NEWS
04/05/2018 9:04 AM IST | Updated 04/05/2018 9:14 AM IST

#HokAlingon Protests: Why A Free Hugs Movement In Kolkata Is Long Overdue

Women say harassment on the Kolkata City Metro is persistent and routine.

Abhishek Mitra
A couple hugs in front of a metro station in Kolkata in protest against a mob assaulting a couple for hugging inside the metro compartment.

Kolkata saw demonstrations, a free hugs protest outside a metro station, Facebook lives and social media outrage, after a mob assaulted a couple for hugging inside the compartment of a metro train.

Monday's incident at Dumdum Station, which made headlines across the country, gathered steam after a report on a Bengali newspaper shook the city. Young people have since been gathering at the station to protest moral policing. On Wednesday, a group of young men and women embraced their partners in front of the media at metro stations and inside trains. Participants are calling their movement #HokAlingon (which means let us hug).

This week, several women hoped that the protests would finally throw light on the routine, persistent, and occasionally violent harassment on the city's Metro service.

Amita Ghose

Moral policing and harassment are a routine affair

Divya Karthik, a 26-year-old resident of south Kolkata who works in a bank, said she had faced harassment so frequently during her commute on the metro that it was hard to pick which one incident she can share.

"Men often use a 'crowded' compartment to their advantage when a girl is alone," she said. "However, if the girl happens to be with a man in the same 'crowded' compartment, they conveniently use it to shame her."

Karthik said that when women raise an alarm no one comes to help. "It is a crowded metro. If you expect so much space you should travel by your private vehicle" – this is something she says women would hear if they did try to confront the perpetrator.

Most commuters, she said, always stand in support of the guilty instead of the victim. The men who assaulted the young couple on Monday, Karthik noted, did so with the support of their fellow travellers.

For Suchandra Das, a 33-year-old photographer, one a particular incident in 2012 stands out.

"I boarded a metro late in the evening, a less crowded metro I should mention. A man in his late 20s boards the same train, stands right opposite to me and seems severely under the influence of some form of drug or alcohol. After a while I found him showing utterly disgusting gestures with his pant's zip wide open and you can understand what he was up to," she said.

Das recalled that as she tried to get off at the next station, the man tried to come even closer to her and that is when she pushed him and he fell. Das was instantly blamed for being in the wrong.

"The whole bogie, at least 50 men and women, instantly started accusing me of misbehavior and overreaction. I pointed out at his open zip, in reply to which I had to hear something even more nasty that made it look like I was looking at his sexual organs," she said.

Amita Ghose

Suchandra said that at the time she was not "smart enough" to take her phone out and gather evidence to prove that she was the one who was being harassed. Suchandra, who has since married her partner Sree Mukherjee, wonders the ordeal she would have faced had her fellow commuters been aware of her sexual orientation.

Transpeople too, are often denied space in the metro compartments because of their identity.

Sandeepta Das, a 27-year-old transwoman from the city, says that she has faced several incidents of harassment from her fellow commuters since she came out 10 years ago. The harassment, she said, is mostly by the middle-aged who are uncomfortable with her identity.

"Once a middle-aged woman managed to get 20 other people of the same age group to abuse me for standing in the farthest corner in the women's section. She told me ''this place is not for people like you to stand', her words still haunt me," said Sandeepta.

In another incident from 2015, when she boarded the metro from New Garia, a man rubbed his genitals against her. The man, she says, was dressed in a suit.

"I turned around and slapped him as tight as possible. I guess you won't be surprised to hear that the man got all the passengers by his side to back him. How could a 'bhodrolok', who only looked 'bhodrolok', indulge in such activity? I being a transwoman, it was very much likely that I had done something wrong," she said.

Both Suchandra and Sandeepta said they did not report the incidents.

"You think they would have entertained me? I ask for an Aadhaar or passport and the Indian government makes a joke of my gender identity. And they will assure my safety and dignity while travelling in Kolkata Metro? I wish they could serve properly to at least the second most prominent gender," says Sandeepta.

Suchandra pointed out out that it has only been few years since a Kolkata Metro launched a women's helpline number. Those who have tried complain find there is no cellular network on the train, or that the number is always busy.

Satwik Paul

There is always a defence for the guilty

It has three days since the incident, and despite much outrage, no case has been registered. The couple have also not come forward to register an FIR for being assaulted, perhaps because the authorities and public figures are pointing fingers at the couple for not being "decent' enough.

A day after the incident, an alleged post by Metro Railway Kolkata on its Facebook page claimed that such incidents will continue to happen if the younger generation did not rectify themselves. The post blamed the couple for not being decent enough. The comments went viral and gave way to further outrage on social media.

Facebook

However, metro rail authorities posted a clarification saying, "Dear commuters, there is a fake post circulating in the social media claiming that Metro Railway supports the passengers who allegedly thrashed the couple. The fact is that Metro Railway, Kolkata, strongly condemns the unfortunate incident and is against moral policing."

CPRO, metro railway, Indrani Banerjee, who initially claimed to have been unaware of the comment, got agitated when asked for a clarification on Thursday. "We have sent the issue to civil police and we don't want to talk about it," Banerjee said.

Soon after, a radio jockey posted a live Facebook video, quoted her cousin supposed an eyewitness to the incident - to justify the mob attack.

Chaitali Bakshi, who works with Big FM, derided the free hug movement and called it the "chipko andolan". She quoted her cousin and alleged that the couple were indulging in "rangraliya".

The regressive language of Bakshi's live video infuriated her industry colleagues. RJ Somak of Radio Mirchi. condemned the tone of the video, "No matter how many outcomes or other sides this story has, no matter how 'indecent' the couple were allegedly behaving, one cannot justify mob violence... In a country where blaming the girl is, unfortunately, the first thing that people do, you are trying to blame the girl being a woman yourself? I hope sense prevails. I feel an apology is in order. If not to the city then to her fellow RJs in the city. You, my dear, are giving us a bad name."

Bakshi's Facebook profile has now been deactivated and the live video has also been removed from BIG FM's page. Bakshi clarified about the video saying, "I also hope that people get back to their sanity and respect the need of truth. Too much of love in public space is often difficult to digest. The video has been removed by the authority of Big FM I have nothing to say here."