In an ashram perched high on a hill above the noisy city of Guwahati in northeast India is a small exhibit commemorating the life of India’s most famous son. Alongside an uncomfortable-looking divan where Mahatma Gandhi once slept is a display reminding visitors of something the man himself said in 1921: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex [not the weaker sex].”
One evening two weeks ago, just a few kilometers downhill, a young student left a bar and was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men. They dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all. It was around 9:30pm on one of Guwahati’s busiest streets — a chaotic three-lane thoroughfare soundtracked by constantly beeping horns and chugging tuk-tuks. However, for at least 20 minutes, no one called the police. They easily could have. Many of those present had phones: They were using them to film the scene as the men yanked up the girl’s vest and tugged at her bra and groped her breasts as she begged for help from passing cars. We know this because a cameraman from the local TV channel was there too, capturing the attack for his viewers’ enjoyment. The woman was abused for 45 minutes before the police arrived.
Within half an hour, clips were broadcast on Assam’s NewsLive channel. Watching across town, Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta were horrified.
“I was fuming like anything. There was this horrible, brutal assault being shown on screen — and the most disturbing thing was, the blame was being put on the woman, who, the report emphasized, was drunk,” said Sharma, a 29-year-old feminist activist from the North East Network, a women’s rights organization in Guwahati.
“The way it was filmed, the camera was panning up and down her body, focusing on her breasts, her thighs,” said Dutta, her 22-year-old colleague.
When the police eventually turned up, they took away the woman, who is 20 or 21 (oddly, Guwahati police claimed not to know exactly). While NewsLive replayed pixelated footage of her attack throughout the night, she was questioned and given a medical examination. No attempt was made to arrest the men whose faces could clearly be seen laughing and jeering on camera. Soon afterward, the editor-in-chief of NewsLive (who has since resigned) remarked on Twitter that “prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs.”
It was only a few days later, when the clip had gone viral and had been picked up by the national channels in Delhi, that the police were shamed into action. By then, Guwahati residents had taken matters into their own hands, producing an enormous banner that they strung up alongside one of the city’s arterial roads featuring screen grabs of the main suspects. Six days after the attack, the chief minister of Assam, the state where Guwahati is located, ordered the police to arrest a dozen key suspects. He met the victim and promised her 50,000 rupees (US$890) compensation.
The damage was already irreversible. Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world’s biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country’s first female prime minister in 1966, but here, caught on camera, was proof. And in Assam — a state long romanticized as the most female-friendly corner of the country, largely thanks to the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The nation was outraged.