Mumbai Turns Off Denial Mode

The English section of the Mumbai press has started to debunk the myth that Mumbai is “safe” for women.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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When a barbaric gangrape in the country’s capital spurs Indian cities to count (or discount) their own rapists, chances are that city’s press either joins the competitive vigilantism or indulges in the smug flaunting of their “relatively safe” tag. Generally speaking, Mumbai’s English press has been guilty of the latter. Its clichéd (and grossly exaggerated) narrative on women being relatively safe in the city has been the staple diet of Delhi-Mumbai dichotomy talk between the chatterati of the two cities. In the process, popular perceptions get distorted and the agenda for urban governance consumes some delusions. Not this time.

For a change, the English section of the Mumbai press has responded to the Delhi gangrape outrage with some semblance of introspection. It confronted and exploded some myths about Mumbai’s fabled safety for women.

On December 20, 2012 Mid-Day had a screaming headline – “And You Thought  Mumbai Was Safe” – as it launched its editorial campaign, Make Mumbai Safe with a stark strapline – “Can’t afford to keep quiet anymore”. In a Front Page editor’s note, Sachin Kalbag, the city paper’s Executive Editor wrote: “While there must be anger at the decline of the city (Mumbai), it is time to convert that anger into something constructive”. The same day, Mid-Day, The Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, DNA, Indian Express and Afternoon Despatch and Courier carried the story of the molestation of a 22-year girl outside KEM hospital in broad daylight.

The next day (December 21, 2012), Afternoon Despatch and Courier found holes in the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s theory of the city being “safe” for women with the banner headline which read “Wrong, Mr Commissioner”. The report went on to say: “A day after top cop Satyapal Singh declares Mumbai safe for women, housewife is attacked in Sewree.”

There is statistical support for the English press becoming alarmist. The insidious rise in crime against women in Mumbai gets reflected in figures. Digging into crime records, Praja Foundation, a city-based organisation, found that 207 women were raped and 552 molested in Mumbai in 2011-12. There has been a rise of 15% and 14% in cases of rape and molestation in Mumbai respectively (compared to the previous year). What is noticeable is that registration of cases has also witnessed a rise as (in the given period) 430 women registered cases saying their modesty was outraged.

The Sunday morning papers (December 23, 2012) in the city reported the rape of a Nepali woman in the city, and The Sunday Times of India  put it as the front page story with a terse headline saying  “Woman from Nepal raped thrice in a day in city”. In line with the current outrage, Mumbai dailies have been running a weekly timeline of sexual assaults on women in the city. And the numbers in the timeline add to the horror, exploding myths about how “safe” the city is for women.

However, what is equally worrisome is something which is more banal and less sensational than a rape. The relegation of women as objects of sexual harassment in Mumbai’s public space and workplaces has been the dark underbelly of Mumbai’s attitude towards women in general, and working women in particular. This has given Mumbai the notorious distinction of the Indian city with the most number of cases of sexual harassment in recent times. If you have a look at the sexual harassment figures in some big Indian cities (provided by National Crime Records Bureau), the following statistics emerge for the latest year studied (2011):

City      Cases of Sexual Harassment (latest figures available, year 2011)

(Source: National Crime Records Bureau)

In a piece in Sunday Mid-Day (The Horror of the Mundane, December 23, 2012), 1991 batch IPS officer Marie-Lou Fernandes put the dangers of ignoring banal infringements in perspective. She wrote, “The greater horror is in the mundane, not in the sensational. The daily molestations and assaults that women face, ‘petty’ crimes often burked by law enforcers, powerless victims regularly turned away at the police station, routine injustices that fall through the cracks of criminal justice system ‘non-cognizable’ offences that mask the true nature of an increasingly violent society – that is the real horror since it conditions our tolerance. We normalise these daily horrors into acceptable social patterns, and we as a society deteriorate”.

As Mumbai’s English press seems to have turned off the denial mode, the accounts of the vulnerability of women in the city are surfacing and the stark realities have to be dealt with. The Mumbai press is confronting the ugly truth which was getting swept under the carpet of mythical image-building of public spaces in the city. A city can’t thrive on myths for long. It has to accept its ugliness too.

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