Socialist and Peoples' History

Condemn the Attack on Woman Activist in Contai: Women’s Bodies are Not Sites for Political Retribution

Soma Marik

One of the most disturbing developments in West Bengal politics in the first twelve years of the new century has been the sustained violence on women as part of political agenda of most parties. The official regime of yesterday always sought to downplay this. That has been taken up and carried forward by the forces which were then the official opposition and are now the regime.

There is no need for us to present so-called balanced stories. In other words, it is not essential that whenever we attack the current regime and the current ruling party for crimes and misdeeds, we must match it by providing stories from the past. The old regime and the CPI(M) discredited themselves enough, so that people did not bother to look at the nature of its opposition and blew it away in a typhoon. But we do find a need to reiterate the continuity cutting across parties, because this reveals that use of women’s bodies for political vengeance is deeply ingrained in our political culture.

In the first quarter of 2003, to take just one random year, we found reported cases of nineteen women raped, sexually molested, publicly stripped, beaten, men knifed for trying to prevent such incidents, police inactive or rejecting the accusations of rape or gangrape, political leaders jumping into the fray to protect their party members, never mind the trauma of the women. Thus in Basanti area, the wife of an RSP local committee member was gangraped, and even before investigations, CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty stepped in to assert that it was a falsehood to accuse his party members, while the police remained inactive. Reporting all the cases in detail would take up too much space in the context of what we are trying to do here, but anyone can read Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Telegraph, since the cases of eighteen out of the nineteen women (including a gangrape of six women) were reported in these two papers. The case of the January 1, 2003 killing of Gour Bauri by hooligans sexually molesting his sister in law was reported in Kalantar on 25 January.

This bears an uncanny resemblance to developments in West Bengal right now. A report from Contai in East Medinipur said that a woman, member of the CPI and the Paschim Banga Mahila Samiti, who had been leading an anti-hooch campaign, was assaulted by a gang of TMC men. The issue is twofold. The woman had led an anti-hooch campaign. Hooch is a major cause of poverty and male violence among the rural as well as the urban poor. Women face the burden of alcohol most seriously. Women’s movements have often taken up this issue. At the same time, this woman’s husband as well as she herself were members of the CPI. The man has been absconding since the TMC victory from the locality. So the local TMC cadres saw a golden opportunity here. Using an altercation near the local club in which the woman’s elder son was involved, they called a kangaroo court, dressed as a village salishi sabha (arbitration meeting). They accused that her campaign had led to the hooch trader incurring huge losses, and so she must pay a fine of Rs. 1,00,000. They have since been saying publicly that the accusation was against her elder son, who had been drunk and had behaved badly (he is in hiding). She was asked to join the TMC and pay the fine. Her refusal led to her being confined near a temple, stripped and forced to walk half-naked to her home. Her younger children were warned not to complain to the police, as the consequences would be dire. The woman consumed poison. Her younger son had mustered up courage after three days to complain to the police. Though she seems to have survived in a hospital, the woman and her family are now facing further threats.

For filing a case and refusing to withdraw it, they have been told that the woman’s daughter and mother in law may be killed and her daughter may be raped (the euphemistic words used were, she would be given the ultimate punishment). The police and the district administration are yet to take action, either to ensure full protection of the woman and her family or to arrest and start criminal proceedings against the men who assaulted her. The TMC has imposed a social boycott of the family because they have dared to file an FIR, calling it a false FIR even while the woman remains in hospital and her husband has to remain away. They have been told they may not collect water from the village tube well and shopkeepers have been told not to sell them any stuff.  The District Superintendent of Police has gone on record saying they have yet to “ascertain the veracity of the complaint” before they take action.

The continuity, between the CPI(M) and the TMC, in these matters, shows that within the existing mainstream political parties, regardless of whether they call themselves nationalist, communist, or anything else, the use of sexual violence to impose party dictats is a norm they show themselves willing to follow. Anyone calling for social change, feminists and socialists alike, must be aware of this reality and fight against it consciously. The CPI daily, unfortunately, sees the oppression, but deals with it in a patriarchal manner. In the weekly page ‘Meyeder Duniya’ (Women’s World’), published every Saturday in Kalantar, in an article over the signature ‘Anupama’ (21 April 2012) the victim has been assured that her shame is not hers alone but of the entire female sex. Why is it a shame for women? It is a matter of shame for the political parties, for the government and the police, and for male dominated society, that despite all talk of progress and social advancement, women’s bodies are the targets of political tussle. Patriarchal notions of morality, according to which if a woman is sexually molested it is she who is shamed, has been accepted by the left as well. It is necessary to reject this political culture and to campaign for an alternative mindset.