By Shreya Ila Anasuya
“We’ve raised our voices in the past,
And this time will not be the last.” – Peggy Seeger
There is something strange about sitting in a quiet room in Delhi in late-2013, reflecting on the year gone by, not far from where a young woman watched a film on the night of 16 December, 2012. The events that transpired after left an indelible imprint in the public domain, sometimes to an intrusive level: typing “16 December gang rape” into a Google search will present one with the graphic suggestion “…victim photo.”
Those of us who had already been irrevocably immersed in thinking deeply about gender violence, either through studying it, organising against it, or through experiencing it, marvelled at this particular eruption of protest. In a world where so many people experience so many different kinds of gender violence, why did we react in this manner to this particular incident?
Was it that strangers attacked Nirbhaya, instead of a husband, in which case the attack would have been legitimised at various levels? Was it that the attack was so physically violent and its minute details were dissected so thoroughly by the media, lending almost a voyeuristic feel? Was it that she fought so hard to live, but ultimately lost her life?
Whatever the reason, this is now recognised as a watershed moment in the fight against violence on women in India and internationally, much like the Mathura case in the 1970s led to re-examinations of the ideas of consent and conversations around custodial rape.
It also brought into a harsh glare the extremely regressive, misogynist and violent attitudes – the same ones that make this kind of violence on this scale possible – held by many prominent public figures. At the height of the protests, the mainstream media consistently styled the pulse of the nation as being geared towards capital punishment for the rapists, this gang-rape as an aberration, and the perpetrators as ‘brutal animals.’
But as we have seen again and again from the vantage point of history, this kind of violence is hardly an exception (Mumbai, Jind, Kamduni), and nor can we slot the perpetrators into a particular social class, psychological subset or category (a prominent retired Supreme Court Judge, Tehelka founder, Tarun Tejpal). And the supposed moral clarity around capital punishment hardly has a large public consensus.
I started this reflection with a quote from Peggy Seeger’s ‘Reclaim the Night’ – a specific couplet that continues to appeal to me even as the broader framework within which it sprang has since been radically re-casted. The ‘Take Back the Night Calcutta’ event I hurriedly announced over the microphone at my university reunion, after having spontaneously decided with a friend to hold one in solidarity with those happening in Delhi and Mumbai, was similarly re-casted. Taken from its context in 1970s US and applied to contemporary India, it was being held as a direct action and protest. It was the end of 2012, the young woman who had wanted to live had died from her extensive injuries, and not one of us, who were going to attend the event, wanted to party.
That first event we organized on the New Year’s Eve showed our inexperience combined with a deep desire to make another set of voices heard. One of these voices ran contrary to the deafening calls for the death penalty. It was a call that has been made by prominent activists in India time and again, arguing that it has been proven that this was neither a justified nor an effective way to deter further gender violence. However, at that point, none of us knew that the media will try to choreograph any protest for a sound-bite or an evocative visual, and that the space needed to be protected fiercely from that.
The hunger to agitate and to continue to navigate the deluge of public discussion on gender that was sparked off made us decide to keep holding monthly gatherings. We met at an ‘unsafe’ place and at an ‘unsafe’ time, in order to talk about gender, yes, but also to demonstrate our ownership of these public spaces, the fundamental right to be anywhere and at any time of day or night, without having to constantly fear and face violence.
Co-founder Madhura Chakraborty conceptualized the ‘Game Night’, during which we gathered to play board games at a public space usually occupied late into the night by cis-men playing chess. We also organised a special 8 March celebratory event, during which a section of us went on a late-night walk to simply enjoy being present in our city streets at night.
We aspired to make it a totally inclusive space, calling on people of all ages, backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations to participate. We found that each of us had powerful stories, whether it came from a place of vocal anger against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and its misuse in Kashmir, or a quiet place of acknowledging a painful memory. Some of us were unhappy that the onus of freedom from violence was so often placed on the victims, with calls of ‘self-defense’ training seeming to far exceed calls for an overhaul in attitudes to gender.
I don’t know whether we succeeded in making it a totally ‘inclusive’ space, noticing that the late night timings automatically prevented people who didn’t have access to money for a taxi from attending (although we changed to an earlier timing after a few months). We perhaps also failed to engage in a sustained and meaningful manner the passers-by, who were witness to our gatherings.
At the same time, a very valuable ongoing participation of attendees from trans*communities made many of us deeply aware of the particular realities and daily violence faced by trans*people in Calcutta. While I, as a middle-class, English speaking, cis-woman (someone who identifies with the same gender as she was identified as when born), can still claim access to a police station after an incidence of sexual violence, my trans*friend has to face the same violence again and again from policemen themselves. There is no guarantee that I will not be mocked or refused assistance, but it is almost completely a given that she will face humiliation and further violence.
Despite all its imperfections, ‘Take Back the Night Calcutta’ became a very important space for me, and I think, for many other participants. Now that I have moved away to Delhi while the gatherings continue in Calcutta, and I hear Honey Singh’s ‘Brown Rang’ being re-played for the thousandth-time, it leads me to reflect once again on the grave importance of visible, vocal public protest. This, in large numbers, was the life-blood of the anger that millions of us felt last December and beyond. And this, while being an intricate and complex process that needs constant re-examination and improvement, must be kept alive and nurtured.
Shreya Ila Anasuya studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, before reading anthropology at the SOAS, London, as a Felix Scholar. She has been involved in various social justice initiatives working in refugee rights, reforestation, indigenous land rights and gender/sexuality justice. She was one of the organizers of ‘Take Back the Night Calcutta’. She writes poetry and fiction. She tweets at @shreyilaanasuya.
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