The Forbidden City

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City It was another rape story to commemorate the 16 December horror two years ago. Why is Delhi not a place for women on the road?
Two years ago, on 16 December, a 23-year-old girl was brutally assaulted and gangraped by six men in Delhi. She was with a male friend, returning home from a popular mall in south Delhi after watching a screening of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi on a chilly Sunday evening. While the chances of getting an autorickshaw all the way back to her home in Palam Vihar near Delhi airport so late that evening seemed slim—the city’s three-wheelers usually operate on the driver’s convenience and cost calculations, if not whim—she and her friend took one to Munirka a few kilometres west, and then got onto a private charter- service bus headed in the right direction that stopped by a bus stop there. This was just a little after 9 pm.

It seemed like a prudent option. It was not too late and she was not alone. The horror she was subjected to on that bus seared India’s conscience like no other case before. The 23-year-old, a physiotherapy intern, was brutally and fatally gangraped by six men while it did repeat rounds of the 7-km stretch between the bus stop and Mahipalpur flyover, barely a few kilometres away from the airport’s Terminal 3. Her male friend, also grievously assaulted, was rendered helpless. At the end of it, reports suggest that the rapists—a 17-year-old among them—and the bus driver, an accomplice, tried to run the two over. Severely injured and practically naked, the two were discovered dumped on the roadside by passersby, who called the police. The girl died 13 days later, despite attempts by doctors in Delhi and Singapore to save her.

Last week, the country was jolted by another sexual assault. In the late hours of 5 December, a 27-year-old woman, a finance professional working for an MNC in Gurgaon, reportedly had an evening out with friends at a pub at Cyber Hub, a lively promenade of eateries amid the glass-and-chrome glitz of the suburb’s business zone. After that, it was time for her to head home in north Delhi. It was 10 pm. She had an app for Uber, a San Francisco-based radio taxi service, on her smartphone. She asked for a cab to pick her up from a friend’s residence in Vasant Vihar, some 15 km north of Gurgaon. Uber, a US-based brand, was assumed to have all its drivers reliably verified and every cab tracked via GPS, as is expected of modern taxi services. She dozed off in the backseat of the cab; when she did not respond to the driver’s queries about the route to be taken, he reportedly switched off the phone given to him by the cab network (and hence the GPS navigation and tracking system downloaded via app on it) and drove past her home to park in a secluded area near a garbage dump, where she woke up. By her account, he raped her on threat of killing her by inserting a rod into her, a horrific reminder of the physiotherapist’s ordeal. After the sexual assault, he dropped her near her house, threatening to kill her if she dared inform the police.

The driver, nabbed four days later, turned out to be a serial offender with at least eight cases of theft, rape and molestation registered against him. Since then, the Delhi government has banned the cab service in the city for not adhering to mandatory safety norms; Uber, which ran into trouble with the RBI for its international transaction systems, is a service ‘aggregator’ whose business model puts available cabs in touch with customers. Other operators as Ola and TaxiForSure have also been banned in the capital. For its part, the Union Government has advised all states and Union Territories to crack down on unlicensed taxi services. The police in many cities are being asked to gather data on cab drivers. Databases are to be coordinated and updated.

The case, however, haunts the city.

Many observers are wary of the same old pattern playing itself out again. After an initial reaction of shock, the general discourse turns towards slips in service standards and government norms, accompanied by a blame game pegged around the laxity of those in charge of safety and the victim for being foolishly ‘reckless’. And then follow a set of knee-jerk government responses that usually address a localised issue, such as the mechanism for checks. Public protests play a role as well. After the 16 December case of 2012, people rallied to pressure the Judiciary to award capital punishment to rapists and to reduce the age limit—from 18 to 16— below which a perpetrator is treated as a ‘minor’, to be sentenced only under the relative leniency of juvenile law.

There is also an attempt to shame the city into ensuring women’s safety. Since the 16 December incident, Delhi has been referred to as the country’s ‘rape capital’, a challenge to the authorities to disprove the tag. Statistics issued by the National Crime Records Bureau has officially confirmed this status. In 2013, Delhi topped the country in reported rapes as a proportion of its population, with 18.6 reported assaults for every 100,000 people.

The blame game may continue and the police may enforce checks and bans, but Sonia Kashyap, 25, a marketing executive in Gurgaon, feels that things will not change. “Each time I decide to head out for a party with friends, my parents worry about my driving back alone,” she says. They are constantly reminded of journalist Soumya Vishwanathan, who was shot in her car near Vasant Kunj—not far from where she lives—for overtaking another car about eight years ago while driving back home after a late-night shift at work. Kashyap, who was 17 at the time, recollects the horror that had engulfed her gated south Delhi neighbourhood. Later, her father would insist on dropping her to college every day. As she grew older and landed herself a good job in Gurgaon, she says that radio cabs seemed like a ticket to weekend parties and late nights with friends. “I would always hire a radio cab and assure [my parents] that it’s safer, as there is GPS, but even a radio cab is not safe anymore,” she says. An MBA graduate from Mumbai who has been trying to move out of Delhi for the past few months, she is now even more keen leave the city. “I came back to Delhi because I wanted to be with my parents, but Delhi makes me claustrophobic with this constant worry and nagging about keeping myself safe.” She has had to deal with rude cab drivers on several occasions, but never imagined that a girl could be raped in a radio cab. “It just felt safe with driver badges and GPS,” she says

Her friend and colleague Prerna Gupta, 27, couldn’t agree more. “There are these constant checks and balances one has to have—‘Don’t drive alone’, ‘Don’t argue with strangers even if they are the ones bothering you’, ‘Keep pepper spray in your bag’, ‘Keep parents informed of your whereabouts’—it is very frustrating when you would like to believe that you are an adult and can make independent choices at both the professional and personal level,” she says.

Shambhavi Jain, who recently graduated from Delhi University and is now training to be a professional choreographer, seems to have internalised a set of safety checks. “It’s like a part of your daily routine: no autos after dark, no crowded buses, which bus will be safer at what time of the day, and how to dodge creepy men who try to feel you up in a crowded bus,” says the 21-year-old who makes it a point to travel by Metro to her training academy in Noida or catch up with friends for a movie or coffee. Venues are planned in accordance with accessibility to Metro stations. For her, the Delhi Metro is the safest bet as it offers an alternative space “because we have a women’s compartment”. Says she, “I travel in the general compartment only if we are a big crowd of friends, as it can be as bad as a DTC bus.”

As urban women continue to push boundaries and claim a rightful share in public spaces alongside men, each rape case is a shocking reminder of the brutality that threatens to keep these spaces out of bounds for them. The questions that are posed are of little comfort in such a bleak scenario. For instance, when a young photography intern—also accompanied by a male colleague—was gangraped in the Shakti Mills compound in Mumbai in September 2013, the first question that came up was why she was there after 6 pm in the first place.

Freelance photographer Paroma Mukherji was shocked when she heard that the Mumbai office of a national publication was considering not hiring women for its photo team after that incident. “This was part of an informal conversation with the head of the photo department in that organisation. They already had one female photographer and made it sound like such a big risk,” says Mukherji. “If the ‘risk’ of rape can push us away from professions of our choice, it is horrible.” While Mukherji took the matter up for discussion on Facebook, the company later issued a formal apology on the matter, claiming that it had no such official policy.

While the volume of dialogue about violence against women and women’s safety was vastly amplified by the 16 December 2012 case, which perhaps explains the jump in reported molestation and rape cases in Delhi, Professor Sanjay Srivastava, head of the Sociology Department at Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, feels that this amplified volume often also distracts us from the issue of public spaces open to all adults. “Historically, we have never dealt with the idea of public spaces in Delhi,” he says, “Urban spaces are clearly divided between the two genders. So, when incidents like these come up, there is a reaction that can turn certain spaces out of bounds for women, creating a further divide.” He cites the example of several safety apps that have flooded the market since the 16 December case. “Many of these apps allow you to take a picture of a spot you perceive as ‘unsafe’ and tag it on a map, cautioning other app users. But we are just making those spaces further out of bounds for women and not resolving the issue.”

Former advertising professional and noted columnist Santosh Desai feels that it is mainly an attitude of lawlessness and lack of adequate policing that explains Delhi’s particularly high incidence of rape. “Policing standards in Mumbai are very different from the policing standards in Delhi, which essentially panders to the political class,” he says. “Besides, in Delhi one can dodge traffic lanes, jump signals and even go around looking for a secluded spot with impunity, knowing that no one would come and question you,” he adds, referring to last week’s rape. While Delhi is a porous city with scattered settlements, Desai believes it also reflects a North Indian deficiency of societal control, which is all the more evident in attitudes towards women. “The key issue is predictability of law,” he says, “If the law functions the way it should, such incidents will not occur as frequently.”

The bus in which the physiotherapist was raped was originally registered as a school bus in Noida and was illegally plying that route, with its driver avoiding police barricades and checkpoints. In last week’s case, the cab driver charged with the 27-year-old’s rape had also slipped through the regulatory system.

While it brought the discourse on the bestiality of men towards women to the public fore by sparking off a wave of mass protests, the 16 December incident also led to a movement of sorts, building public opinion in favour of stricter laws to be put in place. The pressure led to a judicial committee being set up to amend laws for faster investigation and prosecution of sex offenders that eventually resulted in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance being cleared; it included in its ambit offences such as sexual harassment, voyeurism, acid attacks and stalking, all under the Indian Penal Code. Six fast track courts were set up, and so far, 593 cases in Delhi have been dealt with by these courts.

Professor Srivastava, however, feels that rapes and other violent crimes can be controlled only through sustained programmes that address differences of perception over gender roles, especially in public. “If a cabinet minister claims that sex education is not part of our culture,” he says by way of example, “we will never be able to address the issue beyond just conversing and discussing the issue of violence.”

One such initiative is a gender sensitisation effort by Delhi-based Manas Foundation for auto drivers in the city. In partnership with the state government, it aims to address behavioural attitudes vis-a-vis female commuters. “Women constitute more than 80 per cent of the commuters who use autos and auto drivers share a very intimate space with their passengers,” says Monica Kumar, managing trustee of the Foundation. Apart from clarifying what constitutes sexual harassment, the programme also seeks to have people examine the various gender roles prescribed by tradition. “We talk to them about perceptions of women smoking or drinking, travelling late at night, or working professionally,” she says, “The idea is to challenge these notions of roles and help them understand that women too have a stake in public spaces.” The Foundation has so far reached out to about 45,000 auto drivers in Delhi.

“Active participation and conversations are imperative when it comes to dealing with issues such as these,” says Sonali Khan, vice-president and country director of Breakthrough.TV, an international internet firm that ran campaigns like ‘Board the Bus’ and ‘Muavza Nahin, Suraksha’ through social media platforms in the wake of the 16 December and Badaun rape incidents. While ‘Board the Bus’ was aimed at reclaiming public transport in Delhi, encouraging women to stake their claim, the latter was a protest against the apathy displayed by authorities during the Badaun investigations. “Social media is the best to reach out to young people,” says Khan, “and the numbers are mind boggling.”

According to Sahil Bedi, a 17-year-old student whose ‘social experiment’ video clip of a mock rape in a four-wheeler— eerily similar to last week’s—went viral earlier this year on YouTube, his video was meant as “a mirror to society”. As the staged assault video shows, most people who passed by the van—unaware of its being a mock-up—did not display any concern despite hearing the shrieks of a girl. It was a recorded voice, but most “chose to ignore it”, says Bedi. “We need to talk to people and tell them to be more active, this is how I can reach out to people.”

Yet, it is not clear if that many people are ready to engage in a broader discussion on rape. Feminist activist Kavita Krishnan, who was at the helm of the 2012 street protests, feels that the discussion has begun to go limp. “There is always a stir when a high-profile case is reported, be it Nirbhaya (16 December), the case of Gudia (a three-year-old child who was sexually and physically assaulted in a Delhi slum), a Badaun, or the cab rape,” she says, “We don’t have any consistency in dealing with violence at the grassroot level.” The 16 December case did draw national attention to the problem, so much so that most political parties had women’s safety as an issue listed in their manifestoes for this year’s General Election; but all of that now appears to have an air of mere sloganeering. Also, other tags are being waved around. “‘Love Jihad’ too has become a popular tagline, where the family or community decides that the woman has been forced into an inter- religion marriage,” she says, “which defeats the purpose.”

The media’s role, everyone agrees, is crucial to raising concern. Abhinandan Sekhri of, a media observer, says that while the 2012 case ensured that rapes were covered carefully even as rape reportage registered a big rise, the recent coverage of the cab rape case is disappointing. “It is limited to blaming taxis for rapes as they run for profit, or how the safety of our mothers and sisters is important,” he says, “The discussion should be around police and judicial reform to prevent rapes, and not the National Commission for Women.”

Sadly, until something substantive changes, Delhi is likely to remain a forbidding city for half its residents.