THE UNTOLD STORY – Perils of Protest


From cops flashing their private parts to bystanders taking advantage of the crowd and confusion to grope them, women protesters often go through hell on India’s rough streets. Sunday Times finds out shocking tales of sexual harassment, abuse and molestation

Maitreyee Boruah , TOI, April 29, 2012

A31, Minoti Saikia has been to jail thrice. Her crime? Participating in a protest. In cities across India, protests are a regular affair. What is not so regular is the treatment meted out to protesters, especially the women. “I always thought it’s easier to get heard if you are a woman, until I hit the streets with placards and banners in my hand. Police lathicharge was something I was expecting but the groping and abuses hit me like a bolt from the blue,” says the Guwahati-based activist.
Minoti was arrested recently while staging a peaceful protest against the construction of a hydro-electric project. She remembers the details vividly. “We were holding a demonstration that was completely non-violent. The police suddenly came and started dragging women by the hair. It was almost 2.30 in the night. We didn’t know how to react. I was numbed when I felt somebody running his hands down my back and waist. It was horrible.”
What is even more horrible is how bystanders also take advantage of the situation. “There have been many instances when people in the crowd have joined the commotion and started groping women protesters. That, too, in broad daylight,” says Minoti. However, it is tales of policemen molesting women protesters that are shockingly — and increasingly — becoming common. Besides physical assault, there is a lot of verbal abuse hurled at women. “The kind of expletives that the cops use can leave years of mental trauma on any woman,” says Mridula Kalita, secretary of Nari Mukti Sangram Samiti, which takes up causes like eviction of farmers and anti-dam protests.
Incidentally, it’s not just women in the lower socioeconomic group that are targeted. In March this year, female advocates in
Bangalore who were protesting in the civil court premises came back with horror stories about the police. “Some of them unzipped their pants and flashed at us. They pulled our sarees and groped us. We had seen in films such incidents about the police. We saw in reality also what they are capable of doing,” one of them said.
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a lawyer and human rights activist testifies to the extreme vulnerability of women protesters. She recalls her own experience with the Mumbai police when she was protesting against the Chhattisgarh High Court’s decision of prolonging the incarceration of Binayak Sen. “I was brutally assaulted by the police and dragged to the Colaba police station,” she says. “My ‘crime’ was standing silently with a poster proclaiming peace and justice! The cops came and attacked me and even tore my T-shirt. I had to cover myself when they took me to the police station but I did not care at all — it was for them to be ashamed.”
Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets, says that women are at risk of sexual harassment in any large crowd or mob — not just during protests but even while entering crowded railway stations. “What makes it worse is that in large groups, it is often impossible to identify the perpetrator.”
In the rare scenario when the perpetrators are caught, they are seldom punished. In 2006, for instance, a Punjab police personnel was clicked on camera molesting a girl during a peaceful protest by a group of veterinary doctors and students in Amritsar. Even though the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu notice after the picture appeared in a leading English daily, the police personnel were given a clean chit by the court later.
Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi, a forum for democratic reforms, says that the problem lies in the way the police are trained in India. “This is a result of bad training and poor recruitment policies. Police in our country neither know how to handle large numbers, nor have they been trained on how to behave in a democracy.”
It’s not as if police brutality towards women protesters is limited to India. In December last year, shocking images surfaced of riot police in Egypt brutally beating a woman with metal bars. The woman’s hijab was ripped off and she was kicked repeatedly on the chest till she became unconscious.
Activists say that such blatant violence is slowly affecting women protesters. “There are so many instances when our fellow women protesters have given up joining protests because of cases of molestation,” says Kalita. Adds Nandita Shah, co-founder of Akshara, an organisation that aims at empowering women, “There needs to be an urgent change in the way society treats women during protests. The only other option for women is not to protest at all.”
Not a great thing that for democracy.
With inputs from Anahita Mukherji

ROUGH ROAD A Tibetan woman activist is hauled away by policemen in Delhi, March 2012; (left) Egyptian riot police personnel brutally attack a woman, December 2011, and (right) Arpita Majumdar, a final-year medical student, became the face of defiant women protesters in 2006 by taking the onslaught of a water cannon, chin up