Bengal awaits an independent mass movement as crimes against women rise

January 16, 2014

By Biswajit Roy

A teenaged girl was gang-raped twice by the same persons in between October 25-27. The second time was when she was on her way back from police station after lodging the complaint against the rapists. Threatened by the gang who wanted her to withdraw the complaint, her poor migrant family from Bihar was forced to leave Madhyamgram, which is in the outskirts of Kolkata, and rented a room in a neighborhood adjoining the airport closer to the city.

Some perpetrators of the double crime were arrested after the second violation, after some locals saved the dazed girl from being run over by a speeding train, which the gang had planned.

But the accomplices of the arrested hounded out the girl at her new location and put pressure on her to take back the police complaint. They instigated the new neighbors to drive away the family. The new landlord family, who was linked to one of the gang members, came in handy. Together with some neighbors, they tormented the girl and her family asking them to leave the place.

After another spell of abuse and threats on December 23, the girl was found ablaze. She was admitted to a state-run hospital in north Kolkata with severe burn injuries. After she died on December 31, the victim’s family claimed that the gang had put her on fire. Initially, police said it was a case of attempted suicide.

The cops had done nothing to provide security to the victim and her family after she was violated for the first time. Neither did they take steps to save the family from daily intimidations by the henchmen of the accused. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who also wears the hat of home minister, and her police did nothing to save the girl and her family during their long ordeal of more than two months. The family had complained of inadequate medical treatment and wanted the government to send the girl to the better-equipped SSKM hospital. The government did not budge.

But it enacted a macabre drama over the dead body of the raped girl. Police hijacked the casket on the way to a city mortuary after failing to coerce the family to cremate her on the very night she died. Police threatened the family to go back to their native state, and grabbed their meager belongings in order to force this. Local Trinamul men joined in this intimidation. The cops and party faithful clearly did it to comply with the wish of the top guns of the government and Trinamul Congress.

It was done, ostensibly, to maintain public order on New Year’s Eve. But actually it was aimed at preempting a CPM plan to hold a rally, next day, with the corpse. The victim’s father, a taxi driver from a neighboring state, had turned to some local CITU leaders known to him. But the police-led hijack faced a hitch when the cops discovered that the death certificate had been left with a relative who had gone back home.

Since the wee hours of the first day of 2014, the crematorium witnessed a bizarre tug-of-war between the police and CPM over the control of the victim’s body. A prominent CPM leader appeared on the TV channels claiming that he possessed the death certificate. Police took back the body to the victim’s home and brought it back again in the morning to cremate her.

By that time, CPM contingent grew stronger and it finally snatched back the body from police, and triumphantly ferried it to the CITU office. The opposition party even brought out a rally in the afternoon, following the path of the casket. The victim’s violated and burned body was finally consigned to flames 27 hours after her death.

The ruling party, Trinamul Congress, denied any police or hospital negligence and cried hoarse accusing its main rival of ‘doing politics over dead bodies’. The latter reminded Mamata Banerjee of her similar deeds during the Left front regime and demanded CBI enquiry into the double gang rape, which Mamata refused. In her earlier avatar, she used to ask the same and the CPM invariably negated that by reposing faith in state CID.

Joan of Arc turned Caligula

The role reversal between Mamata-led Trinamul and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led CPM has not been limited to one incident or issue. In her two and half years of rule, Mamata has been increasingly mirroring CPM in belittling crimes against women, promoting the police-criminal-political nexus and protecting the guilty officials while dismissing cries and protests as ‘politically motivated’. Failing to claw back after successive electoral routs, CPM is aping her in politics over dead bodies.

In her Opposition years, Mamata was the agony aunt for the violated and brutalized women and men. She rushed to almost every victim’s home, held dharnas and rallies, put siege at corridors of power including in front of Jyoti Basu’s chamber at state secretariat demanding justice. From Bantala in Kolkata’s backyard to Dhantala in Nadia district, from far-flung Kochbihar in north Bengal to Singur and Nandigram — she availed every opportunity to extract political mileage in her journey to power.

Now on the saddle after much-hyped Paribartan, she has morphed herself into a quintessential ruler —arrogant and insensitive, paranoid and vindictive. Once the self-proclaimed Joan of Arc of Bengal, who claimed to have freed Bengal from CPM tyranny single-handedly, she has now turned herself into a female version of Caligula.

She neither visited the Madhyamgram victim’s home, nor punished the cops who had failed to provide security to her when she was alive, and threatened to deport her migrant family after her death. This is not a stand-alone case. A series of attacks on women, be it at posh Park Street in Kolkata or in Katwa in Burdwan district and Kamduni in north 24 Parganas, close to Madhyamgram — responses from the woman chief minister and her ministers and party leaders has reflected a diabolical mindset.

Almost in each incident, they have questioned the victims’ ‘character’, called the victim’s version fabricated and a political plot to defame her government. She visited Kamduni much after the gang rape and gruesome killing of a college girl who was on her way back home. Before that, her party and government had tried to bribe the slain girl’s family by promising compensation and job, in order to tame the growing protest that threatened to spill over to Kolkata. But the family and rest of the villagers declined the bait and insisted on exemplary punishment for the rapists and demanded more security for women.

Her pep talk did not satisfy the locals and some women from the village asked for an audience to complain about their plight. Two young married girls; Mousumi and Tumpa Kayal persisted on their demands while addressing her respectfully as ‘Didi’. But Bengal’s big sis was so infuriated with them for their audacity that she branded them as Maoists and CPM agents.

A pliant police came out with a report that both girls had CPM connections and were deployed to humiliate the chief minister, although her party had won the polls in the village and the area. Since then, she and her party-men have used every dirty means to supress the village protesters.

Aping CPM’s acts during the infamous Singur-Nandigram incidents, she called those who had visited Kamduni to express their solidarity as ‘outsiders’ and used police and party cadres to scare them. They tried to keep the area out of bound for opposition and independent visitors, and propped up a parallel ‘peace committee’ to take the steam out of the protest forum that the villagers have organized.

Its leaders were beaten up mercilessly and implicated in false cases. The village school’s headmaster who sided with the villagers was threatened transfer and other troubles. The victim’s family finally succumbed to the relentless pressure from the government and ruling party leaders. They took government jobs and left the village.

In the meantime, though the accused have been arrested, villagers complained that one of the prime accused’s brother had been made the leader of the Trinamul-run parallel committee. The girl’s uncle, a key witness in the case, died after a scuffle with the police in front of a city court. Many in the legal circles found the chargesheet filed in the case full of legal holes, which would make room for the accused to escape harsh punishment.

Trinamul’s estranged ally Congress tried to score even with Mamata by taking the Kamduni family and some neighbors to President’s palace in Delhi. Some relatives of other victims of rape and government apathy from Murshidabad also joined them in the delegation. CPM too took pains to pay Mamata back in her own coin in Kamduni.

Criminal-police-politician nexus continues

The new regime’s intolerance and apathy are not limited to crimes against women committed during its tenure. The killers of Barun Biswas, a young idealist teacher who had organized citizen’s resistance against the gang rapes in Sutia in north 24-pargansas and against the political protection to the perpetrators during the LF period, are enjoying the patronage of the new masters.

Barun was killed after Mamata took over. Though the kingpin is behind bars, his mafia network is functional with the blessing of some Trinamul leaders. The party is hostile to the local citizens’ protest forum that is fighting the politician-criminal nexus in the area and has propped up a parallel committee. The teachers’ family and his followers are facing a tough time.

The family of Tapan Dutta, a murdered Trinamul leader turned green activist, in Howrah’s Bally area is facing similar hostility from the new rulers. Dutta lost his life after the assembly polls in 2006 but before the new government assumed office. He had opposed to some of his former party colleague’s nexus with real estate interest who joined hands in filling wetland and other waterbodies in the area.

His widow Pratima herself was an elected member of Trinamul-run panchayat. But the ruling party connection could not save her from menacing threats from her husband’s killers who wanted her to take back complaints. As she has become a pariah to the party, police treats her tormentors with kid gloves.

Dissenters in dungeon

In the meantime anybody who dares to criticise the chief minister or her party is faced with dire consequences. Even those who had put up unpleasant questions to Mamata or her minions did it at their own peril. Most of them are branded as Maoists, an epithet which is convenient for the rulers in India today and a dreaded one to any citizen who considers the right to question and to differ as the essential ingredients of democracy.

Mamata’s swapping of role with Buddhadeb is complete with her angry refrains against opposition and other dissenters, including the well-intended critics who are still sympathetic to her. According to her, these forces are only trying to create chaos in order to disrupt peace and her developmental initiatives. CPM accused her of exactly the same crime during its rule.

Be it a university professor, a college student, a journalist or a humble farmer, people from diverse walks of life have now received tongue-lashings from a mercurial Mamata or her men. Some have suffered physical attacks and were put behind bars. Newspapers, which criticized the chief minister were deleted from the subscription lists of government-run and aided libraries. Mainstream Opposition parties and social-political organizations including rights bodies have been denied or harassed over the police permission and venue of their rallies and meetings.

Political prisoners, mostly undertrials for long, are languishing in jails. They include those suspected of being Maoists and also top leaders of Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities in Bengal’s Junglemahal who were arrested by the earlier government. The government did not pay heed to a review committee that it had formed. Instead of releasing them, it has amended jail law to deny the status of political prisoners to those who are accused of being members and supporters of ‘terrorist’ organizations.

The space for democratic dissent, the leitmotif of Trinamul’s pre-Paribantan campaign, is shrinking fast as the new ruling party has stepped into the CPM’s shoes in ensuring another spell of one-party rule in every sphere of public life, from schools to public transport and factories. Mostly party faithful and sycophants are given berths in various government committees. Trinamul legislators and leaders now lord over the college and school governing bodies irrespective of their educational and professional credentials.

The fallout of Saradha scam

Mamata Banerjee’s austere lifestyle and claim to clean politics notwithstanding, the massive Saradha ‘cheat fund’ scam that duped lakhs of small depositors, mostly poorest of the poor has stained her government and party. One of her Rajyasabha MPs, once a blue-eyed boy of the chief minister but now jailed in connection to the loot, has spilled the beans by naming some fellow party MPs, ministers and leaders as well as suggesting the role of the supremo as beneficiaries of the patronage of Saradha. The jailed MP was the head honcho of the Saradha group’s media wing which ran Bengali and English dailies and TV channels dedicated to propaganda for the regime.

Now suspended, the journalist-turned politician had initially wanted to make a confidential statement before the magistrate. But he changed his mind apparently after the government booked him in more cases and moved him from court to court. Also, the scam kingpin and Saradha owner, who had earlier written to CBI naming persons responsible for his debacle, now changed his tune denying any such letter after spending months in jail.

Clearly, the government does not want them to make confidential statements. CPM, except during the first left front government, had not only allowed mushrooming of such fraud companies but also enjoyed their financial support. Now in its Opposition avatar, it’s demanding a CBI enquiry into Saradha scam on the ground of the jailed MP’s media revelation. Mamata declined for obvious reasons.

A new civil space needed

Caught in the crossfire between the ruthless government and opportunist opposition, the average Aam Aadmi in Bengal today feels exasperated and demoralized. After a brief spell of independent public action of the city civil society during Singur and Nandigram, its division into pro and anti-government camps has piled on the gloom.

Nevertheless, a silver lining is growing on the horizon as more and more non-partisan grassroot-level citizens’ protest forums are coming up against the criminalization of politics and political patronage to criminals. They are increasingly being assertive despite strong-arm tactics of the ruling dispensation.

Also, many intellectuals who have aligned themselves with the new regime are feeling betrayed. That the new rulers have reneged on their promise to redeem democracy both for the political opposition and common people, has made them disillusioned. Some of them have already hit the streets on protest joining hands with the grassroots resistance.

A non-partisan rally against rapes

One such heartening example was a recent citizen’s march in downtown Kolkata against increasing attacks on women. As many as 23 organizations ranging from local protest groups in Kamduni, Sutia, Bally to rights group APDR, Womens’ rights forum Maitri and LGBT activists joined the march. A good number of rural and urban women walked along the students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, singers and scientists.

CPM has tried to manipulate every anti-rape popular protest to its end in recent months. But it fights shy of admitting equally heinous crimes against women in its rule, especially during the watershed years in Singur and Nandigram. The party women leaders too cringe at the mention of raped and murdered Tapasi Malik as well as violated Radharani Ari, the two faces of the rural women who had paid dearly for resisting the land-grab by the CPM government.

Today, the politically correct comrades mourn only for the ‘worthy victims’, worthy of their pious tears, to use the Chomskian coinage about propagandist compassion. On the other hand, their rival cum successor in power wants people to forget or condone the crimes against women during her term.

But this citizen’s rally refused to buy CPM’s politics of biased emoting and Trinamul’s selective amnesia. The rally held the banner that reminded — Singur theke Madhyamgram, Amader Sangram (From Singur to Madhyamgram, our struggle continues). The anger and anguish in the public mind was reflected in the rally’s cry — Shashak-Dharshak ashubho Antat Dhangso Hok (Down with the nexus between the rulers and rapists).

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