By Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati
In an incident that put India to shame, on the night of July 9, a group of men pulled out a 20-year-old girl from an autorickshaw she was trying to get into to return home after coming out of a bar on the busy Guwahati-Shillong road close to the Dispur capital complex of Assam, molested her and even tried to strip her. The assault went on for about 45 minutes in full public view and was recorded by a cameraman of a television news channel even as the girl cried for help from passing vehicles and bystanders. Finally, a senior journalist, Mukul Kalita, and a police officer, who were passing by, shielded her from the molesters before a police team arrived from the Bhangagarh police station, just a kilometre away. The assailants apparently tried to stop the police from taking her away on the pretext that there were no women police, and some of them tried to grope her even after she had got inside the police vehicle. They made desperate attempts to pull her hair with which she had covered her face to prevent it from being captured on camera. Later, a fact-finding team of the National Commission for Women (NCW) found that the girl had sustained burn injuries on her body from cigarettes. The shocking video of the incident went viral on the Internet and sparked off a public outcry across the country. In Assam, thousands of people took to the streets demanding exemplary punishment for the culprits.
The Assam Police identified 17 persons who were found to be involved in the crime and arrested 12 of them on the basis of the video footage of the television news channel. Even 10 days after the incident, they were still on the lookout for the rest, including the key accused, Amarjyoti Kalita, who ironically plays the role of a policeman in a crime-buster serial on a local television channel. The NCW has recommended action against the onlookers as well and against those who were protecting the culprits. Guwahati Senior Superintendent of Police Apurba Jibon Barua was shunted out after the incident. The public outcry also prompted the State government to order a probe by Additional Chief Secretary Emily Das Chowdhary and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to put his signature on a long-pending file for the appointment of a Police Commissioner for Guwahati city.
Jyoti Neog, the reporter of News Live Gaurab who covered the incident, resigned following allegations levelled against him by Team Anna member and Right to Information (RTI) activist Akhil Gogoi that the molestation was instigated by the reporter. Neog has alleged that there is a conspiracy against him. The Chief Minister, who also holds the portfolio of Home, has ordered a probe by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) into the allegation levelled against the reporter.
Atanu Bhuyan, editor-in-chief of the news channel, quit a day after the Chief Minister, while admitting his lapses, commented that the journalist covering the incident had a responsibility to inform the police but he had not done so. Bhuyan said that the Chief Minister’s comment could influence the probe and that he was apprehensive that the probe would not be impartial.
He also said that he feared that there could have been pressure from the Chief Minister on the management of the news channel to oust him. Bhuyan was a member of the board of directors of the channel, headed by Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, who is the wife of Assam Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The Chief Minister refuted Bhuyan’s allegation and said that even if there was any pressure he should have faced it as it behoved a journalist.
Bhuyan defended Neog and maintained that it was because of the video footage that the police could arrest the molesters. However, the Chief Minister, while acknowledging that the video footage had helped in booking the accused, said the journalist also had a responsibility to inform the police. This has stirred a debate on the role of the media in similar situations. The NCW, meanwhile, removed a member of its fact-finding team, Alka Lamba, for revealing the identity of the victim while addressing the media in Guwahati. Another NCW team comprising Chairperson Mamta Sharma and member Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar visited Guwahati on July 18 to make a set of recommendations to the State government. The recommendations include providing a government job, compensation and financial aid to the victim; setting up CCTVs and special police pickets with women police in front of all the 128 pubs in Guwahati up to 10-30 p.m; a 24-hour women’s helpline and women’s cell in every police station; and establishing a fast-track court to take up the case of assault and molestation. The Chief Minister promised to extend financial help of Rs.50,000 to the victim when she met him and expressed her desire to open a beauty parlour. He also promised to look into her housing problem, an official release stated.
Assault on MLA
The incident occurred just 10 days after Rumi Nath, a ruling Congress legislator from Barkhola Assembly constituency in the Barak valley and her second husband, Abu Sahid Zakir Hussain, were beaten up by a mob that barged into their hotel room in Karimganj town. They hid in the toilet in order to escape the attack. However, the attackers dragged them out and assaulted them before the police came and rescued them. Video footage telecast on news channels showed that the attackers continued to kick Rumi Nath even after she had fallen down on the floor. The police have so far arrested 16 people. Several of the accused are still at large. Rumi Nath’s personal security officers have been suspended for dereliction of duty.
These two incidents reminded the people of the State of another incident in which an Adivasi girl, Laxmi Orang, was stripped naked and assaulted by a mob in broad daylight in the central Beltola locality of Guwahati on November 24, 2007. Only three persons were arrested in the case.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on crimes in Assam in 2011 show that the State came third, after Kerala and Delhi, in crimes against women. The rate of violent crimes against women in 2011 increased to 36.6 per cent in Assam, with Kerala recording 44 per cent and Delhi recording 37 per cent. The all-India average of violent crimes against women in 2011 was 21.2 per cent. In 2010, the rate of violent crimes against women in Assam was 33.5 per cent. The Assam government has decided to engage the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to study the reasons for the spurt in crime against women in the State and to suggest remedial measures.
With a population of 3.11 crore (2011 Census), Assam has a total of 8,344 police officials and 53,972 police personnel, of whom only 5.3 per cent are women although the State government has made provision for 10 per cent reservation for women in the police. After the October 30, 2008, serial blasts in Guwahati, the government decided to install CCTV cameras at public places. To date, of the 290 cameras to be installed at 91 places, only 13, seven in Ganeshguri (one of the serial blast sites) and six in Ulubari area, have been installed. In accordance with the project schedule, installation work was to be completed within 12 weeks of confirmed purchase order, which was issued on December 15, 2011. In the light of the recommendation of the NCW to install CCTVs in front of all the 128 pubs in Guwahati, the State government will now be under pressure to expedite the work. Likewise, to implement the NCW recommendation to open a women’s cell in every police station and to deploy special police pickets with women police personnel in front of all the pubs, the government will have to recruit more women.
Dr Bhupen Sarmah, director of the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change (OKDISC), a think tank, says: “Crime against women, more specifically sexual harassment, is increasing at an alarming rate in the country as a whole and this issue must be addressed with much seriousness. The factors primarily responsible for the unprecedented rate of sexual harassment must be located in the sociocultural as well as economic spheres instead of reducing the issue merely to a problem of law and order, and then solutions must be found.”
Sarmah adds: “The patriarchal forms of domination and repression in different segments of Indian society are being reshaped and reformulated by the forces of the unregulated market. The way a woman is projected in the world of advertisement by giant companies, especially through privately owned electronic media, has been dramatically changing the image of a common woman. ‘The commodification of women’s bodies for the promotion of commodities produced by giant companies has perhaps reached a stage of unprecedented vulgarisation. These vulgarised images of women continuously propagated by the market forces have severe implications, besides the promotion of a culture of consumerism. In addition to this, there is another important aspect, which has generally been overlooked. Beyond the popular electronic media, Indian society has also been exposed to an unregulated market of cheap electronic gadgets. The size of this market is enormous and its impact is tremendous in influencing youth, especially students and those who are not economically engaged. This cheap market of electronic gadgets has mainly been instrumental in the perpetuation of an extremely vulgar image of women and the idea that women are only for sexual gratification.”
According to him factors like rapid changes in values, social norms and institutions have also contributed to the process of reshaping masculinity or patriarchy in this age of market fundamentalism. “Therefore, it is necessary to comprehend the entire process of change driven by the market forces. Alongside, it is also pertinent to note the unpreparedness and insensitivity on the part of both the state and society, including the media, while dealing with these changes,” he says.
Another extreme crime that goes unnoticed in the State is the attack and murder, mostly on and of women, in the name of witch-hunting. Gita Rani Bhattacharya, State programme director of the Assam Mahila Samata Society, which implements the national Mahila Samakhya programme in Assam, says that culprits go unpunished as the police register witch-hunting incidents as murder cases and fail to gather witnesses. Generally, the majority of residents of a particular village or the village community are involved because of their superstitious belief in the prevalence of witches among them.
Sixteen organisations, which staged a protest against the July 9 molestation incident in Guwahati under the aegis of North East Network, while describing it as barbarous and most disturbing, said in a joint statement that it was not an isolated incident and there was a trend and pattern in it.
“What is unfortunate about these crimes is that they are often justified on the premise of a severely gendered moral policing and therefore seek to reinforce patriarchal structures. Further, the constant hype and insensitive projection of such events by the media, particularly the electronic media, has led to a lopsided public opinion about the gendered roles of women, their mobility, dress codes and stereotypical position in society. As if committing the crime is not enough, it has also to be videotaped and telecast and graphically described and published in the news. The objective is not to prevent the recurrence of such incidents but to play with the voyeuristic pleasure of the diseased minds for narrow business interests,” the statement said.
“It is high time that the state started talking a language which sees a shift from its approach of ‘protecting’ the ‘victim woman’ to acknowledging the woman who is an equal to men and hence is entitled to each and every right as a citizen, including her bodily autonomy,” the organisations demanded.
Original Story: Base instincts