The year is 2003. I’m in Class X in Lucknow in an all-girls school. The topic of discussion: mass molestation and the horror stories coming out of Lucknow Mahotsav. Clothes torn off, women, both young and old, molested, groped, possibly sexually assaulted. A classmate recounted how she managed to get out in time, saved only because her brothers pushed away the groping men. Nobody knew who the men were, nobody remembers any arrests being made.
You can Google search for the same; there’s one lonely Times of India link that comes right on top. There’s a reason why I’m mentioning this. Because while everyone in Lucknow knew that something truly horrible had unfolded at this so-called fair, the mainstream media was reluctant to cover it.
There were stories of how women, their clothes torn off, ran to the closest media houses, hoping it would get some attention immediately. For context, at that time, the Lucknow Mahotsav venue used to be very close to some media offices in the city. None of that had an impact, it took more than a week before the story reached page 2 in the city edition of Lucknow. Page 2, yes that’s right. Then some television channels covered it, but that was it.
There was no social media to raise an outcry, no hashtags like #LucknowOutrage or #LucknowShame. It was a mass blackout, an attempt to just erase the incident till public anger finally forced some acknowledgment. A meek acknowledgement was all that women got for the horrors they suffered that day.
Cut to 2016, and now Bengaluru has hit the headlines for mass molestation on New Year’s eve. Seemingly we are all outraged. How can a city hailed as India’s own Silicon Valley be so horrific in its treatment of women? How could police not do anything? A repeat of what happened in Mumbai in 2007? Everyone is angry this time. Angry on social media, ranting away on blogs, pointing out how police is insensitive or how the minister who blamed ‘western ways’ is wrong.
But the truth is that for many young girls and their parents, the Bengaluru incident is another reminder of a lesson that women in India learn pretty quickly. Public spaces don’t belong to our gender. When you do venture out into public space and there’s a large unruly crowd, chances are you will be molested.
If you think this happens only on New Year’s eve or during a fete, then let me correct you. This happens on a daily basis and most women are unable to do anything about it. Got on a crowded bus? Someone will try and touch you or worse grope you. Boarded a crowded local train? Be prepared to be groped because you didn’t get into the ladies compartment. The latter is something I’ve experienced is so-called safe Mumbai.
You think you’re safe in planes? Ha. I got groped on the bus back to the airport after my flight. For the record, I slapped the guy and my boyfriend and I dragged him to the police station and registered a complaint against him. This I did after an initial moment of self-doubt, and I know I would not have dared take any action if I was younger.
But the message of these incidents is the same. Men in India, no matter what the city, are unwilling to share public space with women. A new year’s celebration out on the roads belongs to men, not women. Drinking out on the roads is something men can do fearlessly. Women are reminded that there’s a price to be paid for such bravery.
The Bengaluru incident will simply reinforce that lesson, the one I quickly imbibed when I heard of Lucknow Mahotsav horror stories. You get molested by a crowd, nobody is going to give a damn, not the police, the media or the administration. Safety in India is a personal word, you are responsible for it, not the crowd, not the city, and definitely not the police. If you bungle on your safety, you’ll be the one sharing the blame.
Of course, times have changed now, and we are quick to cover these incidents. But that’s about it. The lesson that I’m picking up from Bengaluru is still the same, the one I got in 2003. And yes, parents across India will be busy reminding their daughters: Sorry, the streets are not for you.