This article was written by Mukta Joshi (Batch of 2019) and Radhika Goyal (Batch of 2019).
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” they say, but for those studying at NLSIU, Nagarbhavi (“Nags”), there are perhaps two Romes: One within the protected walls of our ivory tower: where we preach free love and advocate safe sex, and where more skin doesn’t (usually) mean less morals. Step out of the gates that house these red walls, though, and everything that is a norm within becomes an aberration.
Outside rests a world where ‘Indian Culture’ still runs wild, and wearing shorts and smoking is looked down upon. As Vijay, who has been working in Nags for the past 12 years puts it, “this is not M.G. Road after all”. Where the people who ought to be selling you contraceptives think it’s okay to refuse them to you saying, “Do you come to college to study or to do all this?” (Well, at least you know you weren’t imagining the judgment.) Dinesh, who has been running a pharmacy store for the past 5 years, attributes the difference in thinking to a generation gap. The other people we spoke to explain our behavior as coming from “modern places like Delhi” or “imitating foreigners” and claim to be able to easily tell the difference between NLS students and BU students, “It’s the way you all speak English and your clothes”, they told us when asked.
For many of us, like those of us who come from sheltered backgrounds in metropolitan cities, and those of us who pride ourselves in having the freedom to do what we want, the environment in Nags can become extremely stifling and frustrating. Nivedita Mukhija (Class of 2016) calls it the ‘Nagarbhavi Paradox’, where one moment you are “reading a treatise on women’s empowerment, and the next … changing into full sleeved clothes” (because you need to go out and buy groceries). This is far from being a new development. Alumni of NLS have recounted that the area around campus always made them feel unsafe and rather uncomfortable. “We go out only as a group. There have been several times when eve teasers have harassed girls. In fact, most of us have begun to carry safety weapons for self-defense,” said an NLSIU student way back in 2006.
Ten years later, the situation has barely improved. We conducted a small survey within the law school community regarding instances of sexual harassment around campus. Out of the 53 people who responded, 33 said that they have had to deal with instances of harassment, while 19 said that they have witnessed it happen to someone else. Instances of verbal harassment and lewd gestures were the most common; there were also attempts to take pictures and unwelcome physical advances. Instances of stalking were also disturbingly frequent, with nine women claiming that it had happened to them. The culprits could be shopkeepers who we interact with on a regular basis: last year, a first year student got her phone recharged at a local store and had to deal with unwanted messages on WhatsApp from the man who worked there. The could also be the faceless bikers we see zooming past us as breakneck speed, who often sneer at, stare at, and sometimes even physically hit women pedestrians. People working in the numerous juice shops just outside our campus also told us that the number of outsiders hanging around with their bikes and smoking, significantly decreases when Law School is shut, all the while implying that they come only to ogle us Law School women.
Our survey also asked what the women were doing when they were harassed – a question similar to the oh-so-common “but what were you wearing?”– in order to gauge whether it was our ‘abhorrent behavior’ that was inviting hostility towards us. However, while quite a few women did say that they were wearing short or skimpy clothes/smoking/wandering around campus at night when they were harassed, an equal number of women weren’t doing any of the above.
Unsurprisingly, most of the victims ignored these incidents. A few of them shouted back and a couple of them even chose to complain at the nearby police station. The complaints were not taken seriously. In the face of the language constraints, the fact that sexual harassment is still not taken seriously, and that very often women have no idea who their harasser was, women are often simply helpless, often accepting it as a normal part of going to Nags. This apathy, which perhaps exists due to the frequency of this harassment, is evident in the 50% of the responders who say that these incidents have not changed their behavior. Other respondents say that they no longer smoke as freely, go running to Bangalore University, or leave campus unless accompanied by a male. More importantly, everyone can relate to the sense of paranoia that crops up, especially after sun down.
It was with this information that we went around Nagarbhavi, asking its many inhabitants why they think incidents of sexual harassment occur. Notably, with the exception of a few small shops immediately outside campus, most shop owners claim to have never witnessed instances of sexual harassment or what is usually trivialized as “eve teasing”. Unsurprisingly, while everyone we spoke to agreed that sexual harassment is wrong and bad, many thought it happens because girls wear short clothes and stand around smoking. While this is certainly a form of victim blaming, most of the times it came across less as judgment and more as concern– the same concern our parents show us when they don’t let us go alone to “unsafe” places at night. For instance, the ammas working on campus assured us that wearing shorts is fine but warned us against wearing them outside because they don’t want anything bad to happen to us. For all our fight to be able to wear shorts on campus, (in re Shortsgate) we ourselves, on countless occasions, have gone back to our rooms to change into something that would cover us up before venturing out of campus.
While it is easy to justify these opinions as well intentioned, it becomes a problem when women are punished for not following these prescribed safeguards– such as when the guards at Gate 0 don’t let us enter at night even when they can clearly see that there are drunk men right outside Roti Park because as they see it, we shouldn’t be out so late anyway. These instances might seem completely different. You may think that there is a difference when your mom tells you not to wear shorts and when the latest BJP MLA does the same, and you’d be right. But at the end of the day both attribute sexual harassment, not to the men who do it, but to the actions of the women who are harassed. The problem arises the moment you associate wearing shorts or drinking or smoking or going out alone as the cause of sexual harassment. That’s the base of the pyramid that is rape culture. A society which thinks rape happens because girls were alone at night, will necessarily produce people who think they can rape someone because she was alone at night. These two strains of thought are interdependent where each sustains the other.
To be clear rapists constitute only the ugliest manifestation of this rape culture. The bulk of it is filled with real estate agents who don’t allow men in women’s apartments, because the neighbors will think ‘otherwise’, or the law school students who dismiss sexual harassment as trivial, crack jokes like ‘all attention is good attention,’ think women are prone to overreactions and paranoia because lets face it, it could have been worse. At least nothing ‘really bad’ happened.
Except it did. This October will mark the fourth year of one of our students being gang raped by eight men in the forests of BU. It made national news: ‘Gang Rape in India’s Premier Law School.’ It was a horrific incident, with the rapists handing her ten rupees after the heinous act was over.
Bangalore University’s response was equally horrific, where they threatened our college with the ultimatum of withdrawing their land grant unless we changed our behavior. “We are fed up with the way the students of NLSIU are behaving and also with the bad name our campus is getting because of them.” It was us, therefore, who were the cause of the bad name – we were “too liberal”. If media reports are to be trusted, the locals blamed us for being too “bold and courageous.” Our own administration bought this narrative and instituted a curfew for all students. The student dropped out of NLS soon after this incident.
The student response was vastly different, where the shocked and angered community staged a protest at the Town Hall, and the security was ramped up, the police were more vigilant. But, as is often the case, 4 years later, when the anger is gone, the curfew is gone and the police are gone, the sexual harassment still remains.
Most locals will tell you that things are changing slowly for the better. Vijay tells us how he always asks girls to smoke inside his restaurant so they don’t attract unwelcome attention outside. On a few occasions when men follow them inside, he tells them that he personally knows the girl and asks them not to pass comments.
We also realized that people’s changing notions of ‘Indian Culture’ come at the heels of economic benefit. Mohini, who sells cigarettes nearby, thinks there is nothing wrong with women smoking, all the while vehemently opposing them wearing shorts. And Praveen, who sells bhaang in his shop around Holi, sheepishly tells us that bhaang in small quantities is okay because it is a part of Indian festivals and culture.
There were even locals around campus who thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with anybody wearing what they wanted and smoking as and when they pleased. Their opinions certainly seemed a thousand times more progressive than that of the educated registrar of Bangalore University. But seeing that places like Roti Park still exist, which function as a no entry zone for most law school students, things clearly aren’t changing fast enough. Nagarbhavi has been, and still is, a rural area still in the process of urbanization, and the students of National Law School have always largely been the crème de le crème of the middle and upper middle classes. It’s easy to attribute sexual harassment to the mindset of rural India and class resentment but there are enough instances of sexual harassment in modern settings of offices and schools and colleges to know that the urge to harass is not an uneducated backward man’s affliction.
Given that the problem of sexual harassment isn’t unique to Nagarbhavi, and that even in Nagarbhavi it has been a persistent disease, it is all too easy to brush it aside as something that nothing can be done about. What we do notice, though, is that the problem in Nagarbhavi co-exists with a gigantic cultural rift, and it is, perhaps, by means of stepping into this rift, that it can be dealt with as well. But the larger problem that needs to be solved is the relative silence that exists around these incidents that has continued to affect women in all of Law School’s glorious twenty-five years.
While most of us have been experiencing first hand the fear of violence and the restrictions imposed on us by the recent protests in Karnataka, let’s not forget that this dread and inconvenience is an “option” that far too many women have to choose, every day.
(We would like to thank Aditya Patel (Batch of 2016) and Sharvari Kothawade (Batch of 2019) for helping us conduct the interviews).
 This was also the principle with which the group ‘Blank Noise’ combated a similar problem in Yelahanka, where volunteers lined the streets with tables and chairs and invited passers-by to have a conversation with them, in a bid to understand each other.