On New Year’s Eve in Bangalore – a city considered to be one of the most modern and cosmopolitan areas in India – photos and live footage of mass molestations of women were captured and publicized, attracting the attention of international news outlets. Despite a dispatch of a 1500-member police force to contain the incident, male crowds grew increasingly uncontrollable and sexually harassed and attacked what is estimated to be thousands of women who were on the streets of Bangalore that night.
However, the official response to the molestations from the general public were overwhelmingly those of denial and victim-blaming, effectively highlighting the patriarchal and misogynistic undertones of the conservative perspectives of the older generation in power in India. To get a better idea of the context of the incident and the underlying causes, I spoke to my friend Shradha Jain, who is originally from Bangalore and was in the city on the night of New Year’s Eve.
DT: So give me your version of events.
SJ: So it was New Year’s Eve, and I had just landed from Rajasthan that day; we were going to another part of town so I wasn’t around the immediate area, but I heard about it the next afternoon when I woke up. I was devastated. I also had heard about it before at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I was calling my cousins to wish them Happy New Year, and all of them told me about how they drove past that area, and there were thousands and thousands of flip flops and just shoes lying around on the road, on the streets. It seemed like there had been a stampede or something and everyone’s shoes had been left there.
DT: What were the shoes from?
SJ: There were thousands of people there. Women were using the shoes to beat away the men who were trying to molest them. Since it was New Year’s, women were wearing heels, and they took their heels off to try and protect themselves and a lot of people just ran away without their shoes. In such a situation where you feel like you’re in danger and you have no immediate weapon on you, it’s common in India – even if a stray dog is attacking me in India, it would be a normal reaction to take off your shoes. In India, shoes are considered something very dirty, and so nobody would want to be touched by a shoe. Automatically, if you have a shoe in your hand, then the attacker’s going to back off. And so it’s used as a defense mechanism. I didn’t see what happened firsthand, I read about it in the newspapers the next morning.
DT: What happened afterwards?
SJ: There were a quite a lot of events in Bangalore afterward that encouraged women to stand up for themselves and protest what happened. There were walks, rallies, conferences and a bunch of NGOs were doing a lot. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any help from the government.
DT: Right, and the minister of Karnakata said that it was because of the women’s Westernized dress.
SJ: He said that things like this were bound to happen if women were dressed in Westernized clothes, and obviously that statement has a lot of complexities in its roots. The fact that India was colonized by the British has left a lot of negativity and a lot of hate toward Western culture, and Western culture is seen as a threat to Indian conservatism, and so an immediate reaction for someone in his position given his background would be to say that the cause of the event was the fact that women were dressed in Western clothes. He wouldn’t want to blame the patriarchal Indian society because he is a man in a very high, powerful position in India. Even one of the ministers in Maharashtra, which is the state that Mumbai is in, said, “I wouldn’t want my daughter out on New Year’s Eve wearing short clothes if it wasn’t with her husband or her brother.” I guess that has a lot to say about the familial culture in India. I think that right now India’s in a position where there’s so many different complexities, primarily because of the exposure that the youth in India has gotten from the Internet.
DT: So there’s a clash between the older generation and the youth?
SJ: Exactly, the youth are being empowered to do what they want to do. I think the primary problem in India right now is that — it’s like what happened in the United States, there’s echo chambers being created. So there are the liberal Indians who are promoting women empowerment and who are fighting for this cause, who are trying to increase safety for women, but then again they’re clustered in the same circles. They’re not trying to penetrate into communities that don’t believe in this. The problem is that that penetration isn’t happening unless you’re able to capitalize on local newspapers and local languages that are being distributed in rural areas in India. That’s where conservatism is primarily created and focused. Every single article that I read about the incident was in English, in a global newspaper. I mean, you’re fighting for a cause, but you’re fighting in the wrong marketplace, essentially.
DT: Were the mass molestations shocking to you at all or is this something that happens often?
SJ: I mean, the size of it — I knew that there were going to be molestations on NYE, it happens every year —
DT: Does it? Why did this one make such a splash in the news, then?
SJ: Because of the size of it.
DT: What do you think is the underlying problem? Do you think in addition to the patriarchal culture, it’s because of the way that Indian boys are raised in the family?
SJ: I definitely think that it has a lot to do with the way that you’re raising your children. But I think more than that it’s the response that we have to such incidents. Right after this happened, my mom told me that I wasn’t allowed to go out to that area. I told her, “Mom, if you’re going to hide your daughters inside the house and be scared to send them out after these incidents, then the response is not to change the way you’re raising your sons, but to hide your daughters instead.” Having that response is not going to change anything. It’s like if we were to live in a community next to a mental asylum and 20 serial killers escape. Are you going to try and catch them and send them back? Or are you going to hide inside your homes instead? We should be saying, “Oh, our daughters should be free to do what they want, in a safe environment, so let’s create that safe environment.”
DT: Teach our boys to do better.
SJ: Exactly. Let’s raise our children differently, let’s make sure that boys do not feel as if they own the bodies of women. Let’s raise our children to believe that men and women are on equal standing.
DT: Do you think the most effective way to push an agenda for women empowerment would be state-sponsored, then?
SJ: I think that the government needs to step up. The prime minister of India has still not made an official statement after the incident.