The Shaming

Shedding clothes may get the authorities to act in India, but even that is not enough to jolt this country out of its comfort zone.

9 July, 2007:

As she walked the streets of Rajkot with a baseball bat in hand, and nary a cloth on her body except the bare essentials, people gazed on – curious, shocked, but unmoving. Or so it seemed from a picture in one of the dailies, a passer-by on a scooter smiling nervously at her half naked frame. When Pooja Chauhan’s efforts to get help from police failed, she braved it out by baring it.

Pooja Chauhan married Pratapsinh Chauhan four years ago after she fell in love with him. Little did she know that she was living the story of beauty and the beast, with a bizarre twist. 22-year old Pooja Chauhan was allegedly harassed by her in-laws for dowry, which worsened ever since she gave birth to a girl. She had separated from her husband five months ago, and was living with her daughter. The harassment, however, did not stop.

Pooja had asked the police to intervene on several occasions before, but to no avail. Recently, she tried to set herself on fire in front of the police station in a desperate attempt to get them to take action. This failed. When her pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears, and no help from any quarter coming her way, she did the unthinkable. She stripped, in the hope that at least this will shame the police into action. This time around, she was right.

The police took immediate action, and arrested her husband and his mother, and three other relatives. But the police was also quick to brush off any signs of neglect earlier with a comment that Pooja might be mentally unstable. A convenient comment, in the very least. A woman, tortured and abused, our police will not help her when she complained in a ‘civil manner’. And when she is at her wits' end, in a desperate move to seek help, she is labeled mentally unsound. Way to go; one is tempted to clench one's teeth. At least the courts show more understanding, when they announced Pooja’s protest as not indecent exposure.

Is Shock the Last Resort?

Even as people witnessed Pooja Chauhan determinedly marching to the police station, their reaction was nothing short of nervous abashment. In a conservative city like Rajkot, it takes tremendous courage to attempt what Pooja did. Arguments against her action can only raise more arguments. Is a clinical protest enough to draw attention to something no one is willing to take notice of? Pooja could have suffered in silence, waiting for someone to come and help. When she raised her voice, no one listened. Then she brought shame out on the streets, and suddenly everyone scurried, only to hide behind smirks a nervousness borne out of guilt.

When Gandhigiri seems to be the politically correct mantra to draw attention at the evils in our society, does Pooja’s case stand testimony to how far removed we are from reality? A landlady evicting tenants in the peaceful tradition of Gandhigiri is applauded and played up by a misty-eyed media. Benazir, a teacher in Bangalore, had been trying to evict a tenant for the last ten years. She had a brainwave when she saw Lage Raho Munnabhai. She marched to the tenant’s office, along with her students, presented him with a card and bouquet, and started conducting classes from the office. Peaceful, warmhearted protest won the day for her. And proud Indians evreywhere patted themselves on the back on hailing from the country of Gandhi, Gandhigiri, satyagraha.

Contrast this with the reception Pooja's protest got. Half-cocked congratulations, shifty-eyed smiles, outright derision on being a blot on India's culture and luke-warm reportage by the media. Gandhigiri is all fine but can someone in Pooja's situation afford to be pleasant, mild-mannered, and docile when she is the one facing a life-threatening situation?

The Thane Debacle or the Bystander Effect

A little before Pooja Chauhan’s case came to the fore, newspapers were awash with another shaming. This time, it was a busy morning in Thane. On June 23, Sushma Nikam was on her way to work as usual. Out of nowhere, Prashant Pawar jumped on her and stabbed her some 20 times, before stabbing himself and fleeing – right in front of onlookers. No one did as much as move a little finger. Sushma battled for her life on the busy pavement, and finally succumbed to her injuries nine days later at a Sion hospital.

The ones who had witnessed this gore bacchanalia never stepped forward to either help Sushma as she was being gouged with a knife, nor did anyone raise an alarm to call the police immediately. The question remains – why didn’t they? Perhaps there is something called the bystander effect, a phenomenon that claims how a person in a crowd does not act waiting for someone else to take the initiative. The bystander effect does not condone inaction; it is a mere reflection on the growing apathy among people.

All the Time to Stand and Stare

So what makes people not really step forward? Mob mentality of a very passive kind. India perhaps is a nation that believes in “it’s all about loving your family”. And living a smug life without having to worry about anything as long as the ATM called Dad exists.

Children are raised in protection; Mummy Pappa will ensure an unlimited supply of diapers to the kids even when they are not kids any more. When a son blatantly cheats, the granny lets it pass as legitimate because her grandson "bachcha hi to hai." Everything is served, the ladla betas and silver spoons are a life long concept. This obnoxiously pampered lot has never learnt the meaning of the word empathy; heck they don't even know that the other half exists. If ever there was a comparison to something so passive, it definitely will be goat manure or chicken goo.

This social loafing, or the idea that someone else will do the job could also be the reason why we fail to act when called for. We are a nation of billions that was never raised to take initiative. Anything out of the ordinary is automatically deemed a no-no, looked curiously down upon till someone else proves it is cool to be different. Or sometimes, we hesitate for fear of being proven incapable – that somebody else will do the job, and will do it better than we ever will. We freeze at the thought. We look on, hoping a superhero is among us.

We hail a Rang De Basanti, and love to think that the youth of the nation is awake. Oh, is it? We’d rather stand by, and then light candles later to show how much we care. We’ll wet our eyes and pray for a Prince to be rescued out of a pipe. In front of the television, that is. Now, that is action for you! How very moving, indeed.

Battle of Futility

When mass inaction threatens a person’s security, some individuals decide to fight it out. Like Jayashree, the wife of M N Vijaykumar, an IAS officer in the Karnataka Cadre. Vijaykumar has paid the price for blowing the whistle on his corrupt colleagues. He was transferred seven times in nine months. Yet he refused to give up.

Before Vijaykumar, Satyendra Dubey had blown the whistle on corruption in the national highway building program. He was brutally murdered. Shanmugham Manjunath was gunned to death for spilling the beans on a scheme to sell impure gasoline. And now, Vijaykumar too had started receiving death threats.

Jayashree, foreseeing the potential threat to life on her husband, started her own blog to motivate others to join the couple in the fight against corruption in the country. What also stands out in Jayashree’s blog is the Gandhian symbolism of the three monkeys, interpreted in the new light of our necrotic drive to act. But, is Jayashree’s effort worth it? Difficult to say, going by our fondness of living vicariously. It takes a lot to budge our seat out of that cushy cushion, and even a stabbing in broad daylight fails to do that. A blog, then, is only as effective as toilet paper when you desperately need a rasp.

If it’s blame we are looking for, it might make sense to think like an average Indian – the large chunk of the society born and brought up on borrowed morals, on years of conditioning more than any shampoo brand could endorse, on passivity that can emasculate an entire nation.





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