The Barasat Rape and Murder: Some Reflections

The Barasat Rape and Murder: Some Reflections

Soma Marik

Barasat and Nadia – June 2013

On 8th June, a young woman, a second year college student, was returning home, Kamduni, a remote village of Barasat in the district of North 24 Parganas. She was waylaid by some criminals, who took her to a godown, where they gang raped and then proceeded to murder her. Six hours after she was seen alighting from a bus, her body was found by her brothers and other villagers. The police were forced into some action, after the family and people of the locality refused to even let them shift her body without action first. They accused a number of people, including some connected to the ruling Trinamul Congress, of being rapists. The young woman was well known, as she used to help many children of the locality in their study.

The first response from the police was to play it down, till local anger made that an impossible proposition. The first response from the government was to declare it a stray incident, and also to offer jobs and cash compensation to the family. This was angrily turned down, with the family members turning up in Kolkata, meeting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and demanding the death penalty for the rapists and murderers.

Within a few days, a still younger woman, a school girl of class VII, who had been harassed and had protested against the harassers, was similarly waylaid, raped and then had her throat slit open.

This came at the same time as the National Crime Records Bureau report for 2012, according to which the incidence of crimes against women in West Bengal has gone up to 30942 for that year. Ever since 2009, from which date I have been tracking this set of data, West Bengal has always been close to the top. But what the Mamata Banerjee government has been doing, ever since coming to power, is either not to send data or reject the figures of NCRB altogether.

Not that the CPI(M) led government was deeply concerned about violence on women. But as a left front, ostensibly with an ideology, it used to tackle it in a different manner, usually by pointing out how many rapes had been reported in Delhi, and similar figures, and by talking about globalisation etc while it also rejected claims that police in West Bengal was callous, anti-women etc. Ms. Banerjee rode to power partly by exploiting cases of rape in West Bengal. She first became a major actor in congress politics when she took a woman with speech and hearing disabilities to Writers Building, saying the woman had been raped. She was thrown out for her pains, becoming a political martyr of sorts, given her status at that time. Again, at the time of the Singur agitation, the rape and murder of Tapasi Malik was exploited to the hilt by Ms. Banerjee, all the way to the electoral victory of 2011.

Reactions of the Government and the Ruling Party:

From the Park Street Rape to the present cases, the government’s responses can be summarised under four heads:

·         Try to play down the issue. The Director General of West Bengal Police trashed the NCRB report, and claimed that it was misleading, especially the way the media had portrayed it. Similarly, after the attempt by some members of Maitree, the women’s movement network in West Bengal, along with other women who had turned up hearing of Maitree’s plans, to hand over a protest letter to the Chief Minister at her residence, the Commissioner of Police, Kolkata, held a Press Conference where he tried to trivialize the issue while suggesting that giving the CM a protest letter by hand was tantamount to making her open to Maoist or other terrorist attacks.

·         This last comment leads on to the next strategy – vilifying the accusers or the people who campaign for civil liberties. The CM herself did this in a live TV programme once, when she told a young women who had asked uncomfortable questions that she was a CPI(M) agent  and a Maoist, the contradiction escaping her, since she sees things in a neatly Bush-ist us or them manner, forgetting the multiple fragments in the real world. This time, the tone was picked up the CP of Kolkata Police, as well as by TMC leader Mukul Roy. The latter alleged that the Maitree-led group of women were actually a CPI(M) plus congress plus Maoist conspiracy. This politics of the amalgam was stupid as far back as the Moscow Trials, and today it is so asinine that even hardened TMC supporters fear to trot it out in places where open debates are possible. But from the lips of government spokespersons they continue to emerge. Along with this the victims are accused of lying – because they are allegedly CPI(M) members, because they are allegedly sex-workers (evidently, sex-workers either cannot be raped, or do not have the right to complain if raped, according to the warped views of the TMC)

·         Finally, if after all this there are protests, then there are attempts to threaten, victimized, and silence these protests. This has also been tried after the Barasat rape and murder this time. The Maitree members were picked up, kept in the Lal Bazar lock up for several hours, in a bid to instil some fear in them.

·         When the case of rape is too well documented to duck, the ultimate government effort is to legalize rape by offering cash or job as compensation. Congratulations to the family of the murdered women of Barasat and Nadia for bluntly rejecting this ugly offer--- for whom, living on edge of poverty, it requires a mo9dicum of self-respect and courage.


Class, Gender, and the hierarchy of issues:

Rape and sexual violence on women are rooted in the patriarchal attitude and values that teach people, men and women, to see women as sex objects, to promote the belief that forcing unwanted sex on women is a form of masculine behaviour, that the use of some degree of violence including sexual violence on women is legitimate. And rape and sexual assault on women are linked to other elements in the social and political structure, as are the responses.

This is not meant to be a large essay, so I will necessarily brief, and therefore one could point to limitations in what I say. Accepting that, let me nonetheless make some comments.

First, not all rapes are treated in the same way. The rape of a woman in Delhi stirs us more, the rape of a woman in Barasat less. The Delhi rape did not only lead to huge protests in Delhi. They even led to huge protests and discussions in Kolkata and elsewhere in India. The rape and murder of a young woman in a mofussil town is not so exciting and not so easily deserving of mass spontaneous expression of anger.

The media is to be faulted for the manner in which it portrays evgents. According to certain TV channels, the Maitree members who tried to hand over a protest and got arrested were adventurists and publicity seekers. By playing down the large scale violence on women, ordinary women in various parts of West Bengal, and by highlighting only the arrests, they distorted the issue. Instead of showing how vulnerable women are, they projected activists as publicity hungry women.

On the 15th, I went to another demonstration. This one was called by West Bengal College and University Teachers Association, given that the victim had been a student. More about the demonstration later. What I want to stress is that this had just about 150 participants. Many who show their anger over Facebook, Orkut, or other electronic fora, hardly turned up in the various protests. There was a massive storm of protests because many of my friends in Maitree were arrested. But these friends were distributing a leaflet. They were calling on Mamata Banerjee to take certain kinds of action. Will those showing outrage at the arrests come out and make the same demands?

I would also add that protests also tend to get rankings. I remember the long drawn out protests at Tolly Nullah. Of course no one was raped and murdered. But lives and livelihoods were indeed at stake. And there too, many of our friends were arrested and taken to the Jadavpur Police Station and detained till night. This was ignored by all but committed political and social movement activists. I am not intending to run down the current issue. But I am trying to point out, that we need to ask whether we are agitating from a broader perspective of rights or not. If not, then we take each case as isolated. We get into traps. Maitree’s call for the demonstration on the 13th and again the coming one on the 18th are unambiguous. They say, please do not call for the death penalty. We understand the pain of the bereaved family members, who are demanding the death penalty. But we also understand that one or two isolated hangings will not solve the problem of rape. Once we situate ourselves within a rights perspective, we realise that the struggle against rape has to be linked to other demands—such as a woman’s right to move about freely, anywhere in the country, at any time of the day or night, by herself or in the company of friends. We know how different the scenario is. In the Park Street Rape Case the woman was accused for being in a bar at late night. In all too many cases the comment is made, including by the police, that “she should not have gone out alone/ at that hour”, etc. Unless the struggle focuses on these issues, we will be ignoring the push to get girls out of schools, colleges, jobs, and back into early marriages, in the name of safety. That is why, the right to work, the right to freedom to move about, the right to one’s own sexuality, all are linked to this issue.


The politics of rape and the reality of punishment:

Finally, I want to comment briefly on parties, party-affiliated civil society groups, and the politics of rape. During the Left Front regime, rape was one of the issues that the TMC took up. Since we in organisations and networks like Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha and Maitree had also been taking up those or similar cases, the differences in approach were clear to us. We were not talking about the izzat of mothers and sisters. As one rape survivor and an activist, who went public and wrote, remarked, her honour did not exist between her legs. We were talking about the violence on women, we were talking about the trauma, about rape as a form of expression of power on women, on “enemy” parties/communities, etc. But for now, my point is different. The TMC, as well as society figures who tried to take on the mantle of “civil society’ as something that was theirs alone, were vocal about such issues.

And the supporters of the CPI(M) were people who tried to minimise the issues, at that time. I still remember Sudhanva Deshpande and Vijay Prashad writing in Counterpunch (and then this was circulated in India, since even when we are Marxists we are often enamoured if the source is from the USA):

“Stories were blown out of context, and allegations flew around (sexual assaults, murders) that have since been shown to be false. The most sensational was the murder of a young woman, Tapasi Malik, who had been a leader in the Singur struggle against the land acquisition. The blogs and the capitalist media blamed this death on the CPM. The Central Bureau of Investigation is now of the view that she was killed by her father and brother.”

Then of course came the arrests of Debu Mailk, not a relative of Tapasi but a CPI(M) man, and local CPI(M) leader Suhrid Datta, subsequently convicted by the trial court. I learnt recently that Prashad had been in Kolkata and invited to a seminar in Jadavpur University, without anyone challenging him.

Today, it is the turn of the TMC supporters to keep silent. They are trying to steer clear, or to argue that it is a stray incident, instead of acknowledging the gravity of the situation. Mukul Roy has indeed suggested that the Maitree demonstration was a concerted maoist, CPI(NM) and Congress conspiracy. And every mass organisation controlled by the Left Front is out on the streets. Left Front supporters are also attending other programmes, called by non LF organisations. One would think it is actually good, if one did not remember the past. At the time of the Birati Rape, a CPI(M) leader had suggested that the three women concerned were of loose morals (so evidently it could be construed less a rape). The demonstration I went to was one called by WBCUTA, though not formally in its name. It was sad, that I could see no teacher from the West Bengal State University there, since Barasat is under its jurisdiction. In fact it was a first of sorts for WBCUTA for all the years I have been its member. I have been in the women’s rights movement, as a feminist, since my final year in Jadavpur university as a student, when I joined Sachetana, an autonomous women’s organization which had a tilt towards CPIM. Less than a year after passing, I got my first job. That was in Tarakeswar Degree College, where I immediately joined WBCUTA. I participated actively in the 26 day and the 32 day strikes for pay scale revisions, going to meetings, public demonstrations. I Also participated in struggles over the Archana Guha case, over the Bantala case (and its suppression), over the rape in Beleghata, the Birati case, and all the way to Singur and Nandigram. The point is, my role in fighting battles, in the two organisations, almost never crossed. The only time they did was in the Desdhabandhu College case, when Palash Mitra, a teacher, was accused of sexually harassing a woman student. We agitated. And when we, from the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, tried talking with WBCUTA, we were offered the homily that a crow does not eat the flesh of another crow. So while I am glad WBCUTA did something this time and while I went there, I want a commitment that these leaders will continue to carry out such actions even if the Left Front returns to power, in case rapes or sexual violence cases happen on women.

This is connected to the wider role of the Left Front parties, especially the CPI(M), and their mass fronts. Now they are all out on the streets protesting. Why did they not do so in the past? And in protesting, why are they, in the hope of gaining mileage, violating law? The rape victim’s name is supposed to be concealed unless she/her family in case she is dead, agree to reveal it. The mainstream media has been careful to follow this. But the Saturday issue of a Left Party daily revealed her name. This can have an adverse impact on witness protection. Frequently we see on TV a section of intellectuals, artistes, etc, who had played shabby roles in 2006-11, turning round. While it may be necessary to walk with them, to have what in classical Marxist terms would be called a United Front, it is necessary to also differentiate.

For us, it is essential to remember the reality. That reality is, in India, very few rapes are actually reported to the police or are taken cognizance of by the police. The conviction rate for rape cases in India, between 2001 and 2010, is only 26 per cent. Incidents of rape have gone up by 873 per cent since India gained Independence.

This cannot be fought by sudden display of energy to discredit one’s political opponent, whether it is the CPI(M) then or the TMC now. We also need to look at what we are fighting for. People have been urging hangings, fast track courts, chemical castrations. What we need are actually better administration of law, proper role of the police, increased budgetary allocation for women and girls, and the creation of a democratic space, where gender equality is acknowledged, where women and girls have the same rights as men and boys, instead of being treated as pawns or commodities. We need to punish all those who commit rapes and murders equally, instead of selectively hanging one or two, giving convictions to 26 out of 100, and letting off the others. And above all we need to create a society where women can live without the fear of being raped.


A Post Script:

Two further issues need brief comments. In the Barasat Rape Case, the majority of accused are Muslims (according to the names published). As a result, I am informed that locally, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangha has suddenly become active, campaigning about “Muslim rapists”. Rapists are criminals, and there is absolutely no ground for discriminating between them on account of religion. Rape has happened in the past on communal grounds, such as the rape of Sikh women in 1984 or the mass scale rape of Muslim women in 2002. But in all such cases, it was communal politics, not any dictation of religion itself, that was responsible. The selectiveness of the RSS is a different kind of selectiveness compared to those of TMC or CP)I(M) supporting intellectuals, or of those parties themselves, but it is equally political and potentially even more vicious, for it will seek “justice” only when the accused is a Muslim, while it will blame women for their dresses, for being out late, for not being married off, in all other cases.

The other issue is that Chandrima Bhattacharya, the Minister of State for Law, has commented that women are ‘safest’ in West Bengal, even as report comers of yet another rape and murder, this time in Murshidabad, while police forced the victim’s brother to sign a blank paper, so that the ultimate “complaint” could be anything the thana wishes to write down.