This happened in Silchar (in Assam) a few months ago, right on one of the centrally located streets of the town, in full view of the people on the street and in the busy shops lining both sides of that street, at 12 noon on a weekday. A young woman from a local women’s college was abducted by a group of men from right in front of the college gates. The woman was an honours student and the leader of the group of abductors was the son of a much respected party worker of the district committee of a very prominent political party, obviously someone with a lot of clout. The woman was hurled into a waiting car and whisked off to a suburban area a few kilometres away from the main town. There, she was raped repeatedly by the leader of the group, and then by his cronies. After that, nearing evening, the men brought her back to town and ‘dumped’ her, again in full view of the people on that busy street.
The next day’s newspapers carried the story as a headline, and then for a week or two, there were stories about arrests made, and then there were candlelight marches, and ‘dharna’ meetings by well-meaning (I am sure) women’s organisations and NGOs. A month later, there were no more stories in the newspaper about the woman, or the men who had ravaged her life. But I guess this is just another small town story. “Yeh sab toh hota hi rehta hain,” as some of us would say, of course.
My mother, and other elders in the family, are of the opinion that ‘small towns’ are ‘safer’ than ‘big cities’, and therefore it is best to make do with a permanent setup in this small town of Silchar. I agree to this point, however grudgingly. A small mofussil town like Silchar does have its ‘safe’ sides. Everyone knows everybody else here. There is little fear of one’s being left stranded to face the din when one is in any trouble. The spaces in such places are more compact, distances lesser than in the cities, which makes it easier for help to reach the distressed in time. There’s a more ‘safe-making’ social camaraderie in small town Indian societies one can really bank upon in times of need. A theft or a dacoity in any one house in the neighbourhood will still bring the neighbours to the rescue, or a fire or an accident will bystanders, which, I am told, is not the case in the cities (though I really wonder why nobody seemed to be able to rush to the young woman’s help in the incident I spoke of just now).
Are small towns actually that ‘safer’, that much ‘anti-violence’ than big cities in that people can live their lives without fear of being plundered, ravaged, hurt, beaten up, raped or killed? The answer is neither a resounding ‘no’ nor a unanimous ‘yes’.
There is a divorced lady in our neighbourhood who lives with her young college going son in a small one-bedroom flat in one of the new apartment buildings that have come up here recently. She came to visit my mother one day early in the morning a few months back. All the time she sat there with my mother, I could hear the sound of a muted weeping coming from her. My mother sat there trying to console her and after the woman left, what my mother told me was something I had not expected to hear. Apparently, the woman (let us call her Mrs. A) was being harassed by a local businessman, who is also a general secretary for the district committee of, again, a very important political party. He had borrowed money from her, almost all of her savings, and had decided on not refunding the money. When Mrs. A had gone to the businessman’s office to ask for her money, the man had shouted at her in front of his customers, and then had dragged her out into the street and had spat into her face, calling her a whore, and other similar names. She had lodged a complaint against the man at the sadar police station here, but no one had followed up on it. The police had told her that it would be difficult to get any action taken up against that man since he was very well connected politically. A few months after the incident had happened with the woman, I heard a few people at the neighbourhood adda comment about it. When I asked what they were talking about, they told me that they were talking about that woman who runs a prostitution business from her house in the neighbourhood and who had been ‘handled properly’ by the previously referred to businessman. “She deserved it. I hope she stops doing those things now. This is a respectable neighbourhood after all.” This was what the last comment was. I was amazed at the direction things had taken. As far as I knew, the woman was a hard working teacher who used to travel to a distant village early in the morning to teach at an LP school there. She used to return home very late in the night, of course. When did she find time to conduct such a ‘business’, then, I wonder?
The businessman did not have to pay back the ‘loan’, I am told, and the woman left the neighbourhood with her son a few weeks before now. The matter was hushed up and since everyone knows about the remarkable political commitment of this businessman cum political worker, he emerged the righteous hero from it all, and the woman was relegated the status of a bad memory.
I think the streak of almost misogynist violence that runs through the various strata of Indian society is growing broader day by day. Especially so in certain social and cultural spaces where a veneer of respectability is an indispensable thing to have. Women must be ‘respected’ like a goddess out in the open, in public spaces. Whether that respect extends to their being treated justly, or fairly in more exclusive spaces like the extended family, or the household, and let us not even think about their being treated on par with men, is dubious indeed. Violence against women in such Indian societal spaces I speak of here has since long crossed the boundaries of dowry deaths and domestic abuse, though those haven’t really stopped after all. It is violence of a different sort, and a different magnitude that haunts small town Indian spaces now. I am sure this sort of violence exists even in the cities. Only the parameters of how it is perpetrated are different in the small towns.
When I talk of gender equality in class, or among friends, or comment about ‘gender trouble’, I get told that this is “a small town and such things are meant for bigger cities where people have more money and different lifestyles, and we still subscribe to traditional cultural values.” I have very little to say in retort knowing how ignorance breeds more ignorance and that the safer thing to do in such cases is to nod in silence.
Am I being safe, or just being a coward? I guess it is the same thing.
(Arjun Chaudhuri writes when he is not reading or editing. Which he does a lot of as the Founder-Editor of the online literary quarterly, The Four Quarters Magazine. He is a prolific poet and writer with many published poetry and essay collections. His recentest poetry collection, Metrophobia, was released in 2012 and the next collection, Rain Tree Deity, is slated for a Jan-end release. He lives in Silchar, Assam).