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A girl's abduction 70 years ago has lessons for today

The focus in tackling sexual assault in India should be on education, social reform and empowering women.

India was shocked, saddened and angered yesterday by the news that a young woman had died in hospital in Singapore. The appalling assault on the 23-year-old woman and her male companion in a bus in Delhi earlier this month has created a crisis of conscience for all of India, as the country tries to understand how such an incident could have happened and how we arrived at this point.

Why can we not tame the demons that make some men behave so atrociously in India? The roots of such behaviour are deep in this complex, varied society, and to partly answer that question, I go back more than seven decades, indeed before India as we know it was even a country.

The story begins innocently enough as my friends and I were out on our morning walk along the banks of a canal that ran through our town of Tandlianwala, in the present-day province of Punjab in Pakistan. The year was 1941, and the walk was part of our morning ritual during which we would break twigs off of a Neem tree, chewing on them to clean our teeth in the cool fresh breeze as we talked about the news of the day.

That morning, however, the serenity was broken by a series of yells: "They have run away with a girl." True enough, ahead of us we could see two horsemen galloping away, one of them on a black horse holding a young girl who was screaming and struggling furiously in front of him.

"They have abducted Rukmini," shouted my friend Nityanand, who was running breathlessly towards us. Rukmini was a young neighbourhood girl whose family was known to us. We had heard of ruffians on horseback kidnapping young girls, but now one of our own neighbours was the victim.

Instinctively, we set off on foot after the horsemen. We could see that Rukmini was still struggling with the kidnapper who held her with one hand while gripping the reins with the other. Although my friends and I were on foot, we were able to close the distance enough so that one of my friends was able to hit the black horse's hindquarters with a stick that he was carrying.

The horse cringed at the blow and lost its balance. For just a few precious seconds, the rider fumbled his grip and Rukmini was able to wrest free, slipping off the horse's back and falling to the ground. She lay there cringing. The horsemen looked back and, seeing us in pursuit, they put their heels to their mounts and fled.

We surrounded Rukmini, who was sobbing on the ground and covering her face with the thin shawl that she was wearing. Soon a group of girls joined her and escorted her back to her house. Within minutes, the incident had become the talk of the town.

The five of us who had chased the kidnapper were not satisfied, however. We were young and idealistic, and we were not going to let the culprits get away. How dare anyone touch our sisters and our friends in our own town, we fumed.

About 10 of us formed a posse, collected a few horses and returned to the scene of the kidnapping. We tracked the hoofprints from the spot where Rukmini had fallen. After about two hours, we arrived at a small village of about 60 houses. How could we find the offenders from there? We decided that we had to look for the black horse, which we had seen better than the riders, and, breaking up into groups of two or three, we began to canvass the village.

After an hour, Nityanand yelled to the rest of us. He had found a black horse with a gash on its hindquarters that had been covered with turmeric powder, which stops bleeding and is a healing agent. The abrasion was where the horse had been struck by my friend - clearly we had found our kidnappers.

We knocked on the door of the nearby house, which was opened by a young man in his early 20s. When he saw us, fear rushed into his eyes. My friends were furious and they administered a pounding. Very soon after, we had captured his partner in the abortive abduction and our convoy rode out, followed by a gaggle of jeering youngsters.

We handed both culprits over to the police at the station in Tandlianwala where they were safely locked up. We returned home, satisfied that the police would teach the two men a lesson.

The next day, many people turned out at a public meeting where the entire episode was recounted and we were congratulated for our role. Rukmini's father tearfully thanked us. There were no medals or awards, but the recognition of our friends and family was enough.

Rukmini, thankfully, suffered no more than a bad scare, having escaped the abductors in part because of our help, and in part because of her own struggles. For that young woman and her friend on a Delhi bus earlier this month, there was no one to help them, and no way they could escape. The sheer savagery of the attack is a horror.

The National Crime Records Bureau reports that reported rape cases in India rose from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011 - and those numbers are certainly far fewer than the number of actual attacks. Only one of every four accused is convicted. Today India is among the most dangerous nations in the world for women, ranked alongside countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Congo.

In 1941, there was a village to stand by Rukmini and punish the perpetrators. Today in this rapidly urbanising society, Indians are raging in the streets against their impotence to stop these sort of crimes. There is talk of imposing a death penalty for rapists. But we need to focus on education, social reform and empowering women. Only then will we rule the beasts that move men to monstrosity.

 

Hari Chand Aneja is an 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work

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