Note: This post has content that some audiences may find disturbing. The post deals with topics such as rape and sexual violence. Please read and share at your own discretion.
I’ve been seeing a lot of reactions to the incidents that happened on Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve, particularly on social media. There is a lot of anger, anguish, frustration, and disgust. Not to mention that many of these messages have the usual lashes about the decline of the city, “people have no culture”, and so on.
I’ve some complex reactions to this, which are not easy to put into writing. Nevertheless, here’s a (long) approximation of my take:
(1) First, it’s important to remember that this is not new. The New Year celebrations on Brigade Road (as well as Bengaluru in general) has often been unsafe for women and horror stories have happened before. I remember similar reports about New Year celebrations in the 2000s, as well as a few years ago.
I’m not saying this to be dismissive, or imply what happened is okay because “it’s always been this way”. I’m calling out this tendency of ours to forget. In 2014, a woman being dropped off in Fraser Town was attacked and raped by six men. In 2015, a woman was raped by two security guards in Cubbon Park. In 2016, a woman returning home from work was picked up, taken to a construction site and molested. The same year, an African woman was stripped in public by a mob in retaliation for a traffic accident she wasn’t even involved with (simply because one of the drivers was another African).
As I said, this is not new. We hear about molestation, get righteously angry, have a few discussions on news channels and then forget. Then the next time something happens, we repeat this pattern.
Forgetting has its uses and I won’t completely dismiss the act of forgetting. However, the problem with forgetting is that we keep going back to the same old starting point. We continue to wonder “why we are like this” or indulge in knee-jerk reactions rather than notice patterns and ask deeper questions. We quickly fall back into old stereotypes such as “Bangalore is a safe city”, “It used to be so much better in the past”, “The city is becoming worse”. Each stereotype is as meaningless as the next, because safety in Bengaluru (as in most big Indian cities) has always been a function of who you are, what situation you’re in, and at what time.
(2) Secondly, I should also point out that when we do choose to remember, we often take away the wrong lessons. I can already predict what’s going to happen next year (if we do remember) – women will be advised to avoid Brigade Road, stay indoors, or celebrate in ‘safe spaces’, thus turning Brigade Road into an even more male-dominated space. When the 2012 Delhi rape case occurred, I remember how many women around me were advised to avoid public transport and take ‘safer’ options – until the Uber rape case happened, after which women were advised to avoid share-cabs as well.
While avoiding unsafe situations is good advice, it’s important to remember that it can’t become a permanent or universal solution. Women have a right to traverse public spaces, use public transport, work late, stay out late, commute alone as much as anybody else. Permanent avoidance only ends in giving up these spaces to men who don’t deserve them. These spaces need to be reclaimed.
However, the act of reclaiming these spaces shouldn’t be done by women alone. If any of the men speaking about this are concerned about this issue, they’ll be standing with women during regular campaigns to make this city safer.
(3) Thirdly, I should note that anger is sometimes good but never enough. I’m no longer interested in showing or demonstrating how angry I am about what happened. That’s a given. The questions I have to ask myself are – what now? What should we be doing and what’s my role in all this? Whatever anger we have needs to be channelled into something productive. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and energy.
(4) Fourthly – over the next few days and weeks, we’ll see news and hype cycles go into overdrive. Suddenly, shocking incidents that were never paid attention will be thrust into the limelight and it will seem like the world has changed for the worse, yet again. It’s time to move beyond these cycles. They have their uses in pushing important issues forward but will die down soon while the core issues don’t go away.
Law and order, as with most urban issues, cannot be subject to the demands of news cycles alone. In order to build safe cities, we need prolonged, continuous, engagement with difficult issues. This requires a more active and at the same time, a more introspective citizenry. This is not going to be easy, but it needs to be done.
(5) Lastly, as I’d mentioned in my reaction to the Cubbon Park rape case, let’s not forget that sexual violence is a daily phenomenon in our cities. To repeat what I’d said then: 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 interventions are designed to address these circumstances as well.