When Power Looked Me in the Eye

It took me almost two years to gather the courage to put this personal experience into words and to send it out in the public domain for others to read. I do so now because I understand that what has hit me personally may resonate with the experiences of many in India. While some may have the courage – and at times, the privilege – to be vocal about it, some continually endure it, internalise it or struggle to overcome it, only to realise there is no escape. This ‘some’, I must say, is in the majority.

It was two days before Durga Puja, 2019, when my younger brother and I decided to go out for lunch to breathe the ‘Pujo air’ in Kolkata, a feeling very close to many Bengalis across the globe. Since we live in the suburbs, we had to walk to the nearest main road to find a conveyance to the city. While we were still in the lane beside our house, one UBER driver stopped his car suddenly, and assuming it to be a shared ride, I thought he stopped to pick up his next passenger.

However, before I could react to the sudden halt and ask questions, a young man leaned out of the open window of the backseat and tried to grab me. He was not a passenger. I screamed in fear, in rage and in confusion. Within a few moments, I could see my younger brother and the driver corner the man. Soon enough, many known faces from the neighbourhood, along with my father, came out to protect my dignity.

I stood there, so did he.

The man stood there confident and unapologetic. He gazed back at the questioning eyes confidently, and he gazed at me, while I could not look him in the eye. He made me feel uncomfortable, almost guilty of reacting to the violation of my space, of my body. When my father saw the possibility of the altercation turning violent, he called the police. My father, my brother and I, along with a few neighbours, accompanied the culprit to the police station, which is a small, local outpost in our area. What ensued at the police station was much more horrifying than the incident itself.

Initially, the policemen at the station weren’t even willing to file any complaint, and therefore, we had to fight to make them file an FIR. Once they did, we proceeded to return home. However, one our way home, my father received a call from the police station, asking us to return. The officer-in-charge, he was told, wanted to meet us. As soon as we reached, we were escorted to the officer’s room, where he asked us to take back the FIR. The officer, who we politely addressed as saheb, reeked of alcohol during his duty hours. He tried to talk us through and then forced us to withdraw the complaint without any valid explanation.

My father kept asking for an answer but to no avail. In fact, he was dragged by one of the men in uniform into local custody under the charges of the “supposed mob lynching” of the culprit. When my brother and I tried to run away from the station to gather some of our neighbours who were standing outside, the officer’s assistants ran behind my brother to catch him. Within a few minutes, I saw him being dragged by his collar and taken into custody. Desperate and helpless, I stood crying in front of my neighbours, asking for help, while the men in uniform watched (and justified) the spectacle as though harassment is routine and indeed, normal. While I can only vividly describe the physical violation and humiliation that had been caused to us, I leave the verbal assault to the reader’s imagination.

While my father and my brother remained in custody till evening, my mother and I went around relentlessly appealing to every man and woman in the uniform present at the station. I could see the piercing gaze of those men when I desperately searched for a way to get my family out of custody, I could see the unashamed casualness when two women in uniform came and informed my mother that my father was about to faint and that she “should do something about it,” by which she meant that we take back the FIR – which we had soon after they had taken my father and brother into custody. But apparently, that wasn’t enough. It was only later that evening when our appeals were heard, and we had to write a letter requesting their release. They were released. Again, without any valid cause for this harassment, and obviously, without an apology.

This incident haunts me more, with every passing day. The gazes of the man who tried to violate my body and the men in uniform who let him off the hook still look me in the eye. The visible forms of the invisible power that I witnessed that day walk with me like a shadow. A local incident, a personal experience is the everyday reality of a large number of Indians; a structure which is only becoming stronger. As a student of anthropology who is learning to read Foucault, I now understand the all-pervasive, amorphous play of power. Without any reason or explanation, without any crime, we were termed criminals.

In India, this is becoming the norm. Questioning is an act of criminality. When you question power, power terms you an ‘abnormal’ who needs to be controlled, turning you into a powerless subject, rather than a questioning citizen of India. That day, we saw our subjectivity emerge in front of our eyes; our powerlessness lay bare. However, it was the resistance which emerged from this very powerlessness which let my father and brother free. As a citizen of this country, when I read the news every day, my fear rises, and my belief only strengthens that power sustains itself by creating powerlessness. And powerlessness has its own dynamics of power. For some, it might be an incident or an event, for many, it is the structure they can’t escape. However, it also gives me hope that we can resist power, but not without a cost.

However, as a woman witnessing the condition of women in this country, my angst intensifies, with a question that haunts my mind, is the power of the men who violate our bodies any different from the power of those in uniform who are supposed to protect us?

Aindrila Chakraborty is a student of Ambedkar University, Delhi, pursuing masters in global studies.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty