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”. Continue reading