Molestation in Bangalore--how many is 'mass' ?

Written by Ammu Joseph | Published on: January 18, 2017

One paper coined the term and others picked up from there. A fortnight later a counter narrative was being energetically pushed out

AMMU JOSEPH on the trajectory of media coverage

Bengluru molestation


The day after Bangalore Mirror broke the story of “Bengaluru’s Night of Shame,” coining the term “mass molestation” to describe what happened at the hotspot of New Year’s Eve revelries in the city, other newspapers also reported that “the … celebrations went horribly wrong,” though some did take the precaution of using the word “allegedly.”  The Times of India’s front page report stated unequivocally that “a large number of women were molested by mobs.” By then the Home Minister of Karnataka had provided grist to the media mill with his infamous “these kind of things do happen” remark, even as the police maintained that they had not yet found any evidence in the CCTV available to them at the time. 

By Day 3 even The Hindu was using the term “mass molestation” and Bangalore Mirror published an account of the “Nightmare on Namma (our) Street” by a young woman who decided to speak out and reveal her identity to encourage others who had similar experiences to do so, too, and to convince the authorities that “it really was mass molestation.”  Other accounts by survivors as well as eye witnesses also began to appear in the press, including online news media, with Bangalore Mirror leading the way.  Deccan Herald reported that the police had registered a suo moto First Information Report (FIR) based on evidence provided by a citizen.

By the next day a video surfaced that clearly showed the horrifying harassment and assault of a lone girl walking home along a deserted residential street (nowhere near the scene of the “mass molestation”) by two scooter-borne men in the early hours of the new year. The disturbing visual evidence, recorded by a CCTV camera belonging to a private house in the neighbourhood, gave rise to hyperbolical newspaper headlines like “Sin City!  Let’s Hang our Heads in Shame!”  A report in Deccan Chronicle, headlined “New gang of psychopaths on the prowl” and based solely on the opinions of an anonymous police officer, claimed that the men caught on camera were “reportedly the new breed of psychopath gangsters, who are on the prowl targeting lone women on city streets at night.”  The shocking footage was widely aired and shared, often as proof of the “mass molestation,” especially by people – including journalists – with no idea of the city’s geography. 
 
"Even as a special team of the Central Crime Branch began to check unedited CCTV footage from the scene of the “mass molestation,” the police continued to assert that no concrete evidence had emerged."
 
Meanwhile, the term “mass molestation” had become a hashtag and had gone viral, was trending, etc., generating responses and counter-responses on social media, including #NotAllMen.  And there were almost daily reports of yet more, isolated cases of sexual harassment and assault somewhere or the other in the city.

Even as a special team of the Central Crime Branch began to check unedited CCTV footage from the scene of the “mass molestation,” the police continued to assert that no concrete evidence had emerged.  And more sections of the media began to use quotation marks and “alleged” while referring to the reported multiple incidents of harassment and assault by New Year’s Eve revellers. 

Finally, exactly a fortnight after the dawn of the new year, came the headline, “The mass molestation that wasn’t – How a panic was created about Bengaluru’s safety.” While the story in The Sunday Times of India was in itself unexceptionable, the headline and the apparent focus on the fact that what happened – if it happened – was not peculiar to the city, that other cities have a much worse record in the annual number of reported cases of “molestation,” and so on, gave some credence to rumours that had been circulating about the media being under pressure from influential people with a stake in “Brand Bangalore” (whatever that is) to move away from any further coverage that would adversely affect its supposedly good, progressive image.  The high profile Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Convention scheduled the weekend after the reported “mass molestation” made the negative publicity a particularly sensitive issue.

Another story appeared in the TOI on 18 January, headlined “151 molestation complaints filed in 3 years were false.” Much was made of the fact that less than 7% “of the 2190 complaints of molestation filed with police from 2014 to 2016 were found to be false,” with the data presented under the sub-head, “Truth vs. Fiction.” There was, naturally, no statistic on the number of experiences of molestation that were not reported at all – likely far more than the number of complaints recorded by the police.  Nor was there any data on the proportion of false cases among complaints relating to other forms of assault unrelated to gender, as well as murders, thefts, property disputes, etc.

The fact is that there was nothing particularly unusual about the manner in which sections of the media reacted to the several cases of sexual harassment and assault that undoubtedly took place in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve (not for the first time). 

In view of the huge crowd (100,000 by some estimates) and the number and range of available CCTV cameras (around 40 according to some reports), the absence of videographed evidence does not mean that nothing happened.  A journalist who was on the scene and wrote on his blog that “there was no mass physical molestation” did, however, admit to seeing crowds hooting, shouting and whistling at couples and following them, and men following a group of girls, hooting and passing lewd comments.  According to him, “these girls were in a sense of shock” and “looking very frightened.”  Even if one were to accept that there were no “physical” attacks, that does not mean that no molestation took place:  the word means “sexual assault or abuse of a person, especially a woman or child,” “the action of pestering or harassing someone in an aggressive or persistent manner.”

The fact that no police complaints were registered by any women subjected to such harassment or assault is unsurprising, too, considering the customary experiences of women – anywhere in the country – who have approached the police after such occurrences and, of course, the tendency of relatives and friends to urge them to “move on” and not subject themselves to possibly unsympathetic, if not hostile, official and public scrutiny.

The question is whether the several undeniable incidents amounted to “mass molestation.” Going by the dictionary definition of the adjective – “involving or affecting large numbers of people or things” – the only uncertainty is:  how large is large? 
 
"Whether the several undeniable incidents amounted to 'mass molestation' is the question."
 
I myself have used words like epidemic (noun: “a widespread occurrence – usually of an infectious disease – in a community at a particular time,” adjective: “of the nature of an epidemic) and even pandemic (adjective: “[of a disease] prevalent over a whole country or the world,” noun: “an outbreak of a pandemic disease”) to refer to gender violence in general and sexual violence in particular.  I have done so advisedly because I do believe that both are appropriate descriptions of what is officially recognised across the globe as one of the most prevalent and acute forms of human rights violation in the world.  The United Nations, the World Health Organisation and other responsible organisations describe violence against women and girls as a public health pandemic.  

The targeting of a particular city or state – while admittedly meaningless – is nothing new either; nor is the defensive reaction to such adverse attention.  Delhi is routinely referred to as the crime capital and the most unsafe/dangerous city for women – not only in the immediate aftermath of the notorious gangrape of December 2012.  Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was panned for his statement that rapes take place all over the country in response to the projection of UP as a particularly rape-prone state following the gang-rape and murder of two girls in Badaun district in the summer of 2014. 

Interestingly, a Google search for the most dangerous city in India throws up a number of lists that present a bewildering range of options.  Clearly the ranking of cities and states as the best and worst on various counts is a popular media pastime. Interestingly, according to one such mapping exercise, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh boast the highest prevalence of rape, with Jabalpur (MP) heading the list of cities – with 14.4 rape cases for every 100,000 women – and Bhilai (Chhattisgarh) in second place, followed by Bhopal, Indore, Raipur and Gwalior all recording 11.7 or more cases per one lakh women. Kota in Rajasthan is next, with 9.5 cases.  At the same time, the search also threw up a news report headlined “Kerala crime capital of India, Kochi most dangerous city.”

The debate about New Year’s Eve celebrations vs. more “traditional” events that also draw large crowds, “western” vs. “Indian” culture, “outsiders” vs. “locals,” is equally inconsequential.  The only relevant issues in this context are violence in general and gender violence in particular (sexual violence in public places being just one manifestation of gender-based violence); women’s human rights and especially, in instances like this, their right to access public spaces as, when and for whatever purpose they wish to without fear of harassment or assault; the state’s ability and willingness to uphold and safeguard these rights; and society’s commitment to gender equality and a violence-free environment.  These are the issues that the media must foreground even as they continue to report on violent incidents as and when they occur.  All else is folly. 
 
Ammu Joseph is a  Bangalore-based journalist and author. Contact at [email protected]

Courtesy: The Hoot