India: When the State is indifferent to rape, the people take the streets

[Increasingly, acts of protest and resistance are denounced or dismissed as “Maoist” by the the state.  —  Frontlines ed.]

When the ‘Maoists’ Took Over the Streets of Kolkata

Why did the Kamduni incident – the rape and murder of a young college student and the utterly insensitive handling of the issue by the West Bengal government and the ruling Trinamool Congress – spark off such a huge reaction to bring together a wide spectrum of civil society under one umbrella in Kolkata on 21 June?

Vol – XLVIII No. 29, July 20, 2013 Rajashri Dasgupta, EPW

Rajashri Dasgupta (rajashridasgupta@gmail.com) is an independent Kolkata-based journalist specialising on issues related to gender, health, democratic rights and social movements.Civil society members take out a procession in Kolkata to protest the rise in crime against women and recent incidents of rape in West Bengal. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

It was a hot and muggy afternoon on 21 June, when in an incredible display of public solidarity and defiance, thousands of people marched through the streets of Kolkata in silent protest. There were no political parties to manage the swelling numbers, no brandishing of political flags to claim victory for any organisation. Led by respected intellectuals, people poured in from all corners of the city as well as its outskirts to show their support and solidarity – elderly people, some with sticks and crutches; homemakers, for many of whom it was their first rally; working people who spontaneously got off buses or skipped work. There were students in large numbers with banners and placards, teachers, villagers holding hands for safety in an unfamiliar place, rights activists distributing leaflets, feminists with colourful posters, non-governmental organisation workers, actors, academics and journalists – all came together to protest the spurt in crimes against women in the state.

The protest was triggered by the gang-rape and murder of a young college girl Sheila (not her real name) in Kamduni village, Barasat district on 7 June and the insensitive handling of the incident by the state government. It was for the first time that the city, famous for its processions, witnessed an outpouring from such a wide cross-section of society, about an issue generally left to women’s groups and feminists to battle: the safety and security of women.

The rally of more than 10,000 strong was also a political expression of indignation against the constant bogey of “the other” raised by the ruling party to gag dissent. Suddenly, from one section of the rally, young men and women raised slogans demanding azaadi (freedom), startling this reporter since the word is usually associated with the Kashmir issue. For the people of Bengal that afternoon, however, the rallying cry of azaadi snowballed to take on a larger significance. It not only meant freedom of women from violence, but also implied the freedom of citizens to live without fear, the freedom to speak up, to question, and the freedom to protest. Since 2011, with the promise of paribartan (change) that had swept Mamata Banerjee to power in West Bengal, defeating an almost invincible Left Front (LF) rule of 34 years, the chief minister has silenced every question, protest or any whiff of dissent, real or imaginary, by dismissing it as a conspiracy against her from her opponents, whom she dubbed the “Maoists”.

Why the Huge Protest?

For nearly two years, the state has been turned into a theatre of the absurd. Mamata Banerjee, who coined the slogan “Ma, Mati, Manush” (Mother, Motherland and People) has dismissed every rape incident as “concocted” and labelled each rape survivor a “liar”, out to “malign” the state government. Villagers are rudely shut up when they appeal to her with their problems; political opposition (whether from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) or the Bharatiya Janata Party) is accused of “conspiring” to murder her; questions posed to her are labelled “Maoist questions” leading to the bewildered questioner being heckled, rebuffed or even arrested as a “Maoist”; peaceful protests are seen as “threats” to her life, and protesters are arrested or branded as “Maoists”. In fact, the small band of actual Maoists in Bengal had never had it so good, credited with the apparently overwhelming support of a wide cross-section of people on virtually every issue! The police intelligence looks miserably incompetent, with the chief minister left to herself to spot the Maoist or CPI(M) supporter lurking in every village or street gathering to kill her. In fact, this reporter heard people at the rally joking with each other, “So what are you, Maoist or CPM? Choose your colour!”

Why did the Kamduni incident spark off such a huge reaction to bring together such a wide spectrum of civil society under one umbrella? The occurrence of crimes against women is not a new phenomenon in the state. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, West Bengal reported the third highest number of incidents of rape (2,046) in the country, after Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In the period 2006-11, West Bengal consistently, year-after-year, recorded the second highest number of incidents of rape in the country, after Madhya Pradesh. Surely, this is a shameful record. Women’s and human rights networks have not been silent. Even on 10 June, there were several demonstrations by the students and women’s organisations of political parties protesting Kamduni. Earlier that day, 13 members of Maitree, a women’s rights network, were arrested for gathering outside the chief minister’s residence as threats to the CM’s life and as “Maoists”.

Though anger was brewing in the city, the protests were fragmented under different banners with little attempt to unite forces. As we search for answers to the 21 June rally, we need to understand the history of this accumulated frustration of the people to the chief minister’s attitude to crimes of sexual assault. In February 2012, when a 37-year-old mother of two reported that she had been gang-raped in the heart of the city in Park Street, Mamata Banerjee declared that it was a “conspiracy” of the victim to embarrass her newly-formed government. Citizens were shocked, disillusioned with the then popular and newly-elected CM, and many protested. The episode became the referral point every time the CM made similar insensitive comments about sexual assault. Last week, as protests gathered momentum, Suzette decided not to spend the rest of her life in semi-anonymity as the “Park Street rape victim”. She came forward and stated that the violence committed on her was not her shame, but the shame of the perpetrators. She joined a protest march on 17 June organised by Maitree on Kamduni and later when Suzette, her face uncovered, spoke at a panel discussion on TV, it had an electrifying and lasting effect on people.

If Suzette’s bold move and her plans to set up a helpline for rape survivors stirred people, the quiet determination of the Kamduni villagers seeking justice for Sheila and their resistance to state bullying triggered the conscience of the people. The politico-mafia nexus is neither new in the state nor can any political party claim a clean chit in connection to it. In 1990, during the LF rule, three women officials were brutally attacked in Bantala on the outskirts of the city, one raped and killed by CPI(M)-supported “cadres”. “Bantala stands as our danger signal of degeneration”, editor Nikhil Chakravarty had warned in Mainstream. The spiral of violence continued in the state when in 2006, Tapasi Mullick was gang-raped and murdered to silence the movement in Singur. Later when local CPI(M) functionaries and goons were arrested, the CPI(M) state secretary had claimed that it was a fabricated ploy to malign the party.

Sheila’s Struggle

There was no slackening of the nexus between criminals and ruling party politicians with the change of government. At Kamduni, criminals rule large tracts of the region and though there have been several complaints against them by villagers, the administration has failed to act. With the skyline fast changing and tall buildings and gated multi-storied complexes encroaching on paddy fields, there are regular reports of criminal activities and gun fights between land sharks and bheri (fisheries) owners over their respective shares in smuggling and hooch (local brew). Kamduni village lies about three km off the main bus road between large tracts of bheris and stretches of empty land grabbed by real estate agents. Every day, 20-year-old Sheila, a first-generation learner in her family, whose father is a wage earner, would travel 40 minutes by bus to her college where she studied Bengali literature and education. One of her brothers would escort her from the bus stop back home through that deserted stretch of road. That fateful afternoon, at 2.30 pm, he was delayed. So she saw no other alternative but to set out by herself; on the way she was waylaid by five men, gang-raped and murdered, and her body was dumped into a pond. If Sheila’s desire for education in Derozio Memorial College reflects the dream of thousands of girls in the 450-500 colleges in Bengal, her reality also reflects that of many of those girls. They face the daily hardships of household chores at home, the lack of a source of money for bus tickets or for a modest mid-day tiffin, an infrequent or non-existent bus service, and unlit, deserted roads where ruffians roam, so much so that many girls are unable or unwilling to attend classes after 3 pm.

If people were moved by the tale of the daily struggle of Sheila challenging her destiny, they were also painfully aware of the backlash on young girls following such violence. The quiet determination of the Kamduni villagers seeking justice for Sheila’s murder and their resistance to state bullying triggered the conscience of the people. The state has tried every means to suppress the Kamduni community, from giving out sops to both veiled and open threats. When a state minister offered the bereaved father monetary compensation and a job for his son, he was rebuffed. “We are not beggars”, cried the father in anguish. “What I want for my daughter is justice”. In a shameful act to terrorise villagers, two school friends of Sheila, Tumpa and Mona Koyal were targeted when they raised concerns about women’s safety to the CM. “Chup. Keep quiet. Shut up. You are all CPM supporters,” was the CM’s parting words to the villagers when she visited Kamduni 10 days after the incident. Even the headmaster of the local primary school in Kamduni was issued a show cause notice when he joined a rally protesting the violence in his village.

The Kamduni villagers have refused to be silenced. Instead they have united to form a protective wall around the two girls from the hordes of media persons and political parties swooping down on the village. They have continued to protest the atmosphere of violence and demand safety in the area. The teachers of Derozio College where Sheila studied and the villagers of the surrounding areas have organised protests. When pressurised by the Trinamool panchayat pradhan to apologise to the CM, Mona, with her friend by her side, said,

I have not misbehaved with the chief minister. I have done nothing for me to apologise to her. I don’t care for the fatwa-like diktat by Trinamool supporters. I will fight for our security in the village.

The fresh, earnest faces of the two friends captured on TV channels, the spirit embodied in the two girls of Kamduni and their fellow villagers has left a lasting image and has become the talking point of every conversation. Songs and poems have been written in admiration of the Kamduni resistance and there are daily reports of mass protests against violence against young girls from across the state, of families of victims refusing monetary compensation and seeking justice.

Bantala, Nandigram, Kamduni

The June protest march was in fact a virtual rerun of the mammoth procession taken out by many of the same people back in November 2007, when bike-riding and armed harmad bahini supporters of the CPI(M) had forcibly recaptured Nandigram, spreading terror in the region. The episode had stoked the fire of resistance and sparked large-scale protests against LF rule that had been reduced to insufferable arrogance, smug complacency and poor governance. Earlier that year in March in Nandigram, 14 people were shot dead in police firing, many women raped and many more injured when they resisted the acquisition of their lands for the setting up of a chemical hub.

The incident was a turning point in Bengal’s politics, and observers said it symbolised the murder of democracy. Among those present in both the mass rallies were the poet Shankho Ghosh and a former finance minister of LF, Ashok Mitra. Despite his 81 years, Ghosh, loved for his poems on humanity and respected for rejecting state patronage, inspired his followers as he walked the entire route of the rally. A frail Ashok Mitra, despite his CPI(M) leanings, had also condemned the Nandigram firing. Among the other conveners were novelist Mahasweta Devi, film director Mrinal Sen, poet Tapan Bandyopadhyay and film director Suman Mukhopadhyay. Mingling with the crowd were scholar Partha Chatterjee, writer Amit Chaudhuri and many others.

However unanimous the protest was, it was not entirely uncontroversial. It brought to the fore the role and the credibility of some intellectuals and artistes in the state. A group close to the ruling establishment, as expected, stayed away from the rally; they had been generously awarded and bestowed patronage by Mamata Banerjee when she had come to power. Among them were the poet Joy Goswami, theatre personalities Bratya Basu (now education minister) and Saoli Mitra and the artist Suvaprassanna. Then there were also questions about the political integrity of some who were once CPI(M) supporters, but had later canvassed for paribartan behind Mamata Banerjee, had then grown disillusioned with the establishment but had remained silent in the last two years when people were being branded, roughed up or arrested. What drew the most criticism and unease was the presence or association of CPI(M)-leaning intellectuals in the rally, some of whom had remained silent to state terror during LF rule and had never protested the violence in Singur or Nandigram. Many citizens declined to walk shoulder to shoulder with them.

Interestingly, the posters and placards in this march reflected, to some extent, the varied political leanings. Rights groups, sections to the left of the CPI(M) and feminists carried huge banners stating “Don’t play politics with rape”, showing the numerous incidences of rape committed in the state from the 1990s to the present day. Their banners pointed to the similarity of the state response regardless of the ruling party, with scrawls saying “Bantala theke Kamduni, sab shashaker ek dhani” (From Bantala to Kamduni, all rulers say the same thing), and “2006 e dekhchi, 2013 te o dekhchi” (We saw this in 2006, and again in 2013), referring to violence against women both when the LF was, and the TMC now is, in power. All this was in sharp contrast to groups associated with the CPI(M) who held placards focusing only on the Kamduni incident as though violence against women was a phenomenon occurring only over the last two years.

In a highly politicised society like Bengal, expectedly, issues of alliance building are being debated on various platforms. It has to be remembered that the rally on 21 June was called by a broad citizens’ group, not a political party with a long-term political agenda to form an organisation where members are screened, their political leanings scrutinised. If for many of the intellectuals involved, it was a complex coming to terms in the course of their political voyages from being CPI(M) supporters to members of Mamata Banerjee’s disillusioned paribartan entourage, and from there, moving towards standing by the people, for the greater majority of us that day, the march was to stand by Kamduni – and to stand up for ourselves, reflecting our own compelling desire to live without fear.

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