It’s 1 pm and the Moga bus terminal is at its busiest. Colleges have just shut for the day, and students are rushing to get into buses. Conductors shout out names of nearby villages where the buses will head to, and hawkers sell cola and chips to passengers.
Sukhmanpreet Kaur, 18, is waiting for her two friends so that they can together catch the bus to Talwandi village, 20 km away. The college student, on strict instructions from her parents, never takes a bus alone. “A few months ago, when I was travelling alone, a group of boys began playing a vulgar song on their phones the moment I stepped into the bus. Since then, I go with friends,” she says. Her friends Maninder Kaur, 18, and Nasreen Kaur, 18, soon arrive and the girls board the bus to Talwandi.
Last week, Sukhmanpreet missed two days of college after 13-year-old Arshdeep Kaur was allegedly molested and pushed off a bus she boarded at Moga. The teenager’s death caused national uproar and put Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal in the dock as the bus in which the incident took place was owned by his Orbit Group.
Moga, a small town known for its grain markets and cattle, is surrounded by many villages. In the last decade, several colleges and institutions have come up in Moga, and most students come from nearby villages. Buses are the only mode of transport.
For a couple of days after Arshdeep’s death, Sukhmanpreet says, people were worried about letting their daughters take buses from Moga. “My parents finally let me attend classes on the third day after the incident,” says Sukhmanpreet, adding she is “familiar with what happens in buses”.
Sukhmanpreet, Maninder and Nasreen settle for a seat in the middle of the bus. No woman is wearing jeans, most are in colourful salwar-kameez and a few in saris. “Parents allow us to wear jeans and T-shirt only when we are travelling with family,” laughs Nasreen.
The bus sets off from Moga, all its seats occupied, but after every few hundred metres, the vehicle halts, taking in more passengers. The bus finally gathers speed on the dusty highway towards Talwandi.
It’s a lucky day for the girls as they are seated comfortably. “But there are days when the bus is full and we have to stand. That’s when the men miss no opportunity to touch you,” says Maninder.
Some boys “say their phone numbers loudly” and others, she says, “type their numbers on the phone and let the screen face the girls”.
The girls laugh and giggle as they share their bus travails, inviting stares from passengers and the conductor. “Oh, just ignore them,” says Sukhmanpreet.
The bus reaches Talwandi and the girls get off, happy that this was a “touch-free” journey.
Most buses leaving the Moga bus terminal halt at the next stop, Main Chowk. Pooja Bedi, 25, takes a bus from here every day to her village Buttar, 25 km away.
Since 2009, when she joined a computer course in Moga and started giving tuitions to supplement her family income, bus trips have become an everyday affair. But two years ago, an incident, she says, “changed my life”.
“A man used to stare at me every day, but I ignored him. One day, he reached my village and offered to buy me a bus ticket. I slapped him. My parents got scared and forced me to discontinue my studies. I sat at home for two years, and only recently started going to Moga again,” she says. Her name has invited trouble too. “Village boys sing Miss Pooja’s (a Punjabi singer) raunchy songs whenever I pass by,” she says.
Bedi hopes to clear her IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam and move to a “country safer for women”.
Women travellers have developed their own defences to ward off trouble-makers. Amanjot Kaur, for example, pretends to call and text someone on her phone as she waits for her bus to arrive at Main Chowk. “That is the best way to avoid unwelcome glances,” says the 16-year-old, who has been taking a bus alone for the past month from Ghal Kalan to Moga to attend her IELTS classes. Amanjot wears a turban and carries a sword. “Still, I am teased just like other girls,” she says.
Even good old politeness doesn’t work. Around 5 pm, when Main Chowk is particularly crowded, Rajvir, 23, asks two men standing at the door of the bus to let her in. “Excuse me,” she says thrice but they don’t budge till the conductor yells at them. Inside, Rajvir cranes her neck to look for a seat. She finds one — next to Harpeet, 20, a BA student.
“The boys never vacate the seats for girls or the elderly. And when we stand, they touch us. Parents tell their girls to ignore the men, but why can’t they tell the boys to behave?” says Harpreet.
The Ludhiana-Moga-Ferozepur National Highway is lined with educational institutes, and here too, many buses stop to pick up passengers. A group of three young women clad in salwar-kameez waits for a bus to Ferozepur, an hour from Moga.
In the hour since they’ve been waiting, two AC buses head to Ferozepur stop, but the women don’t board them. “After what happened with Arshdeep, we are scared of AC buses, specially those with tinted glasses or curtains,” says Mandeep, 23, an M.Ed student, who is waiting with Parwinder, 29, and Bhavna, 30.
Parwinder and Bhavna are married and wear a sindoor. “But that doesn’t help much,” says Parwinder.
Finally, a non-AC bus comes to a screeching halt and the women get on. All seats are full, so they catch hold of the handle bars on the bus’s ceiling and hang their bags around their necks. It’s a lucky drive, since they are surrounded on all sides by women.
“But when there are men all around, we make Mandeep stand in between Parwinder and me. We need to protect her as she is the youngest,” says Bhavna.