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Kolkata Metro assault smacks of ‘khap panchayat’

A young couple being beaten up for public display of affection speaks of a nauseating phenomenon

Evening rush hour. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the roads. And in the city’s underbelly, the ‘tube’ — or the Kolkata Metro — is also bursting at the seams with commuters. Mind your language, mind your steps, mind your posture … mind what you will, for the co-passenger nearest to you is literally breathing down your neck. It’s one of those typical urban and sub-urban scenarios that characterise mass transit in most major metropolises in India and around the world. But on this particular occasion, there was something worrisome that happened inside one of the compartments of a Kolkata Metro train that was speeding its way from the south towards the northern fringes of the city. A young couple, who, eye-witnesses say, were standing a little too close to one another in a public display of affection (PDA), attracted first a barrage of snide comments, followed by the duo being pushed out of the carriage at the Dum Dum Station and eventually beaten up by a section of co-passengers.

What was rather baffling was the fact that most of those who actually indulged in physically assaulting the couple were middle-aged and senior male passengers and apparently not the kind that would indulge in ‘villain’-bashing!

So, is the Kolkata that we have known for so long – the ‘City of Joy’ and what not — taking a turn for the worse in terms of its acceptance, or the lack of it, of what it considers as the ‘limit’ to physical proximity between two persons of opposite sex in public? Is moral policing a clear and present danger in this thriving eastern Indian metropolis that has enamoured myriads of personalities — from a Roland Joffe to a Hillary Clinton, to name just a few?

The jury is still out.

The usual fire-and-brimstone brand of television debates and newspaper columns and expert opinions are having their hour in the sun. But even as the dust settles down on this ‘affair’ on the train, it does leave me rankled a fair bit as someone who was born and brought-up in this metropolis that 14.3 million people, including its suburbs, call home. The question that comes to mind is: Will those very people, who found a couple hugging in a train compartment an affront to their ‘bhadraloke’ (gentlemanly) sentiments, be as spontaneous and enterprising in answering a distress call from a girl or a woman confronting a potential rapist or a molester? I have my doubts.

Personally, I feel it will be very wrong to interpret the incident on the Metro as a sign of Kolkata’s growing ‘intolerance’ towards a laissez-faire in display of affection towards a member of the opposite sex in public. What the couple had indulged in on a crowded train compartment was certainly not beyond the limits of civility – at least that is what a section of the commuters said, who also helped shield the duo from the blows that rained from the self-proclaimed guardians of morality. Some are even of the view that at times, in crowded public places, it matters to have one’s companion stand close by and even stay locked in an embrace, just to ward off those intrusive elbows and unsolicited movements seeking a sickening, nauseating and absolutely unwanted ‘touch’. So PDA, under the circumstances, is more of an exercise in practical and rudimentary self-defence against perverts than an audacious public proclamation of ‘she’s mine’.

The real worry about this entire episode is the mindset that has so often manifest itself in the form of ‘khap panchayats’ in rural Rajasthan issuing ‘death sentences’ against couples indulging in inter-caste marriages, or for that matter the rape of an infant girl who cannot even comprehend the full import of her trauma and pain. It is the same old issue of an entrenched patriarchy and its associated mental and psychological trappings that still consider it a male prerogative to be served first during a family meal or shamelessly take recourse to a “boys will be boys” refrain to justify outraging a woman’s modesty.

Added to this sense of skewed patriarchy is a second phenomenon. We have all heard about ‘midlife crisis’: That tenacious stage in the prognosis of male physiology and psychology, when the ticking body clock keeps reminding one of the onward march of that dreaded three-lettered word called ‘age’, while the mind still yearns for that occasional dalliance with one’s truant self that has long been shelved as youthful daredevilry silently made way for the sombre somnolence of approaching superannuation. This often results in a show of misplaced machismo – a desperate bid to ‘catch up’ with what’s long lost.

In that sense, do not be surprised if what has happened in Kolkata is replicated in a few other cities and towns across India.

The Kolkata Metro incident has very definitively, and rather unfortunately, exposed the hard reality that ‘khap panchayats’ are neither typical to rural dust bowls and hinterlands of India nor are they restricted to social circles that still cannot afford flat-panel televisions in their living rooms or do not have access to university education. There is a ‘khap panchayat’ in every big city and metropolis across India. Just scratch that surface of outward, purported, varnished layer of civility and ‘class’ and you will be surprised to see the scrum that lies beneath.

A flawed sense of male entitlement, coupled with the urge of moral policing to present the starched credentials of a ‘bhadraloke’, while being constantly pin-pricked by the ‘inadequacies’ of burgeoning mid-life blues, resulted in the Kolkata Metro mash.

Rest assured, the ‘Kolkata kaleidoscope’ isn’t cracking yet, but a Park Street rape or the beating up of a couple on the Metro are signs of a moral sclerosis setting in somewhere. And the pangs of a ‘midlife crisis’ have just added to that heady brew that is threatening to conjure up a Frankenstein. Berating couples in public places, vandalising memento shops on Valentine’s Day and admonishing a girl for sporting that cropped top or micro-mini are all forebodings of a moral compass gradually losing its bearing.

So watch out. Be ready to rescue some such couple in distress when you step into a crowded Delhi Metro, a Mumbai movie hall or a Bengaluru pub next.

You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter: @moumiayush



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