In Jo's Blog

Women’s Web – an amazing online women’s community – is asking its readers to write about standing up and speaking out.

The violent attack on that young woman in Guwahati (my daughter, one of my staff, a Latika Vihar girl – it helps to think about it like that) left me shaking and furious. There has been plenty written about the men responsible – I don’t feel like giving them any more space.

In any case, I think it’s time to think about the bystanders, those people on the street who stood by and watched an innocent person being brutally beaten. Although most of us cannot picture ourselves as one of the attackers, it’s all too easy to imagine being one of those who looked the other way.

Our training – particularly in India, particularly for women – tells us to do just that: Look the other way. Don’t get involved. It’s not your problem. It’s none of your business. You don’t know the whole story.

What would I have done, had I been on that busy street where no one responded? What would I have done if I had seen my daughter, one of my staff, one of our Latika girls being molested, attacked, abused?

I would have pounced. I am, in fact, a serial pouncer. I am burdened with a heightened sense of my own importance and an unfortunate conviction that I was sent here to solve everyone else’s problems. I don’t know about you. I can’t help myself.

I have a history of scooping people up off the road – accident victims, people having epileptic seizures, women in labor – and transporting them to the hospital. No emergency room has ever turned me away and, in spite of all hype to the contrary, I have never yet been charged with any crime or held responsible for the victim’s injuries.

Even more interesting, I invariably find that when one person stops to do the right thing, all those indifferent bystanders suddenly remember their shared humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of willing helpers. People will lift bloodied bodies, flag down passing cars, give up their shawls and chunnis, find water, call for assistance. It’s amazing. All it takes is one brave soul.

So here’s my advice:

WADE RIGHT IN. One of the advantages of white hair in Indian society is the instant authority and respect it commands. If you have been smart enough not to dye, use your age. A loud voice and a sense of confidence, outrage and withering scorn can sometimes be enough to disperse a mob.

Poonam Muttreja (a well-known Delhi based feminist) and my husband, Ravi Chopra, were patrolling the streets of Delhi as part of a group of citizen activists at the peak of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. They came upon a crowd of men about to set fire to a store. Before anyone else had time to react, Poonam jumped down from the jeep they were in and marched into the mob, eyes blazing. “Tum log kya kar rahae ho?” she demanded in a loud, angry voice. The men dropped their torches and ran away.

Mobs are full of cowards. Remember that.

USE THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE. The last thing people behaving irrationally, hatefully and despicably expect is a voice of courage and righteousness. Caught off guard, they lose focus. You swoop in for the rescue right then.

When I was 18, I heard a gunshot followed by a woman’s scream in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore. Without pausing to think, I walked down the street to where I found a large man standing on the sidewalk, waving a gun and screaming obscenities at a woman cowering on her front porch. “What are you doing?” I said to him, scolding like a grandmother. “Come with me,” I said to the woman, holding out my hand. Stunned, robot-like, she followed my instruction. “What the f***?” I heard him mutter as we reached the car, but by then it was too late. We were out of his reach and she was safe.

CHANGE THE DYNAMIC. Throw water on the perpetrators. Grab another bystander by the hand and pull her/him along with you. Say urgently: “It’s up to us to stop this!” Sing the National Anthem. Remind people that they are better than this. If all else fails, toss a shower of coins and ten-rupee notes into the melee.

I know these are risks. I know it’s asking a lot. But what alternative do we have? Mobs are crazy by definition. Without having ever made a decision, they are out to get someone – anyone. They aren’t open to reason; they won’t be swayed by logic or goodness. They are not a force of nature, but they act like one. Like children in the middle of a temper tantrum, they are begging to be controlled, to be contained, to be put in their place, yet their very existence defies restraint.

Thinking about mobs makes me think about fire drills and evacuation plans, about preparation and thinking in advance. Catastrophes and emergencies come upon us suddenly, without warning. No one ever expects a disaster. By continued, regular practice in calm moments, when there is no danger, we develop the skills to respond purposefully and without panic when there IS danger.

Thinking about mobs makes me remember how we need to practice being brave and acting decisively too. These things don’t come naturally. Without discipline and repetition, they don’t come at all.

Mobs like the one which attacked an innocent young woman in Guwahati remind us of the power of one. Had just one brave soul stood up and said no, believe me, others would have joined in and that mob would have fallen to pieces. But brave souls do not emerge from nowhere. They are forged on the anvil of struggle and commitment and they survive because they continually practice what they preach.

Practice while it’s easy. Pick up the accident victim and take him to the hospital. Intervene in the neighborhood dispute over whose turn it is at the pump. Stop the school bully. Acknowledge your own power to change the world. Flex your muscles. Stay in shape.

When the big moment comes, when that woman in Guwahati is being assaulted by a mob, oh, man: you’ll be ready.

Showing 13 comments
  • Reply

    I am great believer in what you have said ,have often been told that one day somebody will shoot you,I still tell people not to spit on the roadie not to throw, kachra or not to leave children un attended and such like.generally get stared at as if was mad or something!

  • Ashis Sahu

    Respected madam,
    Very correctly mentioned ‘All it takes is one brave soul.’
    But my doubt is, were all bystanders waiting for an article like this to tell them what they should have done or will any reader of this blog act spontaneously in any further situation?

  • Shea

    Excellently written as usual, Jo. I’m not sure I agree that bystanders will always help once one person gets going, though. But changing the dynamic — what a fantastic idea! Throwing change into a crowd, singing the national anthem, what a riot! Opportunity, knock!

  • charu

    We cannot remain mute spectators and want the police ,Govt,other people or God to handle everything! Things happen if someone makes them happen… Every word that you have written resonates with me….But for an 18 year old you were unusually brave!

  • Priya Sreeram

    Every drop counts for the ocean of change to surge -lovely article

  • Vina srivastava

    I also feel all girls shoul be taught or givensom tools to protect themselves, like Karate or even just spitting on tremor keeping pepper sprays or some thing,so that they can avoid at least physical touching etc many more tricks are well known!!

  • Niharika

    It is compelling to read, absorb, reflect and possibly to speak about this incident! it is horrifying how these things happen like the rule of the day! I am not only ashamed and embarrassed but so perplexed that really in situations of this sort people can overcome the voice of their soul!!…I am in a state of shock ever since the news of this incident has started taking rounds! Is it so scary and challenging to do the right thing, even with so many people around??? I wish that in some way my shaken confidence in ‘the people’ can be restored…. some how …

    my discomfort lies in the fact that ‘I’ constitute ‘the people’…its like I dint do anything for the girl in distress..its a very heavy feeling to shake off…

  • Dunu Roy

    perhaps some training classes in this would help to counter “look the other way”, “dont get involved”, etc? its not easy to be brave individually in a society that discounts this kind of bravery (foolhardiness, some would call it) and has ingrained notions of ‘privacy’. teach ’em karate – what a lovely idea! after latika and karuna maybe we need a jovina vihar??

  • nina arief

    beautifully written. i have by the grace of god never been in such a situation but i find it hard to believe that people just stand by and watch, i hope your article helps people to realise their own worth ..

  • Nicola Tansley

    This ties up so strongly with bullying and what we do with children to help them learn that bullying is or isn’t OK. We have to work on changing the practice and climate in schools, which is where we do so much of our learning about behaviour, so that positive approaches become the norm, bullying (whether by children or adults) is not accepted and when it happens, the bully is supported in learning a different way. We know what to do to change things – the strategies which work – and I’d be willing to bet that people from schools which already work on positive apporaches to behaviour, including bullying, are massively less likely to engage in violence, mob aggression, etc. as adults and more likely to use what they’ve learned about supporting each other to step in when they witness it. But for many schools, having the will to change their culture to work on this is another step …

  • Shail

    I salute you for this wonderful article and the positive message it sends to be ready and take that step when the time is at hand.

  • Nishatha

    “Mobs are full of cowards. Remember that” – I will keep this in mind always, along with the other, very useful things you’ve pointed out. You’ve inspired me to speak up when I ought to! An excellenty written, extremely useful piece!

  • Moumita Basu

    Hello, how I agree with you that it takes one person to change the situation. I am, I guess that kind of a person, and all my life have heard that it was not my business to barge in the first place. But I kind of don’t agree that its not your place to raise a voice against wrong. Ofcourse it’s my business. And yes, I agree with you, practice makes perfect. If you have a habit of protesting, or helping out, when time comes, you will, most likely get into the automatic ‘Take charge’ mode, and not wait for others to step in. Actually, I almost agree to everything you said, and I am glad someone has said this in so many words. I am going to share this and let people know that standing up for what you believe in, is still not lost, and yes, one person is good enough to cause a change. Thank you for writing this post.

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