By Vasanthi Hariprakash
It must have been around 4 pm and I was among a small group of media people waiting at Bangalore’s Indiranagar police station to track the case of a guy who had run over an old man near a flyover the previous morning. That’s when I got the first phone call demanding to know if I had seen it.
‘It’ was the video footage of girls seemingly in their late teens and twenties, most of them wearing jeans, being dragged out of what looked like a courtyard, their hair pulled by a bunch of men who kept shouting, slapping them, hitting them on their heads, until they had been pushed out.
Over the next few days, weeks, and now 9 years after the January 24, 2009, attack, that footage has played on loop over and over again, a million times, on Kannada channels, other regional channels and national channels. No one knows which television newsroom deskie or editor coined the term, but I recall that was the time I first heard of the phrase ‘moral policing’.
The incident came to be known as the ‘Mangaluru Pub Attack’, at a time when hashtags were yet to catch up on the social media scene.
Sri Ram Sene, an outfit until then known only to locals, had claimed ‘credit’ for this attack and its chief Pramod Muthalik, the face behind the violence, was already on the run.
En route to Mangaluru
Moments after we watched the horrific footage play out – the Kannada television channels were the first to break this news that day – Kumar, my cameraperson, and I were on our way to Mangaluru, the coastal city of the state of Karnataka, where it had all played out.
Right upon landing, we headed straight to Amnesia, the pub on Balmatta Road. The place was empty, no crowds were milling about – it was eerily quiet. As I got ready to record a first report, a walk-through from the spot, to send back to the NDTV newsroom, there was simply no one who we could talk to, no one who could say what had happened a few hours back or what the girls whose backs were seen in the video clip had gone through.
I started reaching out to contacts in the city, even family members or friends of the girls who were willing to speak out, if not the girls themselves.
The breakthrough came from a friend who had been reporting on the region for a national newspaper. He called me up and said, “Vasanthi, there is one girl who is ready to talk to you, if you guarantee that her face wouldn’t be shown.”
“Of course and obviously,” I assured him, and we quickly got the local driver to take us to the building where we were asked to come.
I met Leena (name changed on request) there, who was waiting with my friend. Even though the news deadline was creeping up on us, we had to reassure her and ensure she was comfortable enough to speak to us.
“I have placed my trust on you,” she said. I gave her my word and so Leena began speaking.
She and her friends had gone to the pub that afternoon for a friend’s birthday, had taken a cake along and were in the place for barely a few minutes when a big group of men barged in, and suddenly started shouting, calling them names.
“We were called prostitutes, whores. Words like ‘nanga-naach’ (dance in the nude) were thrown around,” she said, adding, “I was traumatised!”
For virtually the next seven days and more, Mangaluru became home to most of us Bengaluru bureau reporters, reporting back to our respective English and Hindi channels, the country suddenly sitting up to take notice of this stunning sea-side town of the south Indian state. And for all the wrong reasons.
Until then, for many like me, Mangaluru was a picture of grace, known for its very distinct, endearing Kannada accent, for its swaying coconut trees, its cashews and macaroons from the bakery, for the D’Souzas, Alvas, Shettys, the Konkonas; the beautiful old churches and the temples of Kadri and St Mary’s island and the beaches.
But we spent more time in the courts than in the churches; more time outside police station than at Panambur beach. Muthalik had given a statement from somewhere in Hubli (350 km away) and there was speculation that he may be arrested and produced in the sessions court at Mangaluru. On primetime bulletin after bulletin, we spoke about the pub attack, explaining who this Sene (making it sena for the national audience) was, and why they had felt threatened by the thought of girls in pubs, and what had led to this attack on ‘women destroying Indian culture’.
But in the process of newsgathering, while I went around talking to people, businessmen, traders and homemakers, I began to increasingly get a sense that this incident had received social sanction from locals. Everyone outwardly condemned the attack, cluck-clucking in Kannada, “Henn makkala maele dhaali maadbaardhagitthu, madam … they shouldn’t have gone to the extent of hitting them, but why were these girls from good families sitting in the pub?”
One Christian gentleman told us, while ensuring our camera was off, “You wouldn’t believe me, many Catholic families are secretly happy, you know. They were simply not able to control their girls or stop them from going to these places or drinking.” Almost everyone I spoke to was clear that “this is not how our Mangaluru was”.
Even as national media pontificated everyday in newspapers and channels on the ‘attack on women and their freedom’, some TV channels doing specials with reporters doing their pieces to the cameras sitting on high stools, speaking to other women in bars on how sickening this attack was, condemning it as it deserved to be, the feeling that I got as a reporter on the ground was that we weren’t reflecting local sentiment at all, and were alienating ourselves as ‘the English (read elitist) channels” who had no clue about the ‘culture’ that this charming port city stood for.
The pub incident was certainly not a one-off, though it had been the one to grab national attention. There was a series of smaller attacks recorded by local journalists of girls and boys pulled out of buses while they were on their way to picnics in mixed groups; self-righteous party workers barging into restaurants if they came to know of a ‘Hindu girl sitting with a Muslim boy’. And if the locals hadn’t tacitly approved of this goondagiri, would the moral police have been able to carry out such attacks brazenly?
A deepening fundamentalism?
This aspect needed a deeper examining, and luckily when I conveyed this to my bosses at NDTV, they agreed and let me travel through Dakshina Kannada after the pressure of breaking news had died down. It was in that week while I met Kannada Konkani and Tulu writers, spoke to historians and activists, to women after the men went out to work, went inside a camp of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, got access to the schools that taught lessons the ‘traditional way’ – addressing their teachers as ‘matajis’ – met Maulvis and spoke to nuns, more off camera than on.
And this is how I had a chance to better understand the place, its people and, thereby, the way it thought and acted.
Mangaluru, a town that dates back to the 8th century and gets its name from Mangala Devi, the deity whose shrine is a draw to this day, had a history of being syncretic, its multi-faith people living in harmony – the Catholics with the Bunts with the Beary Muslims – perhaps driven by commerce and the trade of spices and seafood, the production and supply chains of which need communities to be inter-dependent.
But the region could not escape the drama or impact of what was playing out at the national level, the majority pissed off by what it saw as the ‘appeasement’ of the minorities, the latter being used as votebanks for politicians lusting for power. Parties such as the BJP rose on the plank of this sentiment and strengthened themselves on this aspiration of the majority, to assert itself as a guard of ‘Indian culture’. This while moderate voices in the Muslim community began to be told off by their fundamentalist counterparts as to what was unIslamic and unacceptable.
Progressive writers from Dakshina Kannada like Sara Abubaker rued about how she had protested against the burkha but couldn’t stop her granddaughter and young women from taking up wearing the hijab. Young Christian men, many of whom I had met and interviewed during the church attacks that had rocked the region in 2008, turned to their religion for solace.
Each community had clearly left behind their easy uncomplicated ways behind.
And the upholder and custodian of this ‘culture’ was, of course, the woman.
As long as she stayed within the invisible lines drawn by the community, kept her chastity intact, married the man the elders had decreed right for her, followed the festivals of her religion, bore children and taught them that same ‘culture’, it was deemed safe.
The argument was that she was allowed to study, so she was free, wasn’t she?
But if she stepped out of this invisible line to a place that made her happy, if she hung out with a set of people not approved by her family, or, worse, sat down to have a drink or two, then ‘culture’ was destroyed.
A dose of amnesia
Parents of many of the girls who were attacked that afternoon in Amnesia would prefer to have a large dose of exactly that: amnesia. I tracked down a few parents and asked them if their daughters would be willing to testify against the Shri Ram Sene and Muthalik. The answer was a clear, unambiguous no.
“Our girls should not have gone there that day, and there is no chance we will let them ruin their future by coming out in the courts before the public,” all of them said. A couple of other young women, their friends told me a few months later while I was following up the story, were most likely to be “sent to the US for further studies”.
Cut to the present
In March 2018, we saw Muthalik declare the ‘victory of truth’ after a Bengaluru court acquitted him and the 30 other men caught on camera attacking women for ‘lack of evidence’.
Like any average human, I was angry that the law of the land had let this man get away; this man who had gone around bragging about what he had done, telling a reporter that it was a “chhota incident” and it was not like that they had committed rape or murder, and were only saving the country from ‘pub culture’.
And when I read that the prosecution could not produce the three main women who were attacked to testify in court, I was deeply disappointed. But I cannot say I was surprised.
Ashok GV is a lawyer based in Bengaluru, who has taken up many cases of sexual abuse and those concerning safety of women in the workplace. According to him, unlike the United States which has a firm Witness Protection Program in place that goes as far as “deleting a person’s identity, relocating them at state cost and providing security through an effective Marshal service”, India cannot afford to do so for many reasons. A crunch in staff, the draconian nature of the law and poor budgets all ensure that witnesses aren’t given the protection they deserve in India.
It didn’t help that the Sene men allegedly declared that they would throw acid on anyone who dared depose against them in court.
No doubt that some witnesses do turn hostile for a variety of misplaced reasons, including that testifying in court allegedly brings people disrepute.
“Courts need to initiate serious action to secure their presence and prevent them from wasting the state’s time (9 years in this case). But let’s say the witnesses are honest, can we ensure she/he will be examined and cross-examined on the day of their appearance and not get inconvenienced unnecessarily?” asks Ashok. “Even if we keep the crucial safety aspect aside, just how pragmatic is it to expect the witness will set aside their life and activities for days, weeks and years on end, for we all know how Indian cases tend to drag?”
Ashok points to the Vinod Kumar vs State of Punjab (Criminal appeal no. 554/2012) case that laid down that “cross-examination of witness is to be concluded on the same day as examination”. There are enough attempts in the judiciary to bring in reforms and speed up the process like Justice AV Chandrashekar, whose verdict on pre-trial conference was a game-changer.
“In the case of NR Bhat v State through CBI, Justice Chandrashekar issued directions to hold a pre-trial conference in criminal cases between the prosecution and the defence to determine the dates of the trial so that witness availability can be ascertained, their calendars can be booked and no scope for unnecessary adjournments is left. Between a pre-trial conference and the directions listed in the Vinod Kumar case, courts can ensure that witnesses are not inconvenienced unnecessarily when they come forward to testify. The recommendations in the Justice Malimath Committee Report must also be considered and meaningfully implemented to aid the cause of witnesses coming forward to testify in court,” he said.
Now what about the video evidence? Why was such in-your-face evidence considered ‘not admissible’ by the court?
“Video evidence is not per se devoid of probative or evidentiary value. However, the prosecution must establish a chain of custody, authenticity and non-tampering of the video recording and the integrity of the device used to record it in order to render it admissible. However, the real issue when it comes to video recording is the lack of effective facial recognition software in the forensic science laboratories that can refine low-resolution videos and identify the face of suspects and accused featured therein. This often means video evidence cannot be helpful while incriminating the accused, even if they are held as admissible. Unfortunately, we never demand better facilities for our police and forensic science laboratories when we demand reforms for the criminal justice system,” says Ashok
As I watched the news last night, watched how nine long years later, the Mangaluru Pub Attack was back – playing on every channel on loop – hashtags like ‘#arrestMuthalik’ started trending, news anchors and political parties demanding that the state file an appeal against the ruling, my mind went back to January 2009.
I wondered where Leena and her friends were. Were they scarred for life? Were they scared for their lives again after the ruling? Stuck, helpless, unable to speak of the horrors they witnessed that afternoon in Amnesia.
Seething within, but left with no choice but to protect their culture – the culture of silence.
Vasanthi Hariprakash is a media personality & curator of films at Pickle Jar, a curating platform. She covered the 2009 Mangaluru incident in her role as special correspondent at the Bangalore bureau of NDTV 24x7.