The Sexual Assault on Rinku Das and the Murder of Rajib Das: How Unique

The Sexual Assault on Rinku Das and the Murder of Rajib Das: How Unique

Report of a discussion organized by Radical

Radical, the Bengali organ of Radical Socialists, had organized a public discussion on the assault on Rinku Das on 14 February, in the Buddhadev Bose Sabhaghar, Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, on 28th March. All the student organisations active in the Jadavpur University campus had been invited to send speakers. Two of them however did not turn up, both citing elections as the reason for their preoccupation. These were the Students Federation of India, associated with the CPI(M), and the All India Students Association, associated with the CPI(ML) Liberation. Initiating the programme, Kunal Chattopadhyay, editor of Radical, argued that pre-occupation with elections being cited as a reason for not sending even a single speaker to a meeting of this kind, suggested that for these organizations, parliamentary/assembly elections constituted the core of politics, while class and gender issues are diluted and sexual assault issues are seen as news worth being in the limelight for only as long as the salacious element sells well.

Three organisations had sent speakers – the USDF, the AIDSO, and the Forum for Arts Students, a local JU based organization strong in the Arts Faculty. The programme was moderated by Soma Marik, member of Radical Socialist and Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, and Mihir Bhonsale spoke on behalf of Radical.

Soma Marik gave a background, talking about the Indian Penal Code, in which sexual assault finds no mention, there being only the categories of “rape” (defined as penile penetration of the vagina) and “outraging of modesty” (Sections 354 and 509) which would therefore cover everything from obscene gestures to stripping and parading women (things that have happened) and for which the maximum penalty is two years imprisonment. She pointed out that even for a high ranking person like Rupan Deol Bajaj, it took ten years to get the final verdict from the Supreme Court, and the accused, KPS Gill, simply paid a fine. His counsel argued that he had served the nation and this should be taken into consideration when he was being punished. It was only the Vishakha judgement in 1997 that for the first time saw sexual assault as a serious offence against women, with the system, and not merely individuals, being held responsible. She further argued that sexual assault was a violation of constitutional rights of women, including the right to freedom of movement. Women were the ones asked why they had gone out late, why they had worn certain dresses, or why they had gone unescorted. The SC judgement stressed not the intent of the harasser but the impact on the harassed, and refused to take a moralistic stance, instead stressing the rights of working women (which was what the case had been about). She finally argued that the SC verdict was important not simply because a court had said it, since the SC has often issued highly objectionable verdicts, but because of its content. She related this to the very terms used to downgrade sexual assault – eve teasing and outraging of modesty. Modesty has a strong class connotation. It assumes that women who work in the fields and factories, or in shops or markets, as well as women domestic workers, do not merit the same attention in cases of sexual assault since unlike the genteel women, they do not have “modesty”. In fact, even sex workers have a right to say no, and cannot be assaulted at will.

Sharmistha of AIDSO spoke first among the students. She did not talk about sexual harassment. On assault and rape, her focus was on a series of political rapes and assaults, including the ‘rape’ and murder of Tapasi Malik in Singur, the attacks on women  in Nandigram, and tied it to the assault on Rinku Das. According to her, all this stems from a moral decay caused by insidious capitalist offensive. She argued that sex education in schools is part of this moral decay, with the government abetting this, along with allowing the licensing of liquor shops.  Interestingly, she talked about the assault on “mothers and sisters”, a discourse in Bengali that slots women into a set of stereotyped social roles.

The next speaker was Chandan for USDF, who argued that the state apparatus and capitalism were te root cause of violence on women. He stated that even policewomen were subjected to sexual harassment and assault. Thus, assaults should be seen as a structural and not individual problems. The state, and the patriarchy present in society, were responsible. The state protects criminals in its own interests. The media merely sensationalises such incidents. A lumpen culture is generated, and that causes these incidents.

Nirjhar speaking for FAS stressed that if the slogan of “change” is so much in the air in West Bengal, there is a need to change the outlook. It is no use criticizing particular political parties. Civil Society ust take more responsibility and must fight for building democratic movements to halt violence. In the name of “parivartan”, people who had been musclemen of the CPI(M) were now joining the bandwagon of the Trinamul Congress. So no real change was coming. The real change would be when civil society built up a democratic movement across political parties and ideologies, purging society of all evils, including the patriarchal mindset.

Mihir Bhonsale, speaking for Radical, provided statistical data to show that West Bengal had a high incidence of assault and rape on women. However, he argued, that such statistics should be handled with care. That a province was higher or lower in the NCRB chart did not mean that women were safe. It merely indicated a position in a chart. Moreover, any cases went unrecorded, with the police often refusing to record sexual assault FIRs. He also argued that courts are often soft on assaulters. Finally, he argued that the blanket term civil society is useless, since the media’s sensationalisation of issues is also directed to civil society, and it is civil society that was the target of the West Bengal Home Secretary’s comment that Rinku Das was a divorcee, a comment that tried to suggest she might not be a “good” woman.

Kaushik, a second speaker for FAS, highlighted media representations of sexual assault cases, and talked about how globalization was causing social pressure, criminalization, and the targeting of women’s bodies in all conflicts. He also stressed that nomenclature was unimportant. Whether one calls it eve teasing or sexual assault it is all the same.

About thirty five people, mostly students, participated in the ensuing discussions. A heated discussion raged around the claims that sexual assaults were influenced by sex education. The AIDSO claimed that sex education had not been permitted in the Soviet Union and that had been the reason for high moral standards there. Others present contested this whole manner of argument, pointing out that the assaulters of Tapasi Malik, of the women in Nandigram, or those who had assaulted Rinku Das, were hardly people who had received sex education. It was further pointed out that sexual assaulters of Rinku Das would get a maximum of two years. So had they not killed Rajib Das, they would have been in little danger, showing what the state thinks about women and women’s oppression. That Rinku Das was an employee in a Call Centre, and was coming home from work, indicated that women workers were doubly vulnerable, a specific class-gender relationship that must be considered.