As “post truths” go, the purported “safeness” of Bengaluru for women must follow close on the heels of the well-disguised “benefits” of demonetisation as among the most chanted myths in recent times. In addition to the “nationalisation” of outrage over the incidents, in which the monotonous TV loop has played no small part, there were several worthy citizens who were haunted by the memory of better days. The politicians stoked the raging fires with their statements. It is as if each new display of misogyny, harassment, molestation or attack erases public memory in order to allow fresh paroxysms of anger.
The idea that Bengaluru enjoys the reputation of being safe for women is among those well-nourished urban myths that rank alongside the city’s alleged “cosmopolitanism”. That overused term has only meant that millions (of particularly middle-class migrants) have felt no obligation to learn the local language, Kannada. The concept was given a sobering knock when thousands of Indians from the north east fled in terror following racist rumours and attacks in August, 2012. Tamils (1991), Muslims (1994) and the poor (all the time) generally have been targets of non-cosmopolitan violence.
In fact, this is a good time to remind those nostalgic for a non-existent past of Bengaluru’s long acquaintance with ever newer forms of violence that accompanied each successive move that women made into the public sphere. Its well-shaped misogyny may have been more genteel in the time before democracy, but has adapted to all kinds of emerging social and political developments.
Which female child growing up in the car-free streets of Bengaluru in the 1960s does not recall the cycle-borne flashers and stalkers from whom she took to her heels? How many college-goers in the 1970s will remember the “warnings” to women to be not only dressed in “Indian” clothes but sit, as if they were among those who brought dishonour and impurity to the classroom, on separate benches? And then, for female students to suffer loud comments from the podium on the size and shape of their brains: All this, by men in three-piece suits who built their reputations around such attitudes.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, women in Bengaluru were offered a new form of freedom and mobility with the influx of the small two-wheelers. Getting to work or college in a city poorly served by public transport was suddenly made easier by Lunas, Suvegas, Silverpluses. But also much more dangerous: Hot rod Romeos, equally empowered by the two-wheeler revolution, took to hitting women on their backs from behind to make them lose their balance and fall off their mopeds. In the time before feminism and legal literacy, women usually put up with torn kurtas, bruises and a brush with death.
One could go on, but we are ill-served by that other favourite word — “mindset” — to explain away the sheer inventiveness and harshness of Indian misogyny. Women, who form at least 30 per cent of the IT and ITeS economy and 90 per cent of the garment economy, have to be on high alert while going to and returning from work on a daily basis. Their economic independence has not translated into social and civic freedom in the least.
It is more useful to think about what has changed in the small town that became a metropolis in the span of a few decades. How have the multitudes who flocked to the city partaken in democratic life to pose a threat to, or be threatened by, those very spaces of new-found freedom?
Bengaluru is host to one of the most spectacular public events every March-April, a civic festival like no other. Lakhs of people descend from the peri-urban areas of Bengaluru to participate in the Karaga festival. The narrow by-ways and cul-de- sacs of the 16th century city are filled with crowds tracing the same sacred geography that the embodiment of “Draupadi” will course through on “her’’ journey after “her” emergence from the Dharmanarayanaswamy temple. For some time now, the crowds are largely male, young and bursting with both reverence and playfulness. Women and children usually flank this moving river of people, content to watch from doorways and balconies, but when they do decide to join the coursing, do not come out unscathed. Yet we have not heard public discussion of “molestation” from this event.
Mahatma Gandhi Road and its half-kilometre surroundings are a completely different matter. Here too, given the city’s divided pasts, males of the “other city” have come, for several decades, to indulge in their secret pleasures. This could range from the harmless coffee at Koshy’s, with its accompanying chance of viewing women who also drink coffee, perhaps alone, to a swig of stronger stuff in an area bristling with bars. On New Year’s eve, for several generations, the MG Road whereabouts have been the destination of preference for young males, putting some distance between themselves and oppressive family conditions.
The scale of such festivities has changed, with deeply ambiguous consequences for both men and women. Democracy, and a completely altered economy, require large numbers of young women and men to be on the streets at all hours of day and night. But while a female presence must be purposive, preferably collective and invisibilised (an accompanying child is like the Potterian cloak in such situations), no such restraints are placed on loitering men. Of late, women too have begun to break free of their claustrophobic prohibitions, joining public festivities in larger and larger numbers. This is, in part, a reflection of their earning capacity (which the bars and restaurants in central Bengaluru certainly encourage) and the growing democratisation of public life. For these pleasures, they have paid the price, too often without media or police taking cognisance of the same.
For the first time, the omnipresent camera has come into its own, recording the molestation, the pawing, the sheer ugliness of a testosterone-driven mob, and drawing national attention. It should interest us that the women who were subjected to such harassment were reluctant to come out to file FIRs, or complain to those who may well take the opportunity to let fly some sexist/racist abuses of choice. By this reluctance, the women are not being evasive: They are making the plea for a new kind of civility to emerge, one neither mandated by familial constraints, nor legislative fiat.
The most amiable crowds that I have ever seen in India are during Durga Puja in Kolkata, where millions of men and women course the streets through that week, patiently wait in lines to view the pandals erected on tiny spaces on busy roads. One rarely hears of molestation or abuse on those days. This is not the result of a feminist revolution, or even a left-inspired one, but a consequence of a city made safe by terms of fictive “kinship” that ensure women a familial relationship, in the best sense of that term. We could learn from such older forms of civility while crafting new ones. Now can we stop speaking about women’s clothing and habits?