Targeting tourists

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

Tourists, wrapped in woollens, on a foggy day in New Delhi. Whether the rape victim is an Indian women or a foreign tourist, the response of the authorities to the crime has often been condemnable.-MANVENDER VASHIST/PTI

Tourists, wrapped in woollens, on a foggy day in New Delhi. Whether the rape victim is an Indian women or a foreign tourist, the response of the authorities to the crime has often been condemnable.-MANVENDER VASHIST/PTI

MOST of us were appalled to hear of the rape of a nine-year-old Russian girl in Goa. The police gave the media the names of the two men involved, both Indian, and one of them has been arrested at the time of writing this. Reports say that both were workers at a local pharmaceutical unit; in other words, they were just ordinary men who earn their livelihood like thousands of others. They were not thugs or loafers who hang around tourist spots trying to rob, rape or even mur der. They were ordinary people with ordinary jobs until they saw the white woman and her daughter.

Some years earlier, a taxi driver and his friend, waiting for a fare at the Delhi airport, picked up a white Australian woman, and then, taking her to a lonely spot nearby, raped and killed her. They also made off with whatever she had by way of cash and valuables. Again, some years earlier, a couple of men spotted a white woman coming out from a screening at a film festival in Delhi, got into her car with her, raped her and then pushed her out at a spot not very far from the venue. And, more recently, there is the still unsolved rape and murder of an English teenage girl on holiday in Goa with her family and the rape of a Russian woman by, it is said, a local politician.

Not that these are the only rape cases that have occurred. Thousands of girls, some of them mere infants, and women have been raped. But the cases I have mentioned seem to indicate that, for some, having sex with a white woman seems a more exotic thrill. The reasons are, for the moment, irrelevant. It seems to be something that is increasing as more and more white women come to tourist destinations such as Goa, Pushkar in Rajasthan, and Delhi.

Think back for a moment to the key themes of the plots of two novels: E.M. Forsters A Passage to India and Paul Scotts The Jewel in the Crown. Both had to do with the presumed rape of Englishwomen by Indians. In both cases the rapes had not, in fact, taken place, but the point was that the general assumption among the ruling British community was that they had. What both Forster and Scott used as a factor to develop the plots of their novels was the fear and horror of rape of white women by natives, the blacks the ultimate violation. Underlying that fear was another assumption among the British that the natives secretly lusted after white women and would rape them if they could.

Both novelists showed up these fears as imaginary but well grounded in the community and strong enough to cloud the judgment of otherwise rational people. The fears were seen as part of the prevalent racial prejudice, which, of course, had a great deal to do with the fact that the whites were the ruling class.

I mention this because this is a fear that may well grow in the coming years, going by the number of incidents of rape and molestation of white women tourists in the country. Foreign nationals do not know that these are only a small part of the large number of rape cases that occur in the country. Many of these are never reported, and even if they are, in many cases, the police do not record them because the complainants are poor and often homeless, the kind of people the police do not consider worthy of any notice by them. If the media come to know of the cases, then, of course, there is much scurrying around and a newly found moral sensitivity that will last as long as the media keep reporting these incidents.

And dreadful though the facts are, they are undeniable. Most rapists are members of the family or are relatives or friends. In most of the other cases, they are ordinary people who come across a girl who happens to be alone. The veneer of civil behaviour is, among a worryingly huge number of people, very thin indeed. Seeing a girl on her own is enough for it to crumble and for them to let their brutish lust and sexual urges to take over. The taxi driver who raped and murdered the Australian woman a few years ago said when he was caught that he could not control himself. In Delhi, girls travelling on public buses have at one time or the other been groped, had lewd comments made about them, and even been the subject of sexual advances. They endure this as they have to get to their workplaces or colleges. None of this gets reported, but residents of the city know this happens day after day. An interesting aspect of this, as some girls have told me, is that the ones who do the groping are, for the most part, middle-aged or even elderly men.

In 2007, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 20,737 recorded cases of rape in the country, that would mean roughly about 57, say nearly 60 a day. The actual figure is undoubtedly far higher. Of these, nearly 60 per cent were in the northern States and the eastern State of West Bengal. Raping or molesting white women is seen, it is apparent, as in a class by itself. True, there are not too many such cases at least, not reported but those who have done it have usually gotten away with it. In just one case, where a German girl was raped in Pushkar, was the rapist convicted by a fast-track court. In every other case, the accused person has either not been caught (as in the case of the woman raped outside the auditorium in New Delhi) or the investigation has been botched up as in the rape and murder of the English teenager in Goa, or is still going on as in the case of the Russian woman raped in Goa.

One gets tired of the usual, mindless response from Ministers and senior bureaucrats that they have called for a report. At times the police issue press releases to say that they have registered the complaint, as if this is a major achievement. The fact is that the authorities have generally been astonishingly ineffective.

Today, as every woman in northern India knows, it is clear that women live in a very unsafe environment. They have to make sure they never ever stay out late, and if they do, they have to ensure they are with totally trustworthy people. They must never talk to strangers for any reason and must generally stay indoors, preferably with the doors locked. It is time that the tourism authorities had a relook at their slogan Atithi devo bhava.

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