Print edition : September 20, 2013

Forensic experts from Gujarat and Delhi examining the spot of the crime on the Shakti Mills premises, on August 27. Photo: SHIRISH SHETE/PTI

Four of five accused being produced at the Esplanade court in Mumbai on August 26. Photo: PTI

The fifth accused, who was produced in court on August 26. Photo: PTI

The gang rape of a young journalist damages Mumbai’s reputation for safety. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau show a noticeable rise in crime in the city.

A 22-year-old journalism graduate fresh out of college gets an interesting photography assignment as part of her internship at a city magazine. She sets out with a male colleague to shoot the ruins within an abandoned textile mill compound that is located on prime real estate in central Mumbai. Unfortunately, when she enters the abandoned Shakti Mills compound with her colleague, she is cornered by a bunch of local thugs who question her motives. The journalist duo get into an altercation with the hoodlums. Before they know it, the male colleague is beaten and tied to a tree. The woman is dragged through the undergrowth, taken to a corner and gang-raped by five men.

Tragically, the incident took place in broad daylight in the heart of Mumbai city. The rape sent shock waves through this metropolis which has proudly worn the label of being one of the safest cities for women in India. Like most journalists, the woman probably had little sense of fear and was only focussed on getting her story, or photographs in this case. But why should she feel any fear? This is Mumbai. A woman can take a taxi at 2 a.m. in the city and know she will reach her destination safely.

Because Mumbai has this reputation, the incident is even more shocking and disturbing. It exposes a very real and uncomfortable fact that the metropolis is not what it was. The rape is another reminder that this city, which once had a tight grip on its law and order, is today in a shambles. Numbers from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show a noticeable rise in crime, particularly against women. The rate of rapes has gone up significantly since last year.

The Shakti Mills rape case is a wake-up call, say citizens. It is a heinous crime that points to larger socio-economic problems coupled with bad law enforcement, say activists.

If the Maharashtra government is serious about addressing this issue, it must implement the Police Reforms Act, which has been pending, says Julio Rebeiro, former Mumbai Police Commissioner.

The public outcry has been very loud. Protest marches, sloganeering in front of administrative buildings, and several well-attended rallies, including one held by the media, across the city have made it clear that the government and the law enforcement agencies better do something and do it soon. The collective thought is that something has to come out of this incident.

Safety campaigns

Citizens’ groups are spreading warning and advice messages on keeping safe, colleges have taken up the campaign to make the city safe again, and the police are trying to reassure the public that they will not spare the perpetrators of this crime.

Under relentless public pressure, the Mumbai Police caught and arrested within 48 hours the five men accused of the crime.

Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh told mediapersons: “There were 20 teams constituted. Ten teams from the Crime Branch and 10 from the Mumbai Police. These teams were constantly working to crack the case.” Eventually, through a network of informers in the area the five were caught. Their interrogation revealed a gruesome tale.

According to police reports, Kasim Bangali (21), Siraj Rehman (24), Vijay Jadhav (19) and Salim Ansari (27) accosted the journalists when they entered the Shakti Mills compound, saying it was railway property and they had no business being there without permission. When the journalists asked who they were to question, the men started getting abusive and began thrashing the male journalist. The woman was dragged through the thick undergrowth. Before raping the intern, Bangali allegedly called his friend Chand Sattar Sheikh (19) and said “guests had come and they needed to serve them”. Sheikh was the fifth to rape the woman.

According to the victim’s statement, the men took pictures of her on a cell phone and threatened to put it on the Internet if she went to the police. The police said that in their confession the accused said they had done this to several other women, who obviously did not have the courage to go to the authorities. Investigations reveal that the abandoned mill compound is used for nefarious activities, mainly by drug addicts. This bunch of hoodlums apparently peddled drugs and used the premises for suspicious activities.

The police have verified that three of the accused hold criminal records —Bangali for dacoity, Sheikh for robbery and Jadhav for house break-ins. This information is crucial, says an officer on the case, because many sexual offenders already have a criminal record. “We have to be very vigilant about these criminals who are often out on bail in petty criminal cases.” The officer says that because of budgetary constraints and other pressures, hardly any priority is given to monitoring and local policing.

Commissioner Satyapal Singh has assured the city that the accused will be charge-sheeted at the earliest and given the most severe punishment. Meanwhile, the cell phone containing the victim’s pictures has been traced and that will be crucial evidence in nailing the men.

“Men like these have to be taught a lesson, otherwise this situation will carry on. No one is afraid of the law anymore,” says Natasha Sharma, a senior television executive who lives alone in the city and often has to travel home from work late at night.

She says this latest incident has brought about a sense of discomfort. “For the past few days many of us have been carpooling and going home in groups. We work late, so there is no option. It’s a real shame that the feeling of safety that Mumbai gives is going. We come from cities where going out at night alone is unheard of. Mumbai gave us that liberation. Now that is under threat of being snatched.”

Unsafe city

Whenever and wherever he can, Commissioner Satyapal Singh has been trying to placate Mumbai citizens about the safety issue. At a press conference, he said, “The crime is a very serious one, but Mumbai is not unsafe.” He said the police were doing everything to make people feel safe again.

The numbers do not back him up. The NCRB statistics on Mumbai indicate that crimes against women are rising. In 2012, there were 1,781 such crimes in Mumbai. This included 234 rapes, 614 incidents of assault with the intent to outrage modesty, and 235 incidents of insult to the modesty of women. There were 221 rape and 553 molestation cases in 2011, and 194 rape and 475 molestation cases in 2010.

The figures of the State are no better. A 10-year statistical chart from the NCRB data shows that Maharashtra had 12,524 cases registered for various crimes against women. This includes rape and dowry deaths. In 2013, the number has risen noticeably to 16,353.

Every few months there is an attack on a woman that gets wide publicity, which brings back the uncomfortable feeling that it is not safe anymore. Last year, a Spanish exchange student was raped by a burglar at knifepoint. Her mistake was to leave one bedroom window open for ventilation. Incidentally, he was out on bail after being arrested for robbery.

Another woman had acid thrown on her at a railway station last year. Earlier this month, an American woman was robbed at a local railway station at 5 p.m., which is among the busiest hours on commuter trains. These are just a few of the recorded cases; there are thousands of molestation incidents, not to mention lewd behaviour that men feel they can get away with.

“Not for one minute must these men be spared. We do, however, need to address the root cause of why violence on women or crimes against women are increasing,” says A.L Sharada of Population First, a non-profit advocacy group working on women’s issues.

She says that the group has been observing that many of the crimes are perpetrated by men who are in the 20-30 age group. “They come from terribly deprived backgrounds. Many would have been abused, exploited or even brutalised before. Where will these people learn the value of respecting women?”

Sharada says a part of the problem is that the country does not invest in its huge youth base. “We are not developing at all on the social front. Aspirations have increased, but opportunities have reduced. Many become petty criminals owing to the lack of education and employment, and then take to worse crimes.”

The outcome and reforms

Many activists believe that better policing would have prevented such a crime. Maharashtra has been struggling with managing its police force and the past few years have seen a significant deterioration in law and order because of the constraints they face.

The sanctioned strength of the police force in Mumbai is 41,401, but there are only 33,998 policemen. A shortfall of 7,403, points out Dolphy D’Souza, an activist with Police Reforms Watch. To add to this, 28,420 police personnel were deputed for VIP security in 2012. At any given time only 20 per cent of the force is available to ordinary citizens, he says, quoting from data given after an application was filed under the Right to Information Act.

The United Nations has recommended a minimum of 220 per one lakh population. “How can our police force cope in a city of 1.3 crores?” asks D’Souza.

For seven years, the State has resisted the Supreme Court’s police reforms package and the 1999 Rebeiro Committee report on reforms. The recommendations say that the police should be freed from the shackles of the Home Ministry and the influence of politicians. It is believed there will be better policing if there is autonomy for the force.

One of the directives is to set up a police establishment board (PEB) to decide transfers, postings and promotions on the basis of merit. In the Prakash Singh case, the Supreme Court said it required immediate implementation of its orders either through executive orders through new police legislation. Not one State has moved on this.

Reacting to the rape case, Rebeiro said, “The only way to improve the situation is to ensure severe punishment and improve the moral fabric of society.”

Predictably, State Home Minister R.R. Patil put his foot squarely in his mouth when asked what preventive measures the government was taking against such incidents. “The State will provide police cover for journalists on tough assignments,” he said.

“Knee-jerk reactions like this are inadequate to deal with the major problem of deterioration in the safety of women,” says D’Souza. Meanwhile, Commissioner Satyapal Singh has said that “as many as 200 areas have been identified as crime prone and officers have been asked to keep a check in these places”.

The victim issued a statement saying her life would not end with this incident. An associate of hers told the media that she was a “plucky girl” who would fight for justice.

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