Nirbhaya’s shadow still looms over Delhi

From the moment I stepped on to Delhi soil this November, I sensed things have changed. Just out of the airport, I noticed a cab with a blue sticker on it, written: “We respect women. This cab is safe”.

Women participate in a candlelight vigil to condemn the Nirbhaya gang-rape in New Delhi

Women participate in a candlelight vigil to condemn the Nirbhaya gang-rape in Delhi

Later I came to know that special gender sensitization workshops are being held for cabbies and those who attend the workshops get to use these stickers.

Laudable efforts indeed, but these are doing little to lift the shroud of dread that has engulfed Delhi after Nirbhaya’s rape in 2012.

Six men brutally raped the 23-year-old paramedic in a moving bus in Delhi. All six accused were arrested and tried in a fast track court. While one of them committed suicide in police custody, four others were sentenced to death by hanging and the youngest of the gang, who had mutilated her with an iron rod, got a sentence of 3 years since he was a juvenile then and is about to be released this month.

Many media reports say he has been a model inmate at the home while some reports say he had been interacting with people with radical mindsets and there are fears he might have been radicalized.

The central government on Monday urged the Delhi High Court to extend the convict’s detention. It said that several mandatory requirements are missing from the post-release rehabilitation plan of the juvenile convict. The next hearing is on December 20.

Although most Indians feel that releasing the delinquent would be letting him off too lightly, the general attitude is that there are many more young men like him on the streets of Delhi who could turn predator if they get an opportunity.

I have been travelling to Delhi on various assignments since the early nineties and I have always travelled there alone and I have never faced anything untoward.

Yes, I have been cautioned to stay doubly alert in the Indian capital but on this visit the words of caution sounded like the buzzing of a bee. Wherever I went, there was someone telling me to be careful.

I did the unthinkable

It was 6 pm. I had taken a lift from a man in Gurgaon, Delhi. I had met him only that morning at a creative writing workshop where I was one of the speakers and he, an app developer and writing enthusiast, was attending the workshop.

The roads of Gurgaon are dark for long stretches where you hardly spot anyone walking on the streets and then there is light – the dazzle of a snazzy mall, a posh apartment building, a Cineplex or a lovely hang-out like Galleria where you can shop and dine.

My sister-in-law, with whom I was staying in Noida, called just then. I had left home early and had not called all day. She sounded worried. I told her I was being dropped to a friend’s place where I would stay the night but I just did not want to press her panic button by saying I was travelling with a man I had met that morning.

I did not tell my friends and family in Delhi anything about my transgression though. I could not have handled the repercussions I am quite sure.

The gentleman with whom I was travelling turned out to be a paranoid father of a 16-year-old girl. He told me: “We have a driver who’s been with us for the last 10 years but I have never allowed him to take my daughter anywhere alone. You just can’t trust anyone here.”

Is it really impossible to trust in Delhi?

My friend said her home was five minutes from Galleria where I had been dropped. I very nonchalantly said I will walk it. She said, with finality, “There is no question of walking about in Gurgaon at 8 pm. Take an auto.”

I relented for once.

But at other times, I never travelled in the women’s compartment, as advised, talked to strangers, took advice from random men and women about metro stations and auto stands and at 7 am was dropped at my destination, with much care, by an auto driver.

I am glad I chose to trust Kadu Deb the rickshaw-puller at Noida. When he dropped off my friend, I asked him if he would come back after an hour to pick her up. He did. Then I told him to be there at 6 am the next day to pick me up. There was Kadu braving the fog and cold, 10 minutes before time. The sense of time and commitment of this rickshaw-puller reminded me of the Japanese.

Reveling in the company of all good men, just when I was thinking I am turning out to be the odd one out in Delhi, Preetha Banerjee, a young journalist, living alone in the capital, ratified my thoughts.

Preetha said, “As a young woman, my view about Delhi is in complete contrast to what is always reported in the newspapers. I have been living here for almost two years, all by myself, and I have come across the most chivalrous, nice men here.

“I live in South Delhi but it’s not like I restrict myself to the posh, guarded societies of GK and CR Park. I have travelled regularly to places like Daryaganj and Rohini and at odd hours. There have been days when I’ve boarded an auto from a deserted road at night and put myself at the mercy of the driver but I’ve never been let down.

“In public transport, I just have to appear in front of men who have a seat and they vacate it for me most of the time. My landlord calls me several times a month to check if there has been any security breach in the apartment or if the young, college-going guys opposite my flat are creating any nuisance. So far, the picture has been rosy.”

The fear factor

Delhi has a vibrant young crowd thanks to the colleges and universities and job opportunities in the city. It also has a whole lot of moneyed people with the right political connections who have so far believed that they can get away with anything.

It also has people from all states of India coming there for working in all kinds of jobs and many with the most regressive mindsets and attitudes towards women.

Shyamali Bose, a journalist and mother of two, who lived in Delhi for a long time, wrote this in her article in Huffington Post India:

“My 11-year-old son had won two tickets to the preview of the movie The Hobbit in a school contest. It was an evening show and presuming that the film would end by 9 pm, I agreed to take them for the screening.

Unfortunately, the movie began ridiculously late — at 8 pm. And by the time the show ended, the metro ride that we had hoped to take had stopped its services. There was no dearth of autos outside the movie hall, though, so we negotiated fares and decided to hop into one.

As I attended a call, the driver chatted with my sons, asking them why we were out that late. The man, all wrapped up in a muffler, then went on to belittle me for watching a movie so late at night with two kids in tow. He thought it wasn’t very ladylike.

Then to my utter surprise, he stopped the auto in the middle of nowhere, turned around and blamed my family for allowing us out on our own. He was giving us a piece of his mind while I seethed, unable to talk back as rudely as I wanted to since I feared for our safety. As I yelled at him to start the auto, he nonchalantly told me that women from good households should hold their tongues and not lash out at men!

I have been working night shifts all through my career and was never afraid of the ungodly hours. But the underlying threat in the driver’s voice and the fact that I had two little boys with me and had to return home through a near-empty highway on a foggy, bone-chilling night, parched my throat. I was angry, irritated and very afraid in my city, the national capital.”

Curbing independence

I traveled in autos and found the metro the best and the safest means of transport in Delhi and it has done a wonderful job of connecting the length and breadth of the city.

But a lady doctor, who like thousands of other women in Delhi drives her own car, told me, “There is life above the line and below the metro line. On this visit you are experiencing life above the line. Try taking a public bus. That is where the real Delhi exists.”

I didn’t get a chance to take a public bus but what set me thinking is if taking a public bus is such an issue, if travelling late in an auto is a formidable task and if going home before the sun goes down is still the best thing to do for women, then what kind of jolt did the movement that happened after the Nirbhaya case give to the system?

It seemed to have heightened the fear, curbed women’s freedom and have not yet provided real solutions.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

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