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
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.
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.