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DISGRACE

Few stories of cruelty to women in India have been more shocking than what happened to a young girl on a Guwahati street. A mob of onlookers watched and a television journalist captured the incident for the outletís viewers as she was molested by a gang of ruffians. The fact that such crimes against women are increasing is a matter of concern. But what is more disturbing is the way sections of Indian society react to the humiliation of women. That none of those watching the incident thought of intervening suggests a deepening moral crisis. Newspaper reports on the incident even suggest that the onlookers treated it more as a spectacle than a crime. The role of the journalist too raises uncomfortable questions about the mediaís responsibilities in such situations. The worst response, of course, was that of the police. A senior police official sought to shrug off his menís responsibility in trying to rescue the girl. An insensitive administration is largely responsible for the rise in crimes against women ó in Assam and elsewhere in India. The girlís suffering must have been devastating. But society too has been shamed by the incident.

The Assam government owes it not only to the girl but also to the saner section of society to bring the culprits to justice. It has suspended the sub-inspector of a local police station for not doing his duty. But Dispur should also ensure that senior police officials talk and act in a more responsible manner in such situations. After all, the police force cannot be expected to be proactive unless the senior officials send out the right signals. Much may depend, however, on the civil societyís efforts to make the administration do its duty. Assamís civil society has shown remarkable abilities to influence matters of public life. Its role in forcing the United Liberation Front of Asom to give up arms has been partly responsible for the outfitís decision to engage in peace talks. The common people of Assam too have done well to reject the Ulfaís violent ways. But it is not enough to see the militantsí guns fall silent. Making Assam safe for its people, particularly its women, is a challenge that the civil society and the people have to take up together. It is too important a matter to be left entirely to the administration. It is a good sign that several civil society groups have hit the street demanding justice for the girl. They must keep the heat on the police and the politicians.