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Auto strike after molestation arrest

STRANDED: Class XII student Pooja Saha (centre), who cannot walk without assistance, is stranded in Tollygunge with her mother and sister during the autorickshaw strike on the Garia route. The three of them had visited a rehabilitation centre at Barisha in Behala to fetch a custom caliper for one of Pooja’s legs. “We stepped out from our house in Kamalgazi around 9.30am. At Garia station, I asked why autos were not plying. The drivers said they were protesting about something. When I requested one of them to ferry us till Tollygunge for my daughter’s sake, they asked us to take a bus,” Jamuna Saha, the girl’s mother, said. Since they could not afford a taxi, Pooja had to be lifted into a bus. From Tollygunge, they took an auto to Barisha. The family had hoped the strike would be over when they returned in the afternoon, but that was not to be. “One caliper costs Rs 5,000 and I had it made for Pooja at a rehabilitation centre for children in Barisha. I had to take her along today to see if it fits,” Jamuna said. “She needs a pair of them, which we couldn’t afford immediately.”
Picture by Mayukh Sengupta

Netaji Nagar: An autorickshaw driver was arrested on Wednesday night for allegedly molesting an elderly woman who had opted to sit beside him because her painful hip joint made getting into the back seat difficult.

The woman said driver Iman Ali Khan, 52, repeatedly elbowed her after she and her son boarded his autorickshaw at the Usha Gate crossing near Bansdroni around 8.20pm.

The woman had called 100, the city police's helpline, to report the incident after getting off the autorickshaw in Garia, a short ride from Usha Gate. She and her son noted down the vehicle's registration number and visited Netaji Nagar police station later to lodge a formal complaint.

Iman's arrest the same night triggered a strike by his colleagues on the Garia-Tollygunge route from Thursday morning. Autorickshaws did not ply between the two places - it used to be a busier auto route when Garia did not have a Metro station - all day and union leaders argued with police about the arrest.

"He has been driving an autorickshaw for three decades and there had never been any such complaint against him. We protest his arrest on charges of molestation," a driver said.

A police officer quoted the complainant as saying that she had given Iman the benefit of the doubt when he allegedly first made contact with his elbow. The woman said she became sure it was more than an accidental touch when the same thing happened several times.

Based on her complaint, a senior officer each from the Regent Park traffic guard and Netaji Nagar police station reached the Garia crossing and found Iman chatting with some colleagues. He was arrested and brought to the police station.

The driver told his interrogators that he could not have done what the woman had alleged because his hands were on the steering all along and the vehicle did not stop once before it reached Garia.

But officers at Netaji Nagar police station said the woman's complaint was so "descriptive" that they had little hesitation in starting a case under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with "assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty".

"It is most important to write everything very clearly.... it is only based on a written complaint that we slap charges," an officer said.

Section 354 is a non-bailable section that carries a maximum punishment of five years' imprisonment.

This is not the first time that an autorickshaw driver has been accused of harassment by a passenger. But for every woman who reports such an incident, many more clam up and suffer in silence.

"I was in class VIII when I had a similar experience.... That was one of the rare days when my mother did not accompany me to music class. I was getting late and so did not refuse to sit in front, which was the only vacant seat," recounted a young woman waiting for transport at the Tollygunge auto stand on Thursday.

"What I suffered during that journey made me feel so helpless. I only glared at the driver on reaching my destination...he pretended to be counting coins. I walked away, never sharing this incident with anyone. I thought I would forget it like a nightmare, but it still haunts me."

In a city where the average commuter has little choice but to get into crowded buses or autorickshaws with boorish drivers, this is a story that would find an echo in many women.

But according to the police, the number of incidents being reported has been increasing every year. "It is an encouraging sign that women are dragging their perpetrators to police and court," a senior police officer said.

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