The city we have started to fear

Yoshita Sengupta

In our cities are bubbles; the deceiving ‘secure’ bubbles; bubbles that look like glass offices, bubbles that are gated apartment complexes and bubbles that are embellished with disco lights and artsy décor, serviced by valets and secured by beefy bouncers. We pay exorbitant cover charges to enjoy ourselves wearing what would otherwise be called “provocative” clothes and take lifestyle altering loans to live in high rises equipped with separate service lifts, intercoms and CCTV cameras.

The interaction with the city is cautious; we leave a bubble, navigate the seedy city in fear, and tiptoe into another bubble. We are fostering generations in fear, like they are fugitives, redefining their code of conduct -- Don’t show skin, venture out in groups, no trains after 10 pm, carry a bottle of pepper spray, SMS the number of the cab to a friend, don’t ever use the subway if you’re alone, wrap yourself in a stole or a jacket when travelling, don’t make eye contact with a stranger, don’t argue with a rickshaw driver over anything post sunset, don’t enter a bus if it’s empty (of course, it’s better to get groped in a crowded bus than being raped in an empty one). But do these self-imposed curfews stop women from getting harassed, molested, stalked or raped? Hardly.

Less than two months ago, a female friend and I left work earlier than usual and drove to a theatre in the central suburbs of Mumbai to catch the 9 pm show. At midnight, we drove out of the parking lot that opens up straight in front Ghatkopar station, which even at that hour was buzzing with activity. The exit to main road from the parking lot was blocked by two men, one on a motorcycle and his friend standing right next to the bike. They saw the car approaching, I assumed they’d move; they didn’t. I waited, flickered the headlights, honked after a few seconds, then rolled the window down and gave them eye contact. They stared back and didn’t move. I waited and finally walked up to them, they were reeking of alcohol. They misbehaved. I told my friend to stay in the car and call the police helpline number. Meanwhile, an argument followed. The crowd -- the rickshaw drivers, food stall owners, shop owners, passersby -- just stood and stared.

Before the police arrived, the boy on the bike announced that the he doesn’t have time for the police. “Bhai ko phone kar, he’ll take care of her. I am going to the bar, they can come and find me there,” he told his friend before racing off. His friend waited, asking me to forget the incident and leave the spot. I refused. He continued arguing, knowing that I had noted down the bike number, still not admitting that there was anything wrong in the way they behaved. He eventually gave up, ran towards the station and vanished. I pulled over and waited for the police to arrive. I asked my friend what she told the police helpline and asked her what they said. “A lady received the call and asked why we were outside on the streets at this hour. I was stunned, I didn’t know how to answer that question, she made me very uneasy,” said my friend. Angry, I said, “What did you tell her? Did you tell her that was none of her business and we called for protection not to get judged on moral grounds? Are you sure she said that?”

“Yes. I have the call recorded. I put my phone on auto call record mode because I was taking a few interviews for a story today and I forgot to put it off,” my friend said. Fuming, I sat in the car waiting for the police to arrive. They took 19 minutes, the time in which I saw drunk men in groups of three and four all riding dangerously on one motorcycle, on the pavement was a group of boys smoking something that certainly did not smell like cigarettes, then there were individuals, quarter of alcohol in one hand and cigarettes in another. The moment the two constables arrived on a motorcycle, I recounted the incident to them. They looked flabbergasted, not at my story, but more at the fact that I made a police compliant for such a trivial issue. While I was speaking to them, more bikes with drunken boys in groups of three passed us, I asked the police to stop one of the scooters. He didn’t have a choice, he did. The boy in the front, who was riding the bike and the boy sitting at the end got off, while the police allowed the boy in the centre to just zoom away with the bike. I asked the cops why he let him go, he just smiled. He asked me what I wanted to do next, since the person I complained against had left. “I have his bike number, I want to register my complaint,” I said. He asked me to come to Pant Nagar Police station. “I’ll reach there. Bring these two boys to the police station, I want to register a complaint against them as well,” I told the constables, pointing at the two drunk men who got off the bike. He nodded and said, “Please proceed to the police station, we’ll be there.” “Make sure they are with you,” I told him.

I reached the police station in less than seven minutes as opposed to the 19 minutes that the beat marshals took to reach me after I filed a complaint. I entered the police station, much to the surprise of at least half a dozen police personnel at the station. “What happened, madam?” they asked. I told them I wish to file a complaint and I was waiting for the constables to arrive. A lady officer, who should have ideally taken down my compliant sat and stared while a very polite senior inspector took down my complaint. I narrated the incident, gave them all the details I had. I also pointed out the absolute lawlessness I witnessed at the station. The response I received was absolute silence. The inspector noted down my complaint, a non-cognizable offence, and gave me a copy. While leaving, I saw the constables who were with me at the station enter the police station, but without the boys, who they had said they would bring along to the police station. I asked them where they were and they just flashed an awkward smile. I was stunned, it was past 1 am and I chose to leave, more so because I saw my friend getting uneasy.

I had reached the end of my tether. The city I had been vehemently defending vis-à-vis the national capital had started to let me down. The moral policing had started a few years ago. The first signs of which I saw around 2010, when the police patrol vehicles started to visit Marine Drive, Carter Road, Bandra Reclamation and other popular spots in the city and started to send people home, especially women. On countless occasions in four years, I have heard the constables on what I call the sadakon se hatao, maryaada bacchao abhiyaan questioning my “upbringing”, asking me if I have parents and then commenting on how “irresponsible” and “unfortunate” they are. I’ve had them ask me if my parents are aware that I am out on the streets, pointing out the “shamelessness with which I roam on the streets post dinner-time” and attempting to send me on a guilt trip by saying how “people like me invite trouble and become a liability for the hardworking police force”.

Angry, after leaving the Pant Nagar police station, I started muttering in the car, “How can they ask me what I was doing out in the night? Why did the cop not bring the inebriated hooligans to the police station? What kind of policing is this? How can the police restrict my movements in the name of safety and let drunken men and drug addicts roam the streets? Why do they have to wait for someone to get raped before taking action? They took four minutes to register my complaint, if I am getting raped and manage to connect with the police control room, will I have four minutes to convince them to send help? Is the help that’ll arrive after 20 minutes going to be of any use? I can live in safe, enclosed spaces; what about over 70 per cent of the city’s population that lives in the slums and are homeless? The police pass moral judgments, the crowd watches silently and the women are asked to ‘respect the society’ and get comfortable with the idea of constant vigilance. Is Mumbai becoming Delhi?” My worst fears were coming alive.

Each day since, I’ve thought to myself, is there a sure shot way to avoid getting raped? Is keeping a low profile and not standing out in a crowd going to ensure I don’t get groped? The police may be securing me by getting me off the streets, but am I the real problem? I am not. I belong to a privileged class, whose voice will be heard, whose protest will be registered, and who has a secure home to go back. Will my absence from the streets make the city any safer? It won’t. The perpetrators of crime will still be out there. They’ll continue to prey on the homeless women and abuse street children. When they don’t have any women to prey on they’ll beat other men, they’ll rob, they’ll commit murders. They’ll find ways of getting violent and exercising their power because sexual violence does not stem from desire, it stems from power.

Rape is considered the cruelest act of violence but why is rape crueler than a homeless man dying on the streets of Delhi during winter after being bitten by rats? Why is rape more brutal than a girl married against her wishes and subjected to non-consensual sex for years? Why is rape more brutal than families being thrown on to the streets and their clothes and belongings being burnt by government officials during evictions?

Violence is not merely physical, it permeates into our lifestyle. Nothing comes our way if we don’t fight, from our citizenship rights to freedom of speech to something as simple as a gas connection. Sexual violence is a mirror for the breakdown of institutions in our cities. When organizations don’t function, people resort to violence; it becomes rampant and there comes a point when it becomes a way of life where anybody in a position of power – gender, class, caste – inflicts violence on the marginalized.

Candle marches, Facebook posts and media outbursts on selective incidents of rape while allowing other forms of violence to steadily and silently percolate into our lives is a blunder we need to stop making. It’s really not just about us women. We need to widen our understanding of safety. Isolating ourselves in CCTV-equipped gated communities is merely convincing ourselves that we are safe and leaving the rest of the city unclaimed and unsafe.

We need to broaden our movement to secure our spaces and cities and even include agendas that don’t directly impact us; we need to publicly discuss things as “trivial” yet as basic as street lights and the public sanitation system used by thousands of women each day.

We need to assert ourselves in public spaces, we need to assure the marginalized that we are here for them, we need to stop feeling helpless in our own cities, we need to start having a conscience and change the city’s personality. We need to get our cities to get used to us, the way we are.