Buzzing with life even at night, Amboli was like any other neighbourhood located on the maximum city’s western suburbs until the blood of two innocents spilled on the streets on the fateful night of 20 October 2011. The brutal murder of two young men — Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez — for daring to protect their women friends from molesters stained this otherwise peaceful locality with an indelible nomenclature — Amboli murders.
With the verdict probably a few hours away unless the court decides otherwise, the chronology of the gruesome incident stand as fresh as just like the other day with many questions on women’s safety and those who stand up to such wrongdoings still remaining unanswered.
Five years down, I still remember the first time we met to discuss the murders. It was on the terrace at a friend’s place where our group of young activists had decided to meet for the same. As the incident was narrated to the rest of us, I remember being shocked about two things — one that two boys could be so brutally murdered for standing up to someone who was sexually harassing their female friend, and two, that it could happen at a place as close to my life as Amboli.
Understanding the incident
One of the main things that set the Amboli murders apart was how the accused allegedly felt so secure in its execution. The accused decided that it was fine to sexually harass a girl and further more any objection to this was viewed as an affront to them. So much of an affront that it had to be avenged by taking the lives of two brave and innocent individuals. And this was done in the most brutal manner on one of Mumbai’s busiest streets. What made it personal was the fact that the incident took place at spot many of us had stood on, maybe while walking to the neighboring cafe or fast food restaurant, going to Amboli church or holding public meeting in the nearby school. To us and many other Mumbaikars it was like it had happened at our very doorsteps.
A rallying point to end sexual harassment
When faced with such a horrific event we decided to look at what it was that could have prevented this. What is it that built such hubris in a person that instead being ashamed or afraid of being called out on sexually harassing a girl he decided to attack and murder those who defended her. While a lot of debate had focused on rape, very little had focused on the everyday harassment women faced in their daily life in public places. Most of it was dismissed and even categorised under the rather insulting misnomer of “eve-teasing” making a real criminal act of harassment sound innocuous. The sections of the IPC 354 and 509 which dealt with sexual harassment of this kind were weak defining such offences as compoundable, bailable and non-cognisable. In layman terms, a fine was all it took to let off offenders without any effect on their permanent record. It was obvious that even the law offered women very little protection, added to this was the culture of victim shaming and the general fear of the police that was felt by victims, not to mention unhelpful attitude of the police.
In the face of all these odds, we had an incident where two boys still decided that they would not stand by and let such harassment go on undeterred. Sadly this cost them their lives. It was imperative that the environment that caused this incident be not allowed to continue and that more people were not killed for standing up to harassment. It was with this thought that we formed the Zero Tolerance Campaign to stand for what Keenan and Reuben lost their lives for.
We drafted out a petition with the recommendation that asked for sexual harassment to be treated more seriously and very specifically be turned into non-bailable, non-compoundable and cognisable offences. This petition was circulated both on ground and online where it went viral and gathered one lakh signatures in total. Mumbai’s 36 MLAs were also reached out to asked to pledge their support for stronger laws, updates on their statements to the press built momentum. We also decided that we will never use the misnomer eve-teasing and use sexual harassment instead. While we received a lot of support from the public initially, the local residents of Amboli were cold but all of this changed when Valerian Uncle, father of Keenan Santos met with us and assured us of his support. This combined pressure along with the pressure from the victims’ got us a meeting with the then home minister the late RR Patil. He promised a fast track court to deal with case and to strengthen sexual harassment laws as per our recommendations. The police of the West Zone of Mumbai under the then Additional CP Vishwas Nangre Patil collaborated very closely with us to actively look for solutions. Apart from promising sensitivity to sexual harassment cases police teams were sent to what were considered areas where incidents like this were high like areas around railway stations.
However the change in laws had to sadly wait till the tragic Nirbhaya case took place. While Maharashtra did strengthen sexual harassment laws at least a month before the Verma Commission report, it is sad that recommendations were not implemented earlier. It also took a while for the local police to take such cases seriously. Initially it took a lot of insistence and forcing a police officer to read out the word of the now strengthened law to have a case filed against accused and take the victim seriously. However, a few years down the line, where earlier on women were met with resistance we noticed, at least in instances where we visited police stations with victims, the police were willing to file cases under the correct sections.
Are we there yet?
With the verdict on the Amboli murders not far away, it is important to ask ourselves whether these five years have changed anything in the world of sexual harassment. The answer is a mixed bag. Do we have stronger laws for dealing with sexual harassment? Yes, the strengthened IPC sections 354 and 509 provide on paper adequate protection. In the few cases we have been able to help victims, we have literally seen the accused shocked that they are being arrested for something they thought was completely acceptable. If taken to the logical end the cases would prosecute them officially as criminals and not errant nuisances to be explained away. This is a big step. The Justice Verma Commission recommendations were a larger step than anything we could have dreamed of too. Moving away from the legal aspect society as a whole is less accepting or dismissive of sexual harassment at least in Mumbai.
However there is a lot more to be done, many women still feel uncomfortable going to police stations. Court rulings that have asked the state to set up Vigilance committees of local residents known as Dakshata Samitis to monitor how a police station deals with complaints of sexual harassment have to be implemented in their true spirit and not just on paper. Moreover as I was writing this piece a shocking incident of a Manipuri resident in Kalina and her friend being put behind bars for standing up to her molesters has been reported. This proves police sensitivity is not where it should be. And this is without even mentioning caste based or other heinous rapes that take place. But I do take heart that when the good people of Mumbai decided to put their hearts into something a change was made.
The author is a founding member of the Zero Tolerance Campaign. He tweets at @Adityampaul.