On the 25th of January the news broke that Manish Mishra, a grand nephew of the Prime Minister, had been murdered the previous evening by being thrown from a running train near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. It was shocking that a young person could be so brutally murdered in public, and it is also surprising that the relative of such an important person as the Prime Minister is as vulnerable to criminal acts as any common citizen. But there is a subtext to the story which is very important in the context of the increasing rate of crimes against women.
A year and a half ago in August 2002, a young woman was raped on a suburban train near in Mumbai. There were half a dozen male passengers on that compartment - all of whom saw the rape and none stepped in to stop it. Interestingly one of the passengers was a journalist. Now if we fast forward to 24th of January 2004 we find a similar situation happening on the Chattisgarh Express, near Mathura. This time Manish and his friend were in the compartment where some men were trying to molest young women. In stark contrast to the mute passengers in the Mumbai suburban train these young men protested. The results were radically different - in Mumbai a girl, who many claim was mentally retarded was raped, in Mathura a young man died.
The question that immediately comes to mind is: which of these is more desirable? What would one do if one were faced with a similar situation? Unfortunately it is very difficult to answer these questions. If our interests are tied to the men in question the answer is perhaps is easy - look the other way and live to see another day. But can the same be said if our interests lie with women?
Men and rape prevention
Much of the violence against women takes place in private, at home, behind closed doors and within the family. Dowry murders, domestic violence, deprivation and discrimination against girls and sex selective abortions are witness to the high incidence of violence against women within the family. Incidents like the two reported above provide just a glimpse of the violence that takes place in public places. Add to this the violence against women that takes place in state institutions like the police station and the hospital or sterilsation camps and you have a mind boggling variety and overwhelming incidence of violence that women are actually subjected to.
As mentioned earlier in the last twenty years or so womens groups have been able to bring the debate over violence against women into the realm of public discussion. This has happened around dowry related murders, around rape, around issues of support and maintenance after divorce, and most recently around domestic violence and sex-selective abortions. But in much of the debate it remains limited in scope as a womens issue. It is perhaps in this light that we can interpret the 'observer' status of the male passengers while the rape took place on the Mumbai suburban train in August 2000.
However there was something fundamentally different in the reaction of Manish and his friend to the molestation of women passengers on the Chattisgarh Express on 24th January 2004. They did not consider the molestation as a womens issue and remain mute bystanders, they considered it an issue for men too, and intervened. The results were ghastly, but the intervention can be considered a beacon. It drives home the point that there are men who consider violence against women their issue as well.
While violence against women is experienced wholly by women, men remain very important players in the equation. It is convenient to label it a womens issue and then look the other way. The usual righteous excuses - 'I treat my daughters and sons equally'; 'I do not beat my wife and so it does not concern me', etc. are too short-sighted. As fathers, brothers, husbands, friends, and even as members of society at large, men contribute to this situation not only as perpetrators and silent sympathizers but also as passive if not cynical observers. If violence against women is unacceptable and it has to come down this situation must change. Men - in the family and in society - must start owning responsibility for the change. Men as husbands, fathers and brothers must start by examining and changing their own behavior towards other members of their family. And the men who remained silent observers all this while must change into active protesters.
All this talk of change can sound unrealistic and unattainable, but in fact is not so. Small experiments along similar lines have already started in different corners of India. These seek to involve men in the efforts to reduce violence against women, and they have been started by ordinary people. In some places there are teachers who discuss these issues with their students, in others professionals from different walks of life have formed groups to fight violence and abuse, there are film-makers who have started exploring the issue through their own medium, and a state-wide network of men has been started in one place to stop violence against women. These are very important efforts but at the same time these are very small. The need of the hour is for all concerned and sensitive men to realize that violence against women is an unacceptable aspect of our society and that all must join in such efforts to stop it.
The choice between watching a rape happen and risking ones life to stop it, is no choice at all. If we feel we have any stake in seeing our world treat women a little better, then Manish and his friends have taught us a valuable lesson.