February 22, 2012
by Kavita Krishnan
The response of the West Bengal Government to a recent complaint of gang rape in the state capital, is yet another instance that has underlined the deeply patriarchal biases embedded in institutions of power and in the state machinery.
A woman reported that she had been gang-raped at gun-point in a moving car in Kolkata. She further stated that when she sought to file a complaint, she was subjected to humiliation and sexually suggestive remarks at the hands of the police. As this incident came to the light of the public, the West Bengal Police establishment and senior leaders of the Cabinet including even the Chief Minister herself, branded the rape complaint as false.
The Police Commissioner of Kolkata, RK Pachnanda, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, both said the rape complaint was fabricated and ‘staged’ to malign the Government. The Chief Minister’s media adviser said that the police was looking into the rape complainant’s family background, cheating cases against her father, etc. Supposed ‘holes’ and ‘inconsistencies’ in the complainant’s version were leaked selectively by police to the media. In other words, the complainant herself was treated as though she were a suspect whose innocence was on trial!
Meanwhile, a close aide of the Chief Minister, Minister Madan Mitra, resorted to the age-old patriarchal strategy to discredit rape complainants: insinuating that the complainant was of questionable moral character, since she was separated from her husband and visited nightclubs. Speaking to a TV channel, Mitra said, “Why did a woman with kids at home, who is separated from her husband, go to a nightclub? For all you know, she may still be drinking at a club.”
Moral judgements on a woman’s personal life, and all sorts of details about her family background, were invoked in order to discredit her complaint of rape – in violation of the well-established principle, oft upheld by the Supreme Court, that irrelevant details about the rape complainant’s personal life and ‘character’ cannot be used to undermine rape complaints.
Eventually, the rape complaint was vindicated, with the Kolkata police arresting three of the accused. The medical evidence clearly showed injuries consistent with the assault described by the complainant. Also, it emerged that so-called ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘falsehoods’ in the complainant’s statement had a perfectly logical explanation.
The kind of attitudes displayed by the West Bengal police and government are, unfortunately, all too common when it comes to rape complaints, and this is undoubtedly one of the factors contributing to the rise in sexual violence on women. Recently, a DGP of Andhra Pradesh blamed women for ‘provoking’ rape by wearing fashionable clothes. His remarks were soon echoed by many in responsible positions in other states, too. According to such patriarchal discourse, rape is not rape, when it happens to women who do not conform to prescribed norms of behaviour. And the credibility of any rape complainant can be undermined by questioning her clothes, her behaviour, or her morality. And Governments, realising that rape cases and police insensitivity reflect badly on their regime, are often quick to stoke patriarchal ‘doubts’ about the rape complainant’s character and credibility.
Not long ago, Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister, eager to cover up allegations of rape against an MLA of his party, questioned Rupam Pathak’s character on TV channels. The Delhi Police chief, responding to charges of police insensitivity in cases relating to violence against women, said that women who ventured out without a (male) guardian at 2 am, have only themselves to blame for rape.
In West Bengal itself, the statements made by Mamata Banerjee and Madan Mitra echo the remarks made by their predecessors in similar circumstances. Responding to the mass rape at Birati in 1990, a leader of the ruling CPIM’s women’s organisation had referred to the questionable moral antecedents of the victims. In the Dhantala mass rape case of 2003, the West Bengal Government had dismissed the rape charges as ‘concocted lies.’ In another instance of rape of a woman CPI(M) supporter in Cooch Behar in 2003, allegedly by CPIM activists, the then State Secretary of the CPIM had deemed the charge to be ‘concocted’, and had questioned the ‘character and lifestyle’ of the complainant. In the case of the rape and murder of Tapasi Malik in Singur, too, senior CPIM leaders had made patriarchal insinuations about Tapasi and her family, in order to defend their own cadre who were accused.
This trend of branding rape complainants as liars by invoking their ‘character’ is rampant in society. But when those in positions of power and responsibility do so, it is even more serious and condemnable. If such persons go unpunished, it can only encourage this trend, and embolden perpetrators of violence on women.
The West Bengal Chief Minister owes a public apology to the rape complainant, for the shameful way in which the latter was branded a liar by the Government, and by the CM personally. The Chief Minister should also relinquish the Home portfolio that she now holds, as a penalty for the way in which she sought to malign a rape complainant, and bias the police proceedings. For his highly offensive remarks, Madan Mitra must be removed from his position in the Cabinet. The charges of sexual harassment against police personnel must be speedily investigated and sternly punished. The Kolkata Police Commissioner must also be removed from office for his irresponsible statements that were a great injustice to the rape complainant. It may be remembered that, following his public pronouncements justifying the honour crimes of industrialist Ashok Todi towards Rizwan-ur Rehman, the then Police Commissioner had to lose his post. This time, too, the current Police Commissioner must go.