This essay was written in March 2003. At that time I had no access to any website, that would publish it. Nor was I able to get any print journal to accept it. As a result, though I have cited this in later essays authored or co-authored by myself, it has not been circulated too well. I believe it is important to publish it now, because we need to understand how deeply rape culture is ingrained in our society and polity, and how different political parties react when in and when out of power. Even now, CPI(M) supporters are writing as if brutal rapes and killings have started in West Bengal only after 20 May 2011. I am putting this up for a better understanding, and also because I hope, now that CPI(M) is forced to take to the streets on rape issues, some of their supporters at least will understand that one’s stand on rape cannot change with change in who is in government, if one is serious about fighting rape.
The first quarter of 2003 proved to be a terrible one for women in West Bengal. While we will be coming later on to the by now utterly hackneyed and disbelieved refrain about how west Bengal is an oasis of law and order in India, and the ridiculous relative figures trotted out by every Home and Chief Minister and party boss of West Bengal CPI(M) for a quarter of a century, we will let the basic information speak for itself. Since this data is culled from only a few newspapers, if anything it is likely to understate the extent of rape and sexual violence on women in the province, together with the extent of involvement of cadres of political parties. Only after a presentation of this gross picture, at least as much is now visible, can we hope to analyse it’s meaning.
a) On 1st January, Gour Bauri of Bharatpur village in Burdwan was stabbed to death by hooligans sexually molesting his sister-in-law. – Kalantar, 25.1.03.
b) Guskara College was shut down indefinitely after a mob ransacked the principal’s office following the thrashing of a man on 31st January for making lewd gestures at girl students. He brought in about 200 supporters to attack the college. College administration suspended classes as they alleged not having received any help form the police despite repeated pleas. – Tel. 27.2.2003.
c) On February 6th, 2003, Dhantala in Nadia district witnessed the attack, and loot of two buses, and brutal gangrape of six young women travelling in these buses. Samir Ghosh, one of the bus drivers, was killed. It is widely claimd that this incident was the fall out of a conflict between Subol Bagchi and Sanat Dhali, two powerful local leaders of the CPI(M), who are connected to the Biman Bose and Anil Biswas factions of the CPI(M) respectively. According to the police, Bagchi and Dhali were at loggerheads over an MLAship, and the target had been a bus which was to carry Dhali’s family members. This bus, scheduled to return from a marriage ceremony, cancelled its trip at the last moment. The attackers mstook the two buses coming for the bus carrying Dhali’s family members, and so, ordinary women had to bear the brunt of a tussle between two ruling party bosses.—Aloke Banerjee, ‘Full Marx to faction politics’, Times of India, February 16, 2003, Ananda Bazar Patrika, February 16, 2003.
d) In the Ghoksadanga Police Station area of Cooch Behar district in North Bengal, a woman alleged that she had been gangraped on the night of 22nd- 23rd February. A member of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti herself, she claimed that her rapists had been CPI(M) members and supporters. The police registered cases under Sec. 448/376(2) of the Indian Penal Code against a number of accused persons, including two members and four activists of the CPI(M). – Ananda Bazar Patrika, 13.03.2003.
e) Residents of Bhagra under Manteswar PS in Burdwan have moved the Human Rights Commission against two senior police officials. In July, a police constable and his wife were found dead in their residence. Police treated this as suicide, while villagers say it was murder. Since then, relations between residents and the police have soured. Forced to reopen the investigation under pressure from the villagers, the police are now accused of harassing the locals, including using abusive language and molesting women. Suti Bibi, one such woman, has written to the Human Rights Commission that two policemen had ransacked her house and tortured her. She was forced to undress and then tortured. The complaints are directed chiefly against Samsher Ali, O-C Manteswar, and Sisir Roy, Circle Inspector. The District SP has rejected the charges. – Tel , 12.3.2003.
f) A minor girl’s father has complained that his 12 year old daughter, who had been admitted to a health centre in Nabadwip, had been molested on 10th March, allegedly by a staff member named Shankar Das. Das left on leave, by portraying to the block medical officer that he was being threatened for not curing a patient. – Tel., 13.3.03.
g) Two men were sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl near the Baranagar rail line area. When the gag on her mouth slipped once she cried out. Hearing this, Raju Gupta, aged 20, a security personnel in a nearby airconditioned market, ran in with three friends. The two assailants, Nandakumar Sahani and Nandakumar Sau, attacked him with knives, his lungs was punctured, and he died in hospital. People of the locality say these two men, both in their forties, were frequenters of illicit liquor shops. Police have broken up 15 hooch shops and arrested 50 people. – ABP, 13.3.2003.
h) The RSP has been agitating in Basanti, because the wife of an RSP member and member of the Amjhara panchayat. Local MLA and RSP South 24 pargana Secretary Subhas Naskar alleged that five men had entered the house, looted it, and gangraped the woman in Titkumar village under Basanti PS. The RSP has also accused the police of not taking an active role. Police has stated that the said RSP leader was arrested on 10th March on a charge of being involved in a murder case. The attack on his house took place on the 11th night. Even before there was any medical examination, however, CPIM leader Sujan Chakraborty as well as high ranking police officers of South 24 Pargana district have virtually shrugged off the gang-rape allegation. While the victim was produced in court (SDJM, Alipore) for a confidential recording of her testimony, and the court ordered medical examination of the woman, CPIM and Ganatantrik Mahila Samity leaders went to the village to gather information. They acknowledged that some outsiders had entered the house, but played down the incident, and affirmed that no gang-rape had occurred. – ABP, 13.3.2003, 14.3.03.
i) A tribal woman was raped in Patulia in Khardah, on 8th March. She was given false information about her mother’s sickness, taken out of her home, and gangraped by two men. Local residents as well as the Trinamul Congress have accused that the two arrested persons are CPI(M) members. CPI(M) leader Amitava Nandy has rejected the charge. – ABP, 13.3.2003.
j) Police arrested the son of a local CPI(M) Committee member in Nadia for allegedly molesting a 12 year old girl at Aranghata near Dhantola on 17th March. Sujit Mondal was produced in Ranaghat court on the 19th and remanded in judicial custody till 26th March. – Tel., 20.3.2003.
k) At Dangapara, four CPI(M) workers have so far been arrested for brutally assaulting Dipali Sarkar, a 38-year old mother of three on the night of 16th March. Six people, including dipali’s sister-in-law, have been accused of tying her to a pole and stripping and thrashing her on a supposed charge of adultery. Dipali was ordered to attend a panchayati court, and tortured for refusing to do so. Old Malda CPIM Zonal Committee Secretary Probir Lahiri congratulated the police for quick action and said the accused had tarnished the party’s image. – Tel., 20.3.2003.
l) Three young men named Chintu Sonkar, Ravi Sonkar and Chandan Sonkar attacked a young woman and her male companion near the Governor’s house on the evening of 23rd March, when the duo were returning after a meal at a restaurant. As they were molesting the woman, her shouts attracted the attention of two constables, who ran in and rescued her. Police have filed a case of molestation on the basis of the young woman’s formal complaint. –Ananda Bazar Patrika, 24.3.2003.
m) That cases of rape involves not merely cadres of one party, but of several, has emerged in course of recent complaints. A 20 year old woman has levelled charges against Sheikh Jamir, said to be a CPIM worker, and has filed an FIR with the Nanoor Police Station stating the man had raped her on 22 March. On the other hand, another woman owing allegiance to the CPIM filed an FIR with the same Police Station, accusing Sheikh Sulaiman and Sheikh Munir of having raped her on March 20th. The CPIM Nanoor zonal committee leadership have alleged that it is entirely a conspiracy of the Trinamul Congress working in tandem with the police. The view of women is that they are living in terror as the panchayat polls draw near. – Tel. 25.3.03.
It is only by constantly keeping the entire picture presented above on mind that we can succeed in making our way through the fictitious land of peace and security presented, among others, by the advocate of an “improved left front”, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Of late, Bhattacharjee has been seeking to effect a Blairite transformation of the CPI(M). This has included a bid to make the Chief Minister and the elected representatives free of party control. Given that the CPI(M) is hardly a democratic revolutionary party, this is in fact a war between the die-hard Stalinists and those pushing for complete Social Democratisation. This became explicit over another context – when Radhika Ranjan Pramanik, the MP, publicly levelled charges of corruption against the ruling party, especially over the funds given to MPs and MLAs, and when the state party boss, Anil Biswas, responded (in this context!!) that it was the party, not the MP or the MLA, who mattered. So this puts the reactions of Bhattacharjee over the cases of rape in its due context. His responses have been stern and purely administrative. On 15th February, speaking at a Combined Police Parade, he said that all those involved in the Dhantala episode must be severely punished. Concerning the Ghoksadanga rape, the Chief Minister virtually negated his party’s claims by stating in the West Bengal Assembly that the woman had indeed been gang-raped, at a time when the party leaders were desperately opposing this claim. He also showed himself at least more aware of the law than Anil Biswas. The latter had remarked that the raped woman was of a questionable moral character. Bhattacharjee, by contrast, stated that character could never be a precondition in a case of rape. On the same occasion, he also admitted in Assembly that six women had bee raped in Dhantala, and let it be known that 22 men had been arrested till that time. However, he sought to create an all-party character to the attack, loot and gang rape by saying that of the people arrested, seven were CPI(M) supporters, six Trinamul congress supporters and one a supporter of the Congress. He also took greater pains to defend the administration. When Saugata Roy (MLA, Trinamul Congress) cited the State Women’s Commission as having said in its report that some of the Dhantala accused had been seen moving around with the police, the CM rebutted the allegation, saying that this accusation was baseless. He also sought, once more, to put the events into “proper perspective’ by saying that such gang rapes are occurring all over India, and that it is difficult for the police to put a halt to such things for the psychology of the criminal functions at a deep level!! On 24th March, the Chief Minister addressed a meeting of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti, the women’s wing of the party. He told the women assembled there that if a woman was molested, they should look after her interest and be vocal in their protests, instead of thinking about whether this would tarnish the image of the Left Front government. Interestingly, his argument was couched entirely in terms of what would ultimately help in the smooth functioning of the administration. He warned the women that so that the opposition could not raise a hue and cry, it was necessary that women activists of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti should protest if something serious had indeed happened. He also argued that criminal layers were being created by capitalism and consumerism. This is happening all over the country. The question, according to him, was whether such crimes were reduced and whether the guilty were punished. By both counts, he claimed, West Bengal was ahead of the rest of the provinces. This of course avoids a number of questions to which we will return in detail. For the moment, it will suffice to stress once again that Bhattacharjee is talking about rape as a law and order situation, and ignoring certain vital political dimensions, above all the fact that a supposedly Communist party harbours within its ranks so many people who use rape as a weapon for both party and personal aims, and harbours also the type of partynost (party mindedness) which leads its members to instantly react when such charges come up, by denying that their party members could do any wrong, by consistently casting aspersions about the rape/sexual assault victims and their “characters”, and by going all out to subvert the processes whereby the women could hope to get justice. The reformer’s face that he turns is therefore reform to put a mask on the hideous face of the major partner of the Left Front after a quarter century of uninterrupted rule.
Even this, however, compares favourably when one examines the responses of the CPI(M) and the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti. We have already noted the response of Anil Biswas. As Maitreyee Chatterjee, a veteran women’s rights activist and the convenor of Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, explained in a newspaper interview, between Bantala 1980 through Birati and on to the present, arguing that the victim was a woman of bad moral character has been standard technique for the CPI(M) – surprising though it may seem for a party that is all for the destruction of bourgeois morality. Cutting away through reams of smokescreen, we discover that the reality is a bid to cover up all crimes by CPI(M) cadres, crimes of omission as well as crimes of commission. Since this seems like a harsh indictment, let us look at a few more recent reports. At an all India conference of young women, West Bengal State Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, Rekha Goswami, flatly denied the responsibility of CPI(M) cadres for recent cases of rapes and sexual assaults. She asserted that the blame on the CPI(M) was an imputation of a section of the media, bent on discrediting the party. Another speaker, Indian sports personality Jyotirmaye Sikdar, also claimed that there was no lack of security for women in West Bengal. Specifically in the Ghoksadanga rape case, for the first week, the CPI(M) and the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti had gone on rubbishing the report that the raped woman had had any CPI(M) connection, and had portrayed the entire case as a conspiracy against a loyal party activist. Then, as the pressure mounted, the stance shifted. Dinesh Dakua, a minister hailing from the district, swiftly asserted that Samiruddin, the principal accused, had been falsely implicated. Anil Biswas, apart from casting aspersions about the morality of the woman, announced that the party would conduct its own investigation. Interestingly, once the investigation was completed, the party did not publicise it, claiming that to do so would influence a judicial process. If true, this suggests the party controls the lower echelons of the state judiciary. In fact though, it really suggests that considerable egg has been smeared on the face of the party, and it is not daring to make the report public. A short while later, as the State commission for women, the police, all stuck to the position that there had indeed been gang rape, and as the SCW even alleged terrorisation in the area, the CPI(M) adopted a new tack. District Secretariat member Sudhir Pramanik spoke at a meeting held in Jayantirhat Rajendranath High School: “I am telling her, you come back to the party. You are young. You have made a mistake under the instigation of Trinamul-BJP. But once the panchayat elections are over they will not look after you. We will. So come back to the party so that we can together make it strong.” (Reported in Ananda Bazar Patrika, 18th March, 2003). So now it was tacitly acknowledged that the victim too had been a party activist, as she had been claiming all along. It is not my contention that raping non-party members is better. But I want to emphasize that inner party differences being solved through rape, loot and murder seems to be well on the way to becoming a norm, even as CPI(M) leaders try to conceal this from the public gaze.
One of the problem areas over the current spate of violence on women has been the role of the Women’s commissions. Writing in Mainstream, journalist Amitava Mukherjee expressed the view: “Equally deplorable has been the attitude of the State Women’s Commission. For a considerable period of time after the Dhantala incident it sat quietly and sent as three-member probe team to the site only after severe criticism from the media.” (Mainstream, March 8, 2003, p.30). However, Mukherjee’s suggestion, that the problem lies in selecting academics for the SCW membership, is not quite correct. However, the Dhantala case in West Bengal, even though to a lesser extent than the notorious role of the National Commission for Women over the genocide and mass raping in Gujarat last year, highlight the problem of autonomy for such officially constituted rights bodies. It is undeniable that the initial responses of the State Commission for Women were tardy, and that it caught a lot of flak. However, the subsequent position taken by the Commission should also be noted. The Commission indicted the administration and the police. Prof. Jasodhara Bagchi, Chairperson, stated that the Commission is convinced that at least two persons were raped, and stated that they had not been able to reach everybody. Even after twenty days, she said, the police had not recorded FIRs of rape. The report reiterated the public claim that some of the criminals were seen hobnobbing with the police. The Officer in Charge, Dhantala P.S., has been severely indicted for claiming that he had received no allegation whatsoever of assault or molestation of women. Meanwhile, the National Commission for Women also sent a five-member team to investigate the complaints. Sudha Malaiya, one of the members, said that they had been told about a nexus between the police and political parties. This was an aspect missing from the SCW report. The NCW members also stated that victims had been warned by local CPI(M) leaders not to speak. At this juncture, we need to understand that political compulsions or motivations cannot be ruled out for the NCW either. Thus, the NCW report tends to highlight communal issues.
In the case of Ghoksadanga, the State Women’s Commission responded with alacrity. Rama Das, Vice-Chairperson of the Commission, not only affirmed that there had been indeed a case of gang rape, but went on to say that supporters of Samiruddin Mian were still trying to terrorise the local people. Interestingly, on the same day, newspapers carried a report that CPI(M) Politbureau member Prakash Karat had said about the Ghoksadanga rape case that prior to the panchayat elections, there would be many such attempts at mud-slinging.
Ultimately, all that has happened so far is due to resistance at the level of civil society. Seventeen days after the rape, the Dhantala victims were able to make their FIR, thanks to a local voluntary organisation of women. While the State Women’s commission also claimed credit for this, the SCW too acknowledged the role of this organisation. Srima Mahila Samity, the local self-help group which has been helping the Dhantala victims from the first day, not only managed to get their FIRs filed, but also organised a big demonstration of rural women. Nilanjan Dutta, reporting in the Times of India, wrote that it was in this protest demonstration that International Women’s Day found its meaning. All the assembled women, Dutta wrote, rejected the view (spread by certain women’s rights activists and interested political forces) that the case was one of members of one community assaulting members of another community. Maitreyi Chatterjee, in an article in The Statesman, asked an extremely important question. “Does the CPI-M consider sheltering party members more important than preserving the secular identity?” And if we want to understand why Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee displayed a willingness to challenge the party leadership’s versions, then too we must look at the reactions in civil society. Aparajita Goppi of Forward Bloc and Gita Sengupta of the RSP, both veteran women’s movement activists, had reacted sharply to Anil Biswas’s comments about the lifestyle of the rape victim at Ghoksadanga. Gita Sengupta asked how a communist could make such a comment. Biswas, unfazed, responded that if there are such questions, they are bound to be raised. Which of course shows that he neither knows nor cares about the law. The last bastion of nomenklatura is still hurling defiance at the rest of the world. Even Mr. Mukul Gopal Mukhopadhyay, West Bengal Human Rights Commission chairperson, joined the debate, saying that even a woman from the “red light area … has a right not to be raped”. Ms. Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam expressed a widely held sentiment, that every time, a woman’s character is pulled up, revealing a total lack of understanding. Noted economist Nirmala Bandyopadhay, writing on behalf of Sachetana, likewise expressed grave concern, and opposed the imposition of political and communal colouring. She wrote that setting up slow moving, ponderous commissions that kill time would do injustice to the victims. This conscious and persistent pressure from civil society, including its latest manifestation, the day long programme by the women’s rights network Maitree on 24th March, has been instrumental in keeping alive the brutality and injustice in the public mind and in compelling the government to take some action.
From the foregoing discussion, much of the role of the state has become clear. Contrary to the Chief Minister’s claims, the police in West Bengal have shown no special awareness of the trauma that rape/sexual assault victims face. A Sergeant Bapi Sen, who died in 2002 due to the violence of assaulters when he stepped in to help a woman being molested (by several other policemen) is an exception, rather than the norm. Whether in the case of Dhantala, or other, less “political” cases, the police seldom take prompt action. Reports from locals, the report of the State Commission for Women as well as the National Commission for Women, and others, all emphasize the inactivity of the police in Dhantala, Ghoksadanga, Guskara, etc. In the case of Ghoksadanga, Samiruddin, the main accused, was alleged to have unleashed a reign of terror in the locality for a considerable period. Totally belying Mr. Bhattacharjee’s claim, the police could not/did not even provide the minimum of protection, and people asserted that until the surrender of Samiruddin, they could not even go to the police to lodge a complaint against him. Two further developments in the Dhantala case further fuel suspicion about the role of the police. One of the accused, named Chimu Sardar, picked up by the police, escaped from police custody all by himself, supposedly by shoving the police officers interrogating him and running away. And Dr. Chandan Sen, the doctor at the Ranaghat hospital who had said in his medical report that women were raped in the Dhantala case, has been murdered, stated Indian Medical Association secretary R.D. Dubey.
The foregoing picture suggests a few simple conclusions, rather bleak:
First, the condition under which women live in West Bengal is terrible. Any woman, from a two year old child, (molested when this article was in the process of being written) to an old woman, can be raped or otherwise assaulted. The ruling party is very often involved in “political” violence and “political” rape, and the top leadership of the party dismissed these either as pre-election propaganda by its opponents, or, when this leadership is a little more intelligent, as in the case of the Chief Minister, it takes a purely law and order approach. What was most terrible about Mr. Bhattacharjee’s arguments (rapes caused by globalisation and consumerism, they happen everywhere, and West Bengal has a good record in bringing the guilty to book) is a total insensitivity to two dimensions. First, he is unaware that it is normally immensely traumatic for women, and getting a few rapists sentenced to a few years of jail (in fact, all over India, including West Bengal, the gap between rapes committed and rapes of which police take cognisance, and that between rapes for which FIRs are actually filed and rapists brought to book, is huge)
Second, by saying that since the CPI(M) is such a big party, how could it control all its members, and so on, what the CPI(M) leaders are saying is that their party is no different from all the bourgeois parties. The pre-independence political ethos, when being the member of a nationalist party meant being a person possessing great personal integrity, was deemed to have survived only in the left parties. The CPI(M) leadership is categorically affirming that that is no longer the case. They are saying openly what they have been practising sub silentio for long – that clinging on to government, without attention to principles or scruples, is what matters to them, and that this brings about the compulsion to hire, and eventually to recruit, thugs and criminals, and that the struggle for power and pelf translates itself into murders, loots, rape, as it does to any other group.
[*] Soma Marik is Reader in History, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan, and an activist in the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, Kolkata.