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As I write this, news of yet another rape in Bengaluru is coming out. This time, the act of violence took place in in Cubbon Park, a well-known city landmark. According to reports at the time of writing, the person in question had visited the offices of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association, inquiring about membership. While on her way out, she was escorted by two security guards who allegedly took her to a secluded place inside the park and raped her. She was later picked up at the nearby Siddalingaiah Circle by a police patrol who took her to the police station, registered her case, and arrested the perpetrators.
More details will probably emerge as time passes, but there is a sense of despair as I type this. Stories of rape and sexual violence have played themselves out in various circumstances, over and over again, the patterns depressingly familiar. The play of events after the rape are not very different either; there is an outpouring of shock and outrage, someone in authority puts their foot in their mouth, someone tries to leverage the incident for political agendas, calls for death sentences and castration will go out, promises for more CCTV cameras will be made, and before long, things will drift to status quo until the next rape takes place.
In the midst of all this, the basic right of citizens to a safe city remains compromised. It is important to note how so often, mechanisms people believe to be ‘safe’ turn upon us. Until the Delhi Uber rape case, I used to hear arguments about how taxi-cabs are inherently safer than say, an autorickshaw or a bus. Similar arguments were made for places with security guards, such as malls, hotels, and gated apartments. After this Cubbon Park case, this notion ought to be questioned as well. Safe spaces, be they taxi cabs, apartments, schools, or workplaces, are all potentially at risk of being compromised. Even the safety of our homes is not guaranteed, as demonstrated by incidents of marital rape (something still not legally recognised in India).
It’s therefore important to understand that any space we consider ‘safe’ is potentially at risk. The probability of violence arises whenever there is a vulnerable environment and our lives are such that we regularly engage with such environments. We put our lives in other peoples’ hands all the time. We trust our friends, relatives, colleagues, and partners to treat us with care, and it is when they uphold this trust that we are able to navigate our way through most vulnerable circumstances. When this trust is violated however, a potential for violence such as rape gets created.
I am not saying people can never be safe. It is possible to create institutions and mechanisms which can ensure our safety in most circumstances. But institutions are capable of failing, and it’s necessary to ensure that such failures are dealt with through checks and balances. I don’t just mean mechanisms such as background checks. These are important, but as the Cubbon Park and Delhi Uber cases demonstrate, such mechanisms may fail. It’s therefore important for us to complement such mechanisms with regular, honest introspection and debate on what it will take to ensure security. We need to encourage a range of thoughts, experiments, and designs to be employed in many different spaces and circumstances. Most importantly, these solutions need to be scrutinised, evaluated, and critiqued.
At this point, so much public debate remains fixed – execute or castrate perpetrators, force government officers to resign, install more cameras, carry pepper spray, and so on. A lot of this seems reactionary rather than well thought-out. It’s important to deepen the debate, consider pros and cons, and bring in new questions. For instance, how can cities be made safer by redesigning transportation systems or ensuring better use of public spaces? Can safety be increased if gender norms in certain spaces are changed – say by providing employment to more women drivers and security guards (at this point, I don’t know what the answer is)? There are questions out there awaiting deeper and better discussion.
Lastly, let’s not forget that while so many of our reactions are to incidents such as the Cubbon Park or Delhi Uber cases, sexual violence is a daily phenomenon in our cities. All it takes is a simple examination of our newspapers to know this – everyday, there are people who face sexual violence in various places and circumstances. It just so happens they’re not given the same amount of coverage as others. While we debate and discuss issues of safety, it’s important to ensure that we understand the circumstances of these other cases and that our solutions are designed to address these circumstances as well.