Try walking down the left pavement of Lower Circular Road any evening, taking the left turn from Camac Street, heading towards Park Circus, from where the street is hardly lit, and chances are that in five minutes a man walking past you will brush against you and keep walking at the same pace, or faster, never looking back, till the darkness blots him out.
Chances are that you will not do anything. Chances are that you will not even allow the matter to sink into your head, for you have a home to rush back to, and you can’t spend much time on an everyday nuisance. Chances are that you will keep walking at your pace, towards the shuttle car at Park Circus, only feeling slightly disturbed, slightly sullied.
One thing is sure: you are a woman who has to brave such things every day.
But Sreyashee Bhaduri, 30, chose to turn around. She was walking down Esplanade on a sleepy Sunday afternoon when a stranger made a lewd gesture at her. Hundreds of women in Kolkata must have been undergoing the same experience at that moment, but unlike those women, Sreyashee decided to act. She chased him down, caught hold of him and hauled him to the police station.
It may look like a small matter, as the offence against her does. Very few complaints against harassers are lodged. Kolkata police have recorded 211 cases of molestation in 2008. That may be the number of molestations occurring in front of Metro cinema alone in one hour.
Police encourage women to come forward. Jawed Shamim, the deputy commissioner of the detective department, urged women to lodge complaints with the police as soon as they face harassment.
But it takes a lot for a woman to get the man who is harassing her booked, much of the resistance coming from the police.
The check within
When this man, creeping up from behind, suddenly touches a body part, something in you whispers: “Let it pass”.
“From childhood a woman is mentally conditioned to ignore these ‘slight’ affronts to her dignity. It’s almost a defence mechanism that gets ingrained in every woman. And over the years as you are subjected to more such incidents, every day you get more and more desensitised,” says women’s rights activist Anchita Ghatak.
It’s almost like one’s relationship with alcohol. The more you drink, the more your capacity to hold your drink increases.
But don’t let it pass.
Try to prevent it. If the street is a jungle, the harassers are its predators, but don’t think of yourself the prey. Don’t look it either. Walk confidently. Be careful of anyone walking close, or coming towards you.
Do not lunge at your harasser without a thought.
“You don’t go charging if you’re alone and faced with a gang of five. I took the very bad decision of asking them their names and trying to take their picture as evidence, which completely backfired. I ran away and filed a complaint later,” says Pranaadhika Sinha, 23, the founder director of Elaan, an organisation that works against child sexual abuse.
Sometimes it may be enough to create a scene and embarrass the man.
Scream. Let people know.
People and police
The crowd, however, is not always to be trusted.
It will want to know what has happened. But it is often difficult to put into words what the harasser has done. It is difficult for a woman to name her body parts to a predominantly male crowd.
“Most people refuse to take street sexual harassment as a serious crime. It is something that is often taken for granted — something that is bound to happen,” says Saptarshi Chakraborty, a 22-year-old engineer and a core member of Blank Noise, a volunteer-based collective that deals with issues around street sexual harassment.
Some will laugh. Some will say: “If she has such a problem, why walk on a road?” Some will say: “Ki hoyechhe Didi, chhere din! (It’s a small thing; let him go!)”
Then you feel like giving up. You may even feel tempted to feel as the men in the crowd feel: that it doesn’t matter. But just remember your feeling of outrage once more.
As Sukanya Gupta, a coordinator at Swayam, an NGO that works to prevent violence against women and children, says: “Harassment of women is not just about rape or molestation. It can be a touch, lewd remarks or gestures, sexually coloured jokes, showing pornography, or leaving it at her desk…if it makes her feel uncomfortable, if it’s unwanted it’s harassment. More than the perpetrator’s intent it’s the woman’s feelings that matter.”
You can quit at any moment, but it’s better not to let him go. Letting him go is agreeing that women’s dignity is a trivial thing. Later, it gives you that horrible feeling.
The crowd did not help Sreyashee. On top of it, there was a group of policemen watching the scene, who just stared. “Madam is creating a scene for nothing,” said her harasser, who was drunk, and as Sreyashee was distracted momentarily, he ran.
She ran behind him, when she spotted a police sergeant, who, fortunately, chased the man and caught him.
Help at hand?
Traffic police, many feel, can be sympathetic. “I have spoken to the traffic and Metro police several times. I have always found them ready to help and mostly very kind,” says Sunaina Roy, core member Blank Noise.
Get their help. For you may not be able to run after your harasser to get him.
But be prepared that they may not help you. A woman in her 30s remembers lodging a complaint against a traffic police constable, who allowed her harasser to escape while insulting her for wearing “provocative” clothes.
Be prepared also for the man who muttered that ugly thing at you ear to vanish. “What can you do when someone feels you up in a bus and disappears? There is no proof!” says Pranaadhika.
But let’s assume that with the help of the friendly policeman, you have grabbed the harasser. You have reached the police station. Where begins another fight.
The police don’t usually take kindly to such cases. Often the woman is made to feel guilty for what has been done to her.
As Sreyashee waited at the police station with her harasser, policemen asked him, in an indulgent tone: “Ki re, ki korechhish? (What have you done?)” She was asked to write an application on a piece of paper and asked to produce its photocopy. When Shreyashee couldn’t find a photocopy shop, she was asked to produce a hand-written copy.
The police station might not provide you with any paper at all; you are supposed to bring your own paper. But the greater problem is convincing the police that a crime worth their attention has been committed.
Go armed with the knowledge of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 509 of the IPC states: “Whoever intending to insult the modesty of a woman utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound, shall be heard, or that such gesture, or object, shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon, the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend, to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
Section 294 speaks of obscene acts and language in public being punishable with imprisonment or fine or both. Section 354 also says assault or criminal force used on a woman to outrage her modesty is punishable.
The law could have been stronger, feel the police. “According to the IPC molestation is a bailable offence. If we arrest someone, he may get bail on the very next day from court. We recommended the government to make it a non-bailable offence, but it is not yet approved,” said an officer of detective department’s women’s grievance cell at Lalbazar police headquarters.
But the policemen’s reaction to crimes against women could be stronger too. Law is after all on your side, but the officers in their chairs may not be. Especially if you want to lodge an FIR.
If you feel that strongly about the assault on you, lodge an FIR (first information report). By lodging an FIR you are putting the criminal justice mechanism into motion.
“We make it a point to not advise any specific course of action but recommend the possible options. But if however the victim was absolutely sure about wanting to get the offender booked then an FIR is the only way to go,” says an activist of Blank Noise.
An FIR is the complaint that is the first information police receive on the commission of a “cognisable offence”, hence first information report. At every police station an officer is designated as a Station House Officer whose job is to lodge FIRs.
But lodging the FIR may be very difficult, for many policemen think that it would mean unnecessary work over trivial things.
The police often cite many more important matters — murder, kidnap, burglary — as their priorities. It is true that all police stations have more than their capacity of crime, which keeps the personnel busy. But the police may also try to tell you that by wearing the clothes that you did or by being out late you invited the crime; what right do you have to complain, let alone lodge an FIR?
Insist on it. You have the right to lodge an FIR irrespective of the circumstances that surround the particular incident. An FIR may be given in writing or orally. You can also get a copy for yourself — free.
In the event that the station house officer refuses to lodge your FIR you can work your way up the hierarchy to the police commissioner’s office.
It is not necessary that you should name the person you are accusing. You may not know it. Try to give a good description. An FIR can be lodged against anyone, including public servants.
The long arm of law
Then wait for law to take its course. It may be very long. A woman in her 20s, who had lodged an FIR about a year ago, with two of her friends at Jadavpur police station, against two men who had followed them in a vehicle as they were returning home one night, struggles to remember what has happened since.
“We went to the courts twice possibly within a month of the incident. The first time we went the judge wasn’t present and a different date was assigned. There was an identification parade before the judge, where we had to point out the two men from a line-up of about 20 men, some of similar build, and tell the judge what had happened,” says the woman.
Since then she is waiting for news. Like Sreyashee.
Why should a woman bother then, if, after all this, it takes so long?
Perhaps for the one satisfaction that if she does get a man booked for harassing her, he will not try that with another woman for a long time.
Malini Banerjee and Priyanka Roy, The Telegraph Metro on Sunday