Was India’s capital New Delhi safe for women 30 or 40 years ago? How about 60 years ago, soon after Independence and long before women in Delhi had a chance to find their voice? The answer is NO
Pink, the movie, is the talk these days. It is set in Delhi, India’s capital and a city notorious for crime against women. Four years ago a woman student was gang-raped and brutalised inside a moving bus. The case shocked people across the world, but even then many in the city blamed the woman.
It is an attitude the film’s sheet anchor — actor Amitabh Bachchan playing defence lawyer Deepak Sehgal — brings up repeatedly in the trial scenes. The woman victim is always at fault: she was out late, her clothes were of a provocative cut, she was drunk, etc.
The fact that the 2012 bus gang rape victim was returning home at 9pm, conservatively dressed and completely sober does not jolt this narrative at all.
Parallel with this runs the belief that women today are too ‘fast’ or ‘bold’ for their own good. “She is asking for it,” say Delhi’s conscience keepers. “It was not so in our time,” declare the city’s grey hairs and bent backs.” The emancipated Delhi woman is leading completely upright men astray, they claim.
Really? Was Delhi safe for women 30 or 40 years ago? How about 60 years ago, soon after Independence and long before women in Delhi had a chance to find their voice? The answer is NO.
5 Years After Independence
In 1953 the British were still a recent memory. Janpath was still Queensway, and Connaught Place was still the throbbing heart of the Imperial capital the British had vacated.
Late in the evening of February 15 that year, when a party of diners was leaving a restaurant in Connaught Place the women in it were molested by another group of five male diners, all of them allegedly drunk.
Two of the culprits were caught on the spot, one was identified but managed to evade arrest while two others could not be identified. How could police not make the arrested duo name their companions, you might wonder, and that turns the light on another Delhi trait: the culture of influence and patronage. It is very much a part of Pink’s storyline in 2016.
The case came up for discussion in Parliament on March 3, 1953, and then home minister K N Katju addressed this homily to the House:
“The problem posed by this incident is not one of law and order but of public morality and good manners. Recurrence of such incidents in their entirety can be prevented only by the members of the public themselves behaving with strict propriety and desisting from the use of liquor.”
The minister’s tone left many in the House dismayed. C G K Reddy, the MP who had raised the question, asked: “Apart from the sermonising that we had just now, I should like to ask who the alleged miscreants are; I want the names… Reports have it that they are highly connected persons who are likely to escape the arm of the law.”
Did the home minister read out the five names? No.
When other MPs clamoured to know them, Katju turned to the House chairman:
“Sir, I have got the names, but I would like to have your protection not to disclose them.”
Why would India’s home minister be so secretive about the names of five alleged molesters? Something to do with their ‘high connections,’ as Reddy hinted?
10 Years Later
What about the 1960s? Were women safer in Delhi then? Here’s the government’s own data for crimes against women. ‘Teasing’ is a loose term that should be read as the ‘most serious cases of molestation short of rape’ because women neither then nor now would go to police to report wolf whistles. Also remember that Delhi’s population in 1961 was only 2.66 million, as against 16.79 million in 2011.
50 Years Ago
Remember the sex attacks in Cologne and other German cities last New Year’s Eve? Delhi’s moral police would of course pin the blame on the women. “Small clothes, large drinks.” They would also blame the West’s “decadent and debauched” ways.
Such an outrage could not have happened in India, right?
But it happened in New Delhi on New Year’s Eve in 1967. It happened in the heart of the city, within sight of Parliament and in the presence of more than 200 police personnel — one deputy superintendent, 11 upper subordinates, 27 head constables, 149 constables, and traffic police staff of one sub-inspector, one assistant sub-inspector, one head constable and 14 constables.
This is the account minister of state for home affairs Vidya Charan Shukla gave Parliament on February 14, 1968:
“Reports were received that large crowds of revellers who had collected at various places in Connaught Place on the New Year’s Eve hadstopped cars and molested women seated in some of these cars. There were also reports about manhandling and snatching of valuables from the person of passers-by.”
The government denied it had failed to make adequate security arrangements and termed it a case of dereliction of duty. “The arrangements were not defective. The people who were put there to carry out the arrangement, they did not discharge their duty properly,” said Shukla.
When Member of Parliament B D Khobragade pointed out that the incident happened within 100 yards of the Connaught Place police station, Shukla replied the station house officer of Parliament Street police station, an officer of deputy superintendent rank, had been suspended.
As happens in such cases, police and government’s accounts did not convey the full extent of the outrage.
I was told that when the ladies who were attacked went to the police station with bleeding faces and bleeding breasts the police people on duty just said: ‘Write your report and give’
Shukla was cagey about admitting that a foreigner woman had been assaulted by the crowd. The victim was rumoured to have met and complained directly to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
“The reports that have been lodged with the police station do not reveal the name of any foreigner but I am aware of the fact that certain incidents took place which were not reported to the police station,” Shukla said.
M L Mary Naidu, a woman MP from Andhra Pradesh, gave shocking testimony about police behaviour: “They were there in large numbers but when the ladies who were attacked approached them, they said they had no arms and they had no orders to interfere.
“I was told that when the ladies who were attacked went to the police station with bleeding faces and bleeding breasts — there is nothing to laugh; this is something to cry over (perhaps some male MPs broke into titters) — the police people on duty just said: ‘Write your report and give’.”
Two months on, only seven people had been arrested. The case was discussed and forgotten.