power because sexual violence does not stem from desire, it stems from power.
Rape is considered the cruellest act of violence, but why is rape crueller than a homeless man dying on the streets of Delhi during winter after being bitten by rats? Why is rape more brutal than a girl married against her wishes and subjected to non-consensual sex for years? Why is rape more brutal than families being thrown on to the streets and their clothes and belongings being burnt by government officials during evictions?
Violence is not merely physical, it permeates into our lifestyle. Nothing comes our way if we don’t fight for it, from our citizenship rights to freedom of speech to something as simple as a gas connection. Sexual violence is a mirror for the breakdown of institutions in our cities. When organizations don’t function, people resort to violence; it becomes rampant and there comes a point when it becomes a way of life where anybody in a position of power – gender, class, caste notwithstanding – inflicts violence on the marginalised.
Candle marches, facebook posts and media outbursts on selective incidents of rape while allowing other forms of violence to steadily and silently percolate into our lives is a blunder we need to stop making. It’s really not just about us women. We need to widen our understanding of safety. Isolating ourselves in CCTV-equipped gated communities is merely convincing ourselves that we are safe, and leaving the rest of the city unclaimed and unsafe.
We need to broaden our movement to secure our spaces and cities and even include agendas that don’t directly impact us. We need to publicly discuss things as “trivial” yet as basic as street lights and the public sanitation system used by thousands of women each day.
We need to assert ourselves in public spaces, we need to assure the marginalised that we are here for them, we need to stop feeling helpless in our own cities, we need to start having a conscience and change the city’s personality. We need to get our cities to get used to us, the way we are.