From Sarika to Swathi, Madras has never been safe for women

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 01, 2016 11:40 hrs

The capital of Tamil Nadu has been shaken over the last week. A young woman was murdered in “broad daylight” in a “public place”. The incident occurred on a railway platform in the centre of the city, in Nungambakkam.  There were witnesses. There is camera footage of the suspect. His fingerprints have been retrieved from the murder weapon. And yet, he has not been caught.

In the meanwhile, there is a raging debate about whether the victim, Swathi, had a stalker or not.

There is also widespread panic about Madras having become unsafe, as if it had been a haven for women earlier.

Unless you spent your entire childhood shielded from the roads as well as newspapers, there is no way you could believe this city was ever safe.

There are not many women who can say they have never been sexually harassed in Madras. There are not many women who don’t instinctively cross their arms over their chests while walking on the roads if someone were to approach from the opposite direction.

All of us know of incidents that don’t make it to the front pages of newspapers – women who have been groped, even peed on or masturbated against on buses; women who have been subjected to obscene remarks as they walked the roads; women at whom men whipped out their penises on the roads. In most cases, women look the other way, literally and figuratively, because they cannot afford to take the chance that no one will come to their aid if they were to confront the perpetrators of such harassment.

All of us should also know of incidents that did make it to the front pages of newspapers.

Who can forget the death of Sarika Shah in 1998? This postgraduate student was walking with a friend near her college, when a gang of men in an autorickshaw poured water on them, before one of them allegedly jumped on Sarika. Sarika lost her balance and fell on the road, sustaining a head injury which would send her into a coma and kill her eight days later.

Who can forget the assault against Nirmala in 2002 at the Sathyam Cinemas theatre complex? A group of students from New College had allegedly directed obscenities at her. When she objected, they assaulted her and a friend who had accompanied her. When a police constable intervened, they attacked him too.

That is how bold perpetrators of crimes against women are. They know there is little chance of being caught, even in public places. They know there is little chance that they will be identified, even with CCTV cameras. They know that there is a good chance they can get away with assaulting a policeman. How, then, will regular bystanders intervene?

Is there no solution to crime against women, then?

If we are to cling on to any hope that cities in India will be safe, certain measures need to be put in place urgently.

CCTV camera installation

Even if we cannot figure out who a suspect is, a network of CCTV cameras at buildings and intersections will allow police to figure out which way he or she went..

The initiative has been on women to look after themselves – following the Delhi bus rape, it became the norm for women to carry pepper spray in their bags; it became common for women to learn self-defence.

And yet, we remain afraid that our attackers could come back with a gang – or worse, acid – if we were to retaliate.

With CCTV cameras across the city, it would be far easier for police to track down culprits immediately.

Swift police action

Many women have said complaints of stalking, abuse and other forms of harassment, both direct and virtual, are rarely registered by the police. They are dismissed mildly, as cases of ‘eve-teasing’ that don’t merit police resources unless there are serious consequences.

The prejudice needs to go

Somehow, it reflects badly on women to be victims of stalking, or targets of antisocial elements.  Even now, Swathi’s family is worried about how she may be perceived, and has appealed to the media to stop “speculating about her character”.

Do we remember what happened to Calicut University employee P E Usha? She was sexually assaulted on a bus, and succeeded in getting the driver to go straight to a police station and having her assaulter arrested. But the fallout of the case is evidence of what can happen to a woman who decides to take on the system. She faced threats that her daughter would be raped; her marriage disintegrated; her colleagues at the university went so far as to suggest the assault was not an assault, but consensual.

The first question asked of most women who try to complain about stalkers is whether they had any “prior association” with them.

The punishment needs to be severe

The quantum of sentencing for rape convicts is shockingly lenient. The juvenile in the Delhi bus rape case walked out of confinement in three years, with ten thousand rupees and a sewing machine to start a new life. The convicts in the “accidental murder” resulting from the intentional harassment of Sarika Shah were given five years’ rigorous imprisonment. There are attempts to understand the motivations of these criminals; there is speculation that their economic and social background is to blame for their behaviour, and that their crimes can somehow be excused by being explained.

Witness protection

Witnesses rarely come forward because they are worried that they will be harassed by police, or worse, pursued by the perpetrators. The identity of the witness has to be hidden from the accused, as well as from the media. Unless the police can offer a system of witness protection, it is unlikely that bystanders will risk “getting involved”.

Messages in our movies need to be examined

This is a debatable point, because it may be perceived as censorship, but surely the romanticising of sexual harassment cannot meet with the approval of the masses? I can think of several movies starring A-listers, in which the heroine has been tamed into submission by repeated harassment and even rape. Perhaps our actors need to get choosier about their scripts. How can someone be a ‘hero’ in a movie where he plays a character who rapes a woman who has said something disparaging about him?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.