Movement against gender violence enters a new phase in Bengal

For any movement to reach a point of phase transition where the critical mass shoots up and sparks spread like prairie fire across the society, a few objective conditions must come together. The brutal rapes and murders of young girls and minors in the villages of Kamduni (North 24 Parganas), Gede (Nadia), Gaighata (N 24 Parganas) and Ranitala (Murshidabad) within a fortnight, people’s disenchantment with a thoroughly discredited administration, memories of the uprising of student-youth and women in Delhi on the question of gender violence – all played their part. The final spark came from the defiant and courageous protests led by the villagers of Kamduni, the womenfolk in particular, who stood eye-to-eye with the verbally abusive chief minister of the state and demanded an answer. Just as ‘Aparajita’ (the unvanquished) of Kamduni had become the face of a new phase of protests against gender violence, so did the victim’s friends Tumpa and Mousumi Kayal emerge as faces of Kamduni’s defiance in a matter of days.

India has been witnessing what might be called the third wave (after the Mathura and Manorama uprisings) of a countrywide movement against gender violence and on the question of women’s autonomy and freedom. 16th December 2012, the day when the Delhi student was gang raped and brutally assaulted with iron rods, has been etched in our memories as another black day of the month of December. I still remember the spontaneous outpourings of anger and sadness in a Kolkata rally after the 29th of December when the Delhi brave-heart succumbed to her injuries. That day, people walked hand-in-hand and stormed police barricades in remembrance of Damini or Nirbhaya, as she was named. In fact, West Bengal had been simmering even before Delhi began to boil. The gang rape of a woman in Park Street, in February of last year, followed by a series of denials, cover-ups, blaming and maligning of the victim, transfer of a top police cop who cracked the case, and a series of disgraceful measures and sexist statements by the administration and ruling political party, had whipped up the fury of people who took their demands to the streets. This was followed by several other instances of rapes and gender violence at Jagachha, Katoa, Gurap, Barasat, Satragachi, Shutia, Durgapur, Jadavpur, Rupnarayanpur - to name a few, as if lending live credence to a National Crime Records Bureau report that fetched for Bengal an ignominious top berth in counts of gender violence in the country. On the one hand, while conviction rate for rape in the state lay at an abysmal 11.5% (in comparison to the grim national conviction rate of 26.4%), each time the administration unfailingly resorted to denials and justifications of one sort or the other.

The numerous protests, rallies and citizens’ conventions that took place in Bengal over the period of a year following the Park Street gang rape, had definitely initiated a fresh churning in the society, post the regime change of 2011. This was perceptible from conversations on the streets, writings on the wall (literally), newspapers and magazines, or from the direct experience of talking to people while distributing leaflets on the question of gender violence. The media played a considerable role in reporting instances of rapes and other forms of gender violence with regularity. This, coupled with fact-finding reports from grassroots activists and groups, ensured that facts could no longer be hidden from the public. The media did a fairly sensible job in highlighting sexist and misogynist remarks made by men and women in public office, which became rallying points for activists to hold the administration and certain elected representatives guilty of justifying and abetting crimes against women.

The Rape and Murder at Kamduni

On the 8th of June, a 20-year old student was gang raped and brutally murdered in Kamduni, a village of Barasat in the North 24 Parganas, when she was returning home from college. It was revealed that the accused were habitual offenders and their regular crimes against women in the area, including harassment, stalking and threatening, were widely known and had been reported to the police by the local people in general, and the victim’s father in particular. It was also alleged by the local people that the chief accused who led the criminals was a Trinamool Congress foot-soldier. Hence the police’s sitting on the earlier complaints did not come as a surprise. Like numerous past instances, it exposed once again the openly operative criminal-police nexus and political patronage enjoyed by rapists and molesters, that has brought shame and disgrace to Barasat over and over again.

When food minister Jyotipriya Mullick turned up in the aftermath, he was driven away by the people of Kamduni. Mr. Mullick displayed the audacity to keep mum on the continued Police inaction and abysmal failure of the law and order machinery but had the temerity to offer a job to the victim’s brother as ‘compensation’! This further enraged the villagers who identified and shamed this as an attempt of a political gimmick on the eve of the Panchayat Polls, and the victim’s brother scornfully rejected the minister’s ‘offer’. A number of activist groups, women’s organizations, and civil society members have since visited Kamduni to express their solidarity with the village folks. A group of 22 theatre activists and student activists walked a 52 Km Padyatra from Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Arts to Kamduni, and met with the victim’s family and her neighbours. The villagers kept vigil and welcomed the solidarities. Rallies, protest meetings, and street corner meetings were held at Barasat, Chinsura, Shibdaspur, and rural and urban areas of different districts, besides Kolkata, where it was perhaps the most televised. Several groups submitted memoranda and petitions registering their condemnation and demanding immediate redressal of the scenario. The Barasat Police Station was gheraoed and roads blockaded in spontaneous protests. A PIL was filed at the Calcutta High Court demanding a special probe.

A deafening 10 days after the rape-murder, Mamata Banerjee visited Kamduni under mounting public pressure. On being confronted by women protesters, some of whom were the victim’s classmates and friends, the Chief Minister snapped and indulged in bullying and verbal abuse, with her convoy leaving the village in a hurry after having labeled the women as ‘CPI(M) cadres’ and having identified ‘Maoist outsiders’ who were supposedly orchestrating the protests. Mamata Banerjee even made a dramatic allegation of CPI(M)-assisted villagers trying to assassinate her, while paramilitary troops and police personnel paraded and guarded the village before and during the CM’s whirlwind visit. The Chief Minister’s shameful conduct, followed by threats from Trinamool Congress Panchayat representatives (who went door to door looking for the women protesters and demanding that they apologize publicly for having argued with ‘Didi’), and Trinamool Congress’s bizarre attempts to assuage discontent by arranging free Khichri meals and a game of football in the village, were all rejected and condemned by the people of Kamduni.

One might wonder how things came to such a pass in Barasat? It was not long back when Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, the current Trinamool MP from Barasat, had gone public denying and dismissing the Park Street rape attack as a ‘deal gone wrong between a sex-worker and her clients’. The ruling party MLA from Barasat, one Mr. Chiranjit Chakraborty, on the other hand, had advised women to dress with modesty to avoid being attacked. Such overt justifications of gender violence, defense of criminals and denials of crimes against women by the ruling political class coupled with inaction of the police has thus ensured that rape culture prevails and thrives in Barasat. And most often it is the working class and lower middle class people who face the ugliest attacks, like it was in this particular case, where the victim was the first-generation college-goer in a working class family struggling to make ends meet.

Brutalized women lead heroic protests against Gender Violence

The protests over the Park Street rape have come a full circle after a year and four months. “Why should I hide my identity when it was not even my fault? Why should I be ashamed of something that I did not give rise to? I was subjected to brutality, I was subjected to torture, and I was subjected to rape, and I am fighting and I will fight,” said 38-year old Suzette Jordan, after she came out in the open with her identity and walked a rally with Maitree, a network of several women’s organizations. Suzette refuses to remain nameless, faceless or just tagged as the ‘Park Street sexual assault victim’ in the face of the recent rape-murders of young girls. “I could no longer sit back and watch what was happening, the monstrosity that has been perpetrated,” she said. Suzette has been fighting not only rape but also the covert and overt threats and sexist blame game thrown her way by the powers that be. I remember, the All India Progressive Women’s Association had invited her as a speaker for a citizen’s convention against gender violence held on the 12th of September last year, when she sent her support but was unable to make it in the last minute, being subjected to a lot of pressure from various quarters. We salute her brave fight, exemplary courage and resolve as she leads the protests on the streets today.

Like Suzette, the rape survivor of Jagachha and her sister Selina Khatun have been battling rape and its aftermath with a steel resolve. Selina has been a tireless crusader, fighting for justice for Sakina, a domestic worker who was raped at Jagachha in July 2012. Selina has been taking off from work, and traveling to conventions and protest meets to share her sister’s harrowing experience at the police station - while trying to get her complaint registered, to continuing intimidation in the guise of interrogation of the victim while the culprit remained at large for more than a year (he was caught only a couple of weeks back). Her appeal to all people to come together and her compelling words stressing the need for working women to get organized and collectively combat the ongoing sexual violence, still ring in my ears.

The protests in Kolkata culminated in a citizen’s rally against rape on the 21st of June, where an estimated 10,000 people walked from College Square to Esplanade. The march was called by poet Sankho Ghosh and others who urged people to join without organizational banners. About 60 villagers of Kamduni, including women, led the march. Students from Derozio College, where ‘Aparajita’ was a student, also joined the rally. There was enthusiastic participation by villagers from Gede[1], and a delegation of the Pratibadi Mancha of Sutia[2], including rape survivors. This unprecedented participation of women who were victims themselves, shedding off the stigma associated with rape and leading protest rallies against gender violence has distinguished and glorified the recent phase of uprisings.

A spectrum of voices

One can only attempt to summarize the myriad experiences in the numerous protest marches and meetings that took place in Kolkata, as a renewed round of churning shook the society’s conscience to the core. The coming together of people from all walks of life – villagers, theater activists, student-youth and women activists, citizens’ organizations, government employees, LGBT groups, local forums against gender violence, and mass mobilizations by political parties and their mass organizations to reclaim the streets has characterized the movement. The societal churning has also stirred up sharp debates. While certain voices still clamour for the death penalty for rapists, there are voices against the death penalty arguing convincingly for harsh and swift punishment of perpetrators and pushing for a 100% conviction rate. A street corner meeting in College Street on the 13th of June stirred up a debate on how far the commodification of women in commercials can be held responsible for rape, and another exchange forcefully busted the myths that portray rape as a crime of desire. Live debates addressed the slippery slope between fighting commodification and issuing dress diktats by public figures. In one of the rallies, alongside students walking with posters against patriarchy and gender violence walked a young woman with a message reclaiming a woman’s autonomy over her body and decisions ‘Pink or Brown/Not your choice/My nipples are mine/Just like my voice’. The state-sponsored rapes and rape-murders, custodial rapes and rape as an instrument of communal and casteist violence were invoked in slogans and placards – with calls for justice for Soni Sori, Kunan Poshpora, Manipur, Tapasi Malik, the women of Nandigram, the women of Gujarat, or the women of Bathani Tola.

Although the grim instances of rape do not seem to get arrested, this is not a moment of despair or resignation, but one of hope that an entire spectrum of fragmented solidarity will snowball and crystallize into a mass uprising against gender violence.

[1] On June 10th, a class VII pupil was gang raped and killed in Gede (Nadia) on her way back from school. A three-member fact-finding team comprising of Dibakar Bhattacharya, Amalendu Bhushan Chowdhury and Amlan Bhattacharya visited the victim’s home in Gede and submitted a report on behalf of PUCL. They reported that out of the 4 persons arrested by the police, one person has already been let off (under political pressure), and efforts are on to free two more of the accused. Case no. 162, 11th June 2013, sections 376 (2)(g), 302/34 of the IPC. (Aajker Deshabrati, 20th June)

[2] Barun Biswas, a teacher at Kolkata’s Mitra Institution school and a resident of Sutia in North 24 Parganas district, had organized the local people for more than a decade into a peoples’ forum called Pratibadi Mancha to stand up against more than 40 rapes of local women committed by a politically protected lumpen gang operating in the area. Barun Biswas was murdered by ‘unidentified assailants’ in broad daylight on July 5th, 2012.


Run up to the Panchayat Poll in West Bengal

As the first phase of submitting nominations for contesting in the Panchayat elections rolled to a close, instances of political vendetta against left and democratic opposition by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) are on an alarming rise. CPI(ML) also bore the brunt of this unprincipled assault on its democratic rights. In Karanda in the district of Burdwan, three CPI(ML) candidates were forced to withdraw their nominations. One of them, a member of the family of a martyr of the bloody Karanda massacre, was threatened with ‘a repeat of the Karanda violence’. The village of Karanda was where six agricultural laborers, all CPI(ML) activists who dared to challenge the then CPI(M)’s corrupt hegemony in the local Panchayat, were hacked to death in 1993, in one of the most heinous carnage in the state’s history. This only shows what sort of ‘Parivartan’ has happened in rural Bengal.

At Bhatar and Kalna, both in Burdwan, two other CPI(ML) candidates were forced to withdraw from contesting elections. In the neighbouring district of Hooghly, two candidates from Belmuri and one candidate from Bandel were also similarly attacked and forced to withdraw their candidature. The TMC is thus baring tooth and claw in desperate silencing of its political opponents as it cannot afford to contest elections in a democratic milieu.

Perhaps the most damning evidence is an estimated 8000 seats (official figures at 6700 and rising) where the TMC is all set to win the elections uncontested, by having forced their political opponents to withdraw their nominations. A lion’s share of these seats are reserved for women candidates. So much for Mamata Banerjee’s self-styled proclamations of ‘women’s empowerment’ in Bengal. In fact the recent spate of rapes and murders of young girls in several villages in North 24 Parganas, Nadia and Murshidabad, coupled with serious administrative lapses, has caused a massive uproar, and the question of growing atrocities on women has become a burning issue in the Panchayat polls.

Meanwhile, as the tussle between the State Government and the State Election Commission continues over the deployment of security forces for the election, the Panchayat Minister and the Chief Minister continue to speak in two voices. As we go to press, 9 persons have been killed in political violence and at least 14 suffered injuries.

The CPI(ML)’s campaign for the Panchayat polls is centered around mobilizations by the party and mass organizations, extensive group meetings (para baithak) in villages, open mass meetings, wall writings and leafleting. Recently, mass meetings were held in Nakashipara of Nadia, Dhanekhali and Balagarh of Hooghly and Purbasthali and Katoa of Burdwan districts.

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