Mumbai: The gang-rape of a young photojournalist in Mumbai on Thursday evening has ripped into the city’s reputation as a progressive metropolis where women feel safe.
The young woman in question was out on assignment, accompanied by a male colleague, taking photographs in the Mahalaxmi-Lower Parel areas of Mumbai. The mill they had gone to was derelict and deserted but not far away is a road famous for its traffic jams and a much-used commuter train station.
They were approached by some men on a pretext, separated; he was tied up and assaulted while she was gang-raped by five. By Mumbai standards, 6.30pm is not very late. The sun sets around 7pm at this time of the year.
Mumbai’s pride in itself as being cosmopolitan and liberal has taken several beatings in recent times. Crimes against women have been rising. Just last week an American aid worker had her face slashed in a commuter train. Women are cautious about wearing gold jewellery in public because of a rise in “chain-snatching” — gangs on motorcycles pull chains off their necks. But Mumbai is also a city with a high proportion of working women of all classes and this gang-rape will now create another kind of fear.
Comparisons are often made with Delhi. India’s national capital has never had a good reputation when it comes to its treatment of women. The women of Delhi have been forced to become aggressive in public and take precautions.
Unfortunately, it looks like women in Mumbai can no longer be as carefree and sanguine as they used to. Mumbai is already just second to Delhi in the official crime rate figures when it comes to rape. Delhi still has more rapes — 414 to Mumbai’s 194 in 2010 according to National Crimes Record Bureau figures – but Mumbai’s rates have been rising every year.
There is an argument that crimes against women always happened but were under-reported. That may well be true. But rapes that happen in public are slightly different from atrocities committed inside homes. And a gang-rape in a public place in daylight signifies a complete lack of fear of the police and the law and order machinery. It is symptomatic of a breakdown of all those systems which help us pretend that we are civilised.
The fact that Mumbai has regressed to such an extent is not just distressing — it emphasises that the problem is dire. The women of Mumbai cannot stop going to work. They cannot stop travelling in trains at all hours. Regardless of the helpful suggestions of Maharashtra’s home minister R.R. Patil, women journalists cannot call for police protection every time they have to go out on assignment.
Instead, Patil and his fellow politicians would serve the city better if they examined how policing in Mumbai and Maharashtra has deteriorated over the years. Earlier this week, Narendra Dabholkar, a well-known activist trying to get a bill against black magic and blind faith passed, was shot dead in the city of Pune. He was out for a morning walk.
Fortunately, the Mumbai police have not behaved as high-handedly or as foolishly as their counterparts in Delhi after last December’s gang-rape in the capital that shook the nation.
But both rapes point to the same problems. There are elements in society who cannot bear women to be independent. And the law and order machinery is not feared across the country, at least not by perpetrators of crime.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist