CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN

Was it mass molestation? Debate rages over what happened in Bengaluru on New Year's Eve

With no woman coming forward to file a complaint, police says it still does not have evidence of 'mass molestation'.

Nearly 10 days have passed since reports appeared of “mass molestation” in Bengaluru during New Year’s celebrations. The reports sparked outrage and protests by citizen groups, led to condemnation by celebrities, and dominated the news for several days.

Even the foreign media took note of the events, with The Guardian saying the violence in Bengaluru had triggered “another round of national soul-searching” in India, which had begun after the gangrape and murder of a woman in Delhi in 2012.

The initial uproar has died down. The Bengaluru police have registered four First Information Reports based on witness accounts. But with no woman coming forward to file a complaint, officers say they still do not have evidence of “mass molestation” on MG Road and Brigade Road that night.

So what exactly happened that night?

The first reports

It began with the Bangalore Mirror’s series of reports on January 2 about what they called the city’s “night of shame”. The newspaper’s photographers who were at the city’s Central Business District provided the first accounts of a crowd frenzy at midnight and of women being pawed and groped and struggling to make their way towards police personnel standing by.

In his first-person account on January 2, Bangalore Mirror’s photographer Anantha Subramanyam said, “Screams for help started ringing in the air as people in dire straits were not able to reach the police as they were caught in a sea of revelers, many of whom were clearly drunk and out of control, and looking to misbehave.”

Subramanyam and his colleagues reported that a lady inspector at the scene said that 10 women approached her, of which eight complained of losing their friends in the crowd, one complained about eve-teasing and one about molestation.

The chaos started at midnight, Subramnyam told Scroll.in, and it was close to 12:50 when the police, who resorted to lathi charge, could bring the situation under control. “There were some men who might have fallen on to women while trying to get away from the police lathi charge, but there were also men who had come just to misbehave with women,” he said.

Changing stances of the police

After Bangalore Mirror published their first set of accounts from the night, which were picked up by other newspapers and TV channels, Bengaluru Police Commissioner Praveen Sood, who had taken charge only on January 1, invited women who had been assaulted to come forward. He also said that the police would take suo moto action if they found credible evidence.

The next day the police commissioner tweeted that they had indeed found “credible evidence” of molestation along with wrongful confinement and attempt to rob.

But by January 5, the Bengaluru police concluded that mass molestation did not happen. The police chief clarified to NDTV that while such a thing “could have happened” in a city of 10 million, there was “no evidence” of it. He also objected to the term “mass molestation”.

Was it mass molestation?

Bangalore Mirror used the term to describe how a large number of men used New Year’s revelry as an opportunity to paw, molest and make lewd remarks to women passing by, “forcing some of them to literally take off their stilettos and run for help.”

The paper also gathered accounts from others on MG Road that night. MC Abbas who was hosting an event at a hotel on MG Road described helping five women who were being surrounded by a crowd of 25 or 30 men. “I heard women’s screams and saw them running with their high heels in their hand… The hooligans were calling them names and talking to them disrespectfully. Some of them seemed drunk.”

The scenes described by Subramanyam and Abbas reportedly took place in the 150 metres between the MG Road Metro station and the Brigade Road junction and little beyond. At the same time, some women leaving pubs, restaurants and churches around the area have spoken of being harassed or groped by men that evening, away from the thickest part of the crowd.

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The India Today report above said the police watched the drama as mute spectators. However, Bangalore Mirror itself and other media outlets reported that the police were outnumbered and could do only so much to help those in need.

Orchestrated attacks?

Social media commentators have been swift to criticise what happened that night, the seeming lack of action by the police, as well as the reactions of politicians who laid the blame on women and their “western dress”. Many Bengaluru residents blamed the influence of so-called “outsiders”.

Some were also too quick to draw parallels to the attacks in Cologne a year ago, where hundreds of women claimed to have been molested by the new immigrants from the Middle East. Others compared the incidents to sexual assaults in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the uprising of 2013.

But Subramanyam clarified that what he saw did not seem in any way planned or orchestrated. “No, not orchestrated. And it is not that this kind of thing has not happened before,” he said. “This time the crowd was much more and so it was worse.”

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The crowd gathered on Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve

Meanwhile, a TV journalist who says he was on Brigade Road till 1:45 am on January 1, wrote in his blog that “there was no mass physical molestation” but that both men and women were harassed. He described being heckled by a violent crowd while trying to record a piece-to-camera.

“The couples who had come to the pubs and restaurants started coming to Cauvery Junction,” he wrote. “As soon as they reached Cauvery Junction, the crowd started hooting, shouting, whistling and following them.”

There were also men who followed a group of girls, hooting and passing lewd comments at them, he added. “These girls were in a sense of a shock, I don’t know whether they were assaulted by any group or what happened to them but they were looking very frightened. Women police inspector present at the situation came immediately to them and took them to the side and dispersed the crowd which were behind them.”

Even though he did not witness physical attacks, the journalist clearly described sexual harassment of women by members of the unruly mob.

Everyday violence

In all the outrage, journalists at the scene and women in Bengaluru have not failed to point out that harassment and molestation on the streets is all too common. Anoopa Anand’s description in Firstpost of her visits to Brigade Road in her years growing up will resonate with almost every woman who has walked the street. “Some fifteen years ago, a gentle squeeze of a buttock on the steps leading down to Melting Moments. Some other time, a free grope to go with your cheeseburger at the Wimpy’s checkout line. That memorable elbow in the breast outside Rex Theatre. So many stories, so many gropes, one street. But I’m not counting. Not till the last parent has stopped saying ‘boys will be boys’.”

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