Puja Das, a 21-year-old from the middle Assam town of Patacharkuchi, was pandal-hopping last year when a strange man shoved her in the crowd. The college student remembers feeling angry and humiliated, and yet was not able to “do or say anything”. “I wish I had but I just did not have the confidence,” she said.
Last month, Puja took matters into her own hands, when she and five friends traipsed down to an empty field in their town for a self-defence class at the crack of dawn.
Just a few days before, she had come by a Facebook post by a group called “Prahar”, offering free self-defence lessons — promising a mix of Karate, Taekwondo, and a healthy dose of self-confidence.
“For a class to happen, the organiser had told me that we had to collect at least eight-ten girls and find a suitable open-air venue,” she said, “I convinced five of my friends, and they agreed.”
A month on, the group has grown, as has Puja’s confidence — which she thinks will come in handy particularly next year, when she plans to move 100 km away to Guwahati for her Master’s. “It’s a big city — I will travel alone, possibly live alone too. I will need to have my guard up all the time.”
And that is what Prahar is aiming at. Moon Das, the 23-year-old BSc student and black belt holder in Taekwondo, whose brainchild it is, said that he was looking for ways and means to promote the concept of self-defence among women in Assam. “Initially I thought I could collect videos from martial art practitioners across the state and upload videos on a Facebook page,” he said, “But when the Hathras case happened, it gave us a push. That is when my friend, Rakesh, who holds a black belt in Karate, and I decided to hold free lessons.” The duo was later joined by another friend, Bibhu.
There is no business model, said the organisers. “We aren’t thinking of it like that — consider this social service. We are on-call self defence teachers, willing to travel to any part of the state — as long as those who are calling us can arrange an empty field and a group of willing students,” said Moon. The idea is to train them, and for them to train others, and so on.
In Puja’s town, after one week of lessons, the girls continued to practise by themselves. “On day one, we had just six girls,” said Pratyashi Nath, who had joined with Puja initially. “Now we have 15 — and a group of curious onlookers, wondering what on earth we are upto so early in the morning.”
Puja said that her friends were sceptical initially. “So were my parents. But now they have realised that this is actually something good and a skill that may come in handy.”
On the first day, the class began with warm-up exercises, followed by running and then basic Karate and Taekwondo moves. “We recreate possible scenarios from real life — be it purse snatching, or unwanted — and have designed specific action sets as to how the girl can react/defend herself, whether she is on the road or at home or on the bus,” explained Moon.
So far, camps have been organised in a network of lower Assam towns — Pathshala, Tihu, Bajali, Barpeta, Nalbari and Sarthebari — following Covid-19 protocol. “We don’t take big groups, so that there is enough social distance during the lesson,” said Moon, “While the masks have to come off during exercise, they are on at all other times.”
Once a request comes, the organisers form a WhatsApp group to work out the logistics. “While initially people are a bit unsure, they do finally take to the idea,” said Moon.“Even if Assam is considered traditionally safer for women, there are a lot of incidents that go unreported.”
According to the annual National Crime Record Bureau’s “Crime in India” 2019 report released in September, Assam reported the highest rate of crimes against women (177.8 per lakh population).
“A lot of small things happen indoors, and no one knows about it,” said Puja, adding that the latest figures were rather worrying. 21-year-old Nath, who has been studying in Guwahati for the past year, said: “I am only attending the lessons because I have realised that I need to be prepared to protect myself. If I don’t, who will?”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines