What happened on one of the busiest streets of Guwahati in the evening of July 9 has raised a storm for almost a fortnight now and been discussed so threadbare that there is now room only for the kind of soul-searching that every law-abiding society needs to undertake in order to sustain itself in reasonably good health. However, what happened will remain a matter of abiding shame for the residents of Guwahati, thanks to the inhuman deeds of about 30 young men who attacked a 22-year old woman as she emerged from a bar on GS Road. [There were earlier reports of a 17-year-old girl who had gone to the Club Mint Bar on GS Road to attend a birthday party, but I prefer to go by the affidavit that the victim herself filed later on before the magistrate.] She claims to have walked out of the bar and got into an auto-rickshaw to go home. After that a group of youths apparently dragged her out of the auto-rickshaw, beat her up, pawed her and tore her dress. The group that had about 14 principal culprits soon swelled to about 30. This rowdyism and violence went on for over half-an-hour until the police arrived. Except for one elderly person, no one tried to rescue her or protect her. She shouted out to drivers of passing cars for help, but no one stopped. Journalists of a local TV channel shot the entire proceedings for as long as the violence was going on. One of the journalists apparently did try to protect her, but was repeatedly prevented by his colleague who insisted on recording every bit of the proceedings. According to some eye-witness reports, this particular media man apparently orchestrated the proceedings and encouraged the hooligans.
Why the women had gone to the bar and what her age was are not relevant to the main issue before us: that it is no longer safe for a woman to walk out of a restaurant or bar in the evening and attempt to go home in the capital city of Assam. (What is perhaps significant is that some people attempted to turn her into a minor.) And yet, no one can claim that we have decided, by common consent, to be part of a society that has bid goodbye to all laws. But this is precisely the kind of illusion that these 30-odd youths who ganged up for a bit of impromptu crime managed to create. They probably gave the impression that everyone in the city of Guwahati was inclined to indulge in such crimes as long as the opportunity and the right company was there. And anyone who saw the violence inflicted by a group of two-legged hyenas on a defenceless woman for well over half-an-hour with neither the police nor any law-abiding citizens coming to her help would indeed have valid reasons to conclude that anarchy prevails in the city, that the city does not have a police force or police stations and that it totally lacks good law-abiding souls with guts and backbones.
Why should it have taken the police about half an hour to arrive at the spot and rescue the victim? The capital complex at Dispur is about two kilometres from the spot and the police station a little over a kilometre away. According to reports, people kept ringing up from the Club Mint Bar repeatedly as soon as the trouble started. And yet the police took half-an-hour to reach the spot.
What is even more intriguing and inexplicable is the role of a television channel that recorded the entire incident from start to finish. There are legitimate questions that arise on what a journalist should be doing in such situations. Does a media man from a TV channel cease to be a citizen when he witnesses such violence? Does he not have a moral duty to intervene and prevent such attacks? There are those who would even draw a parallel between a reporter of the electronic media and a historian! They claim that the task of the TV reporter is akin to the task of a chronicler and that therefore it may not always be possible for him also to be a law-abiding citizen and to intervene in such matters. While this may be a debatable issue, there can be only shock and a sense of horror at such mob violence against a lone defenceless woman being allowed to go on. So far, two TV journalists have resigned their jobs in the interests of a transparent and fair inquiry. Would they have felt the need to do so unless they realized that what had happened constituted a serious crime? In the case of Atanu Bhuyan, was it really the remarks by the Chief Minister about the role of journalists that made him resign? In any civilized society, they would not have had the option to resign. The pertinent question is whether the resignations tendered by the two TV journalists will immunize them from the penal provisions of the law if there was indeed any wrong-doing on their part.
One cannot help being aghast at the speed at which the identification and the arrest of the criminals has been going on. The television footage clearly indicated as many as 14 culprits. So far, 12 of them have been arrested. The principal culprit who may have had some kind of a nexus with the over-enthusiastic TV journalist is yet to be apprehended. He is reported to be somewhere between Mumbai and Goa now.
In such circumstances, one naturally recalls what had happened in 2007 at Beltola during a rally when tribal girl was attacked by a group of 12 or 13 young men who stripped her in broad daylight and made her walk down the street. Not only did the police fail to protect her at that time, but even today, five years after the incident, she has yet to receive any kind of justice. As such, it may be too much to expect anything significant happening in the next few days by way of the arrest of all the identified criminals and their speedy trials. It would indeed be most unfortunate if this girl too were to be denied justice in the same way as the Orang girl was after the shocking incident of 2007. At least this time the National Commission for Women was alert enough to conduct an inquiry. The victim of the 2007 outrage naturally wonders where the National Commission for Women was in her case.
While everyone in the State is shocked and shamed to the core, it will not do for Delhi and Mumbai to adopt a holier-than-thou stance of outright condemnation of the entire society here. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram was prompt to come out with his condemnation. Fair enough. But does he not seem to have forgotten how many girls from the Northeast have been raped in New Delhi? Has he already forgotten about the two girls who had been kidnapped and raped in a moving vehicle? Has he also forgotten the several other instances of molestation of girl students from the Northeast in the national capital? That apart, it is also important not to overlook the fact that what happened on July 9 was one kind of heinous crime committed by a group. One cannot go on overlooking other crimes being committed by those within the government and suddenly wake up to one kind of crime alone. The Union Home Minister cannot be unaware of all the corrupt practices and the crime of rampant loot of the exchequer taking place every day with the tacit consent of those in power. It will not do for him to pick just one kind of crime committed collectively. The exchequer too is also often collectively looted. The problem here, as in other parts of the country, is that crime goes unpunished—all the more if the criminals happen to have political connections. Even when there are convictions in a few cases, justice is done so late that no one is really afraid of breaking the law any more. The perpetrators of the heinous crime of July 9 were able to do what they wanted for half an hour even when the State’s capital complex and the police station were so near. Criminals also remember that the public stripping of the tribal girl in 2007 has not yet resulted in any convictions and punishment. Criminal elements are always emboldened by such failures of the administration and the judiciary.
Perhaps the bottom line is that the evil lot in any society unites more swiftly and more surely than good people. They are also able to intimidate the law-abiding people. If our society has to be saved from goons, good people must also get into the habit of getting together swiftly in such situations. Criminals who attack a girl in a group of 30 or so are really cowards. They also know that they are committing a crime. If just 10 determined and courageous law-abiding citizens descend on them in a group, they are bound to flee, because there is at least the fear of being seen and identified later on. The time now is for soul-searching—both among policemen and journalists. Journalists would do well to evolve a code of conduct or adopt the one compiled by the Editors Guild of India if they do not want a code of conduct to be rammed down their throats one day by the government.