It is as if India is losing her humanity part by part. Coming close on the heels of the recent spate of reports on women molested in various parts of India is this horrific and tragic report from Surat about a brave man named Keshav Vishwakarma who tried to prevent a woman from being heckled. For being a good Samaritan, four hours later, he was doused with kerosene and put on fire. Incredibly, with 75% burn injuries he walked two kilometers to a police station to report the incident. Unfortunately, he later succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.
It is nothing new that women in India have a torrid time in public spaces. Even as a child I could not help but notice how careful my mother would be when she had to go out alone or with me as a child to any public space, be it to the market or to the cinema or to drop me off at school. She would carefully wrap her pallu around herself completely so that no bare skin was visible anywhere between her face and feet. In the bus she always made sure that she sat as much in the front as possible, away from the men’s seats and on the road she would ask me to walk on the outer side so that I’d be shielding her from passing traffic (meaning the sundry Indian male who would not think twice about grabbing or groping a woman in public).
Later, when I was older I’d listen in horror as my female friends recounted incident after incident about how disgusting and desperate the average Indian male is in public. I was ashamed and embarrassed that the freedom I took for granted came with so many reservations for them. To think that every time they were out in public they had to deal with innumerable snide comments which would range from ‘kya potti hai re’ to men in cars slowing down to ask ‘ati kya?’ showed me how different a world it is for an Indian woman compared to her male counterpart. They had to be on constant guard to not let men get too close in public spaces. For if men got too close more often than not their body parts would be groped, grabbed or pawed in the most obscene way. My friends often would not take it lying down if they were in a group and always tried to fight back. But they also knew that it was safer to keep quiet especially if they were alone. They knew from practical experience how unsafe it is for an Indian woman to walk on the street alone even in big city like Hyderabad. And these were the so called elite upper middle class women who were confident, educated and unapologetic about what they wore or how they behaved and who therefore, according to some, are asking for such abuse by dressing or behaving unlike a ‘traditional Indian woman’. One friend of mine, upon listening to such incidents from my friends above, even had the gall to say that if they stopped wearing dresses befitting a whore they would be given more respect! Unfortunately, the truth is not so simple. Even women who wear ‘traditional’ Indian dresses are not spared such abuse. I recall a nonsensical dress code directive by Anna University along the very lines of such an argument.
So why do we Indian men behave like this? Many men would object perhaps saying that men are the same everywhere in the world. To a certain extent that is true. But I’ve observed how big a difference there is between the average European male and his Indian counterpart when it comes to women. Men defer to women here in public spaces. Although men do eye good looking women here it is limited to just that. There are no snide or obscene comments passed and in my four years here I’ve never ever seen a man behave obscenely towards a woman in public. Yes, there are occasionally teenagers who seem to tease women but they are more the exception than the rule.
So why this difference? Is it a question of education? Not always because a significant number of Indian men who are guilty of these offenses are educated. A classmate of mine back in school would think nothing of dashing into a girl on the road for apparently no reason except that it gave him a momentary thrill. No amount of reasoning would make him change his attitude. And this is a guy who came from an educated family and even had a little sister. So why is it that India treats her women so inhumanely even though Indian history and culture is steeped in worshiping and respecting the female sex? Is it because men are conditioned into believing that women are the lesser sex? Is it because there is a lack of education or awareness on how invasive and hurtful heckling or molesting a woman is? Perhaps Indian men are not taught that it is not harmless fun but a grave trespassing of another person’s privacy to do that. That the bodies of women are their own and not public possessions. Or is it simply because of the huge Victorian hangover that India still suffers from where sexes are rigidly separated and not allowed much interaction until they get married thereby leading to frustration and desperation? Perhaps it is all of this and more. But the one indisputable fact is that even as we speak gloriously of a ‘New India’ we still treat women as if they were objects, as things that can be felt up without a second thought.
And therefore it is all the more tragic that one of the few voices that rose in protest against such an inhumane act has been snuffed out in so brutal a fashion. It is unfortunate that the sacrifice and bravery of Keshav will be soon forgotten except perhaps for this beautiful but solitary elegy. We will just shrug our shoulders and mumble ‘yeh India hai bhai’ and continue with our lives while on the roads the Indian woman wages a daily and lonely battle for privacy and respect.
We need more initiatives such as this through which the Indian male is educated and made aware of so that there would be no need for this. We need more men with the selfless bravery of Keshav. Men who will not walk on by silently while a woman is being molested or teased. We need a police force who will not turn a blind eye to such offenses or offenders and will see to it that the latter are brought to justice. We need a justice system that is swift in handing out punitive punishment for such crimes. We need a society to change its moribund way thinking that it is always the fault of the woman and that if only they dressed more ‘modestly’ they would not face such problems. We also need a press that is more sensitive to these issues and instead of sensationalizing such incidents that do make it to the public radar commit to a sustained effort to promote awareness and eradicate this menace from the Indian public spaces and make them safe for women. Then and only then can the murder of Keshav be avenged.