KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi at a news conference in Guwahati on Saturday. Picture by UB Photos
The incident that took place last week in the capital city of Assam is shocking and the incident has left everyone shell-shocked. Otherwise, you cannot believe that a progressive society would have passed judgment on the young woman who was molested.
Those who have committed the crime, however, feel otherwise. By their standards, she is seen guilty of having transgressed society’s moral norms about how a woman ought to carry herself.
When men are savagely attacking a woman in Guwahati, how can we cry “racism”, especially when women outside the northeastern boundaries are subjected to the same excesses? This hypocrisy ought to end, but how? It is scandalous that only some of the men, who were caught on camera stripping the young woman, have been arrested and others are still at large.
Law and order
What sort of a policing system is this? The alibi that Assam and Guwahati city in particular is short of policing manpower is outrageous.
If the police chief cannot fill the vacancies then there's something wrong with his leadership and in this case the police do not even need to do much homework, as the media has done it for them.
The least they can do is round up the goons and subject them to interrogation.
But at a time when a crime against womanhood is committed in a city that boasts of a growing culture of malls and opulence, and for the police to claim immunity from blame is revolting.
Law and order in Assam has gone on a nosedive in the last one year and all manner of crime is on the rise with the police often caught napping or getting off with flimsy excuses. It is high time that the policing system in Assam is subjected to intense public scrutiny since the government is apparently not keen to seek accountability.
A deaf ear
In 2008, Laxmi Oraon was stripped naked while taking part in a protest march and there are stark similarities between the two incidents.
In Laxmi’s case, people photographed the entire incident, but no one went to the rescue of the Adivasi girl. In the present case, the molesters gleefully stare into the camera, enjoying their two seconds of fame.
They wear a sadistic smile, a smile of conquest, a sick smile that jeered at their own perversity of stripping a helpless woman. Young men who could strip a defenceless girl and yet smile into the camera are actually “sick” and need counselling.
I agree we are a sick society and that there is a culture of silence around this incident indicates the malaise. Only on Friday did one see some form of censure from the Save Guwahati, Build Guwahati group led by Dhiren Baruah. However, it’s too little too late.
The Guwahati incident informs us that women’s organisations cannot be caught napping and that their response to any such incident should be instant and the demand for justice consistent, for all crimes and injustices against women.
Civil society must have the resources and the stamina to respond urgently to a situation so that the perpetrators of crimes against women do not gloat in glory. Also there is merit in protests and processions and this is the only way that civil society positions itself vis-à-vis the state.
Akhil Gogoi has shown by example what a civil society movement should be. Of course, the state will not like this sort of posturing, but civil society by its very designation is meant to be the dissenting voice against the overwhelming state power.
Without civil society the state would simply mow down the weak and voiceless.
But the question here is whether such a civil society exists in Assam other than the Akhil Gogoi-led Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which has made the street their theatre for action.
In a feeble democracy like India, there have to be alternatives to the centres of power like the secretariat. For now the street is the only alternative and we are diffident about using the street because we are genteel society. We are unsure whether we want to rub shoulders with the high and mighty or to side with the underdog.
Schizophrenic is the word to define us and schizophrenics are themselves patients who need healing. In other words, if we have not decided which side of the fence we wish to be in, then we are wasting time issuing press statements.
They are like dry sands of rhetoric and there is no doubt at all that digging in your heels and being a consistent government baiter extracts a price.
Many are not ready to pay the price. Hence, civil societies in the region are at best fragmented voices heard in the media, but not seen in the streets. So, who occupies the streets then?
The uncivil society such as the ones who wait to undress young women merely because they have come out of a lounge bar at a time considered “indecent” by a judgemental lynch mob.
On July 8, I watched Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate with horror at the way Dalits are still treated in this country. Several episodes earlier we saw how women continue to be degraded even in so called civilised societies. This is the reality of India.
Women have to continue to chip into an obtusely unresponsive system with the hope of gaining small victories.
Code of conduct
The case of Rumi Nath, the MLA who was attacked by the lunatic fringe in the name of religion and morality, is another indicator that society is getting radicalised.
While poverty is on the rise so also is fanaticism of a different kind, which sets a moral code of conduct for women.
So, whether it is poverty or any other kind of social degeneration, it is always the woman who faces the rough end of the stick, despite the daily seminars on women's empowerment happening across universities and colleges of the region.
The question to ask is how far we have got in terms of giving women their right to live the life they choose and with whom they choose to.
How long can the woman’s body be seen as the repository of culture and societal correctness? Why is the male body such a liberal space?
Perhaps the problems arise out the growing economic and social disparities. While the more progressive schools, colleges and universities are dishing out liberal education, the government-run institutions are nowhere near the globally evaluated schools that are now proliferating in Assam.
Naturally young women passing out of these liberal education institutions will see no harm in having a mug or two of beer or a glass of wine in a pub house. But the bystanders who do not have the means to enter the pub are unforgiving.
They want to teach the girl a lesson and what a way to do it, but by making a statement that girls are not to go out at night, not to wear certain kinds of clothes, and are not to drink and dance in night clubs among other restrictions. Those men shown disrobing the unfortunate young woman, were from their looks, not the type who could afford to go into a high-end pub. If Guwahati has more and more of these coming up, then there must be a clientele for them and it naturally revolves around the young, the footloose and the fancy free.
However, can they afford to step out in the evening after this recent incident? This is a critical question that the people of Guwahati have to answer. Once, people remained indoors for fear of guns, bombs and militants. Now it’s the moral police they have to fear.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)