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Rape Recoil


Bengal’s first woman chief minister was expected to act against rising number of assaults on women. Surprisingly, she's facing a hard time on an issue which could have been handled better. Snehangshu Adhikari reports
SNEHANGSHU ADHIKARI | New Delhi, January 10, 2014 17:09
Tags : Rape Recoil | Mamata | National Crime Record Bureau |

Bengal is suddenly in the grip of anxiety from Siliguri to Sealdah, and it is not just the failing health of its dream girl and former matinee idol 82-year-old Suchitra Sen. The worry is consuming chief minister Mamata Banerjee as well. It was in that state of mind that she became one of the very few to visit the reclusive former beauty recouping at the hospital.

Bengal is suddenly in the grip of anxiety from Siliguri to Sealdah, and it is not just the failing health of its dream girl and former matinee idol 82-year-old Suchitra Sen. The worry is consuming chief minister Mamata Banerjee as well. It was in that state of mind that she became one of the very few to visit the reclusive former beauty recouping at the hospital.

In better times, that would have been a photo-op worth its while, but these are troubled times for Mamata. Now people want to know why she did not take some time out to meet the family of the Madhyamgram rape case victim. The victim’s family says they have lost faith in the Trinamool Congress government and they have proceeded to Delhi to petition a higher officer: the President of India Pranab Mukherjee.

It has been more than two-and-half months since a 16-year-old-girl was allegedly gang-raped twice in a single day, in what has come to be known as the Madhyamgram rape case. The police and the administration have only the charge sheet to show; hearings in a fast track court and quick disposal of justice currently seem merely a pipe dream.

According to the police, on October 25, 2013, the minor was brutally raped near her rented house at Madhyamgram in the state’s North 24 Parganas district. Later, the same day, while returning home along with her family after lodging a complaint with the local police station, she was abducted and raped by the same gang, apparently to be taught a ‘lesson’. The girl, whose name has been withheld, was found lying senseless with several injuries near a railway track. Despite the agony and shame, the rapists threatened the family demanding that they withdraw the cases lodged against them.

And the police – currently in the hands of a fiery feminist chief minister – surprisingly could do no more than let the victim’s family shift to Dumdum from Madhyamgram, where they had settled a year ago after having arrived from Samastipur, Bihar, to educate their only child. Dumdum did not prove to be a safe destination either. According to the victim’s father, on December 23, the girl was discovered with almost 70 degree burns at her new Dumdum home; a gang member had appeared at their residence to carry out the threat. She succumbed to her burns on December 31.
Since then, the tragic sequence of events coupled with political intrigues has got blurred; how she finally died has become a little bit of a whodunit. As is common in such cases, it was assumed that unable to cope with continuous threats, the victim had attempted self-immolation. But the victim’s taxi driver father alleged that his child had been put on fire by the accused. His daughter, the father said, was also threatened by the police and goons who asked her to return back to her native Bihar. So far, the police have failed to provide a clear cut answer. Bengal chief secretary Sanjay Mitra’s vague replies have muddied the waters further. He has called the rape and the alleged setting on fire, as ‘separate’ incidents. There are enough indications that the state government too is going to follow the same course. Sources say two different cases could be lodged but no one is speaking clearly and loudly.

Mamata herself has not talked much but has encouraged her ‘brigade’ to do the public posturing. Admits a Trinamool party member: “Almost every political leader has raised his voice, as have intellectuals and activists. Weeks after demanding a CBI probe into the multi-crore rupee Sarada chit fund scam, intellectuals like Sunanda Sanyal, Aparna Sen, Kousik Sen, Tarun Sanyal and Samir Aich have hit the road again. This is a really tough situation for Mamata Banerjee since she came to power in May 2011.’’ Despite the early indifference, the attendant publicity which highlighted political and police callousness has shown results. Seven people have been held and the state chief secretary has claimed that the family is well protected by the police; all seven accused have been charge-sheeted.

If anything, the current rape case which rocked the state and grabbed national headlines has galvanised the moribund CPM. Since their defeat in 2011, the Left Front parties have failed to capitalize on the state government’s follies. During the last couple of years, serious public issues like the Park Street, Kamduni and Katwa rape cases, the illicit hooch tragedy that claimed 200 lives, irregularities in appointment of primary and school level teachers’ appointment and the state-created potato crisis have gone unchallenged. Their opposition has been at best a mere formality. “Neither the Left Front, nor any of their mass organizations have played the role of a genuine opposition party. They have not even spoken about the Sarada chit fund scam for the fear of some of their own people being involved,’’ points out analyst Tirthankar Acharya.

Now with Madhyamgram, the Leftists have woken up, albeit late. After the victim’s death, the CPM announced Rs 1 lakh as compensation even though the victim’s family turned down the offer. Says Mohit Randip, eminent social thinker: “As the victim’s father is a Left-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) member, Kolkata witnessed a huge rally. On other issues, the Left has been practically asleep.”

Sunanda Sanyal, once a truly committed pro-paribartan (change) intellectual whose support for Mamata Banerjee proved a turning point in the 2011 assembly election, could barely hide his frustration. “The role of police in general and the attitude shown by the government is terrible.’’

In all this, Bengal’s civil society, including cricket icon Sourav Ganguly – normally not given to social commentary of any kind – have turned vocal. Demanding justice for the victim’s family, the former Indian cricket captain has criticized the government’s approach in tackling the Madhyamgram issue. It is important to remember that at the end of 2013, Ganguly was contacted by both BJP and state Congress with an offer of joining politics. So it’s quite clear that the powers arrayed against Mamata are gathering ground and strength.

Far from being repentant or sympathetic, Mamata’s battle appears to be spilling out of her state’s boundaries. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar jumped into the fray and pushed Mamata further against the wall. Kumar not just announced Rs 1 lakh as compensation to the victim’s family, he personally contacted her father giving them assurances and every possible help if they wished to return to Samastipur.

In Bengal, it has evoked mixed reactions. The Trinamool Congress has vehemently protested the Bihar chief minister’s ‘politics over the victim’. With the 2014 Lok Sabha elections round the corner, political pundits ascribe political motives to the Bihar chief minister's overtures. Political thinker Prabuddha Sen told TSI: “By doing this, Nitish babu is strengthening his own ground in Bihar, at the same time giving Mamata a big jolt. He is not doing anything new. On previous occasions, in the case of attacks on Biharis in Assam and Maharashtra, his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav did the same by standing beside their fellow Biharis.’’

Meanwhile, the Madhyamgram rape saga continues to rage. The father of the victim has alleged that his daughter was not given proper medical treatment at the hospital. "We repeatedly requested hospital authorities to shift her to the burn unit at the PG hospital. But they did not pay any attention to us," he said, adding that he had also lodged a case of medical negligence against the hospital authorities. In this particular case, most state government agencies have come out looking irresponsible. Claims the victim’s father: “We repeatedly sought help from the state’s child welfare committee but to no avail.’’ In such politically titillating circumstances, can the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), basking after their successes in Delhi, be far behind? Criticizing the state government’s apathetic attitude to a series of rape cases that have dogged the state, about 400 plus AAP members hit the road on the first Sunday of the New Year. Similar protests have followed in places as far away as Delhi, Mumbai, Chicago and Washington. Says AAP’s Kaji Masum Akhtar. “Despite the fact that the state has a first ever woman chief minister, Bengal is unsafe,’’ she said, hinting at escalating the agitation further. Interestingly, among those who joined the AAP protests included the face of Delhi CPM Brinda Karat, who preferred the new bandwagon to her own CPM platform.

The Congress in Bengal has demanded a CBI probe into the matter. After the Sarada chit-fund scam, this is the second time Congress has sought a thorough investigation into functioning of the Mamata Banerjee government. The party is buoyed, undoubtedly, by the recent announcement of Trinamool MP Somen Mitra that he would return to the Congress fold. Asked why he decided to rejoin the Congress, Mitra said: “I am not leaving Trinamool due to grudges or bitter feelings. My main intention of joining it was to work for the masses. Somehow, that is not possible any longer. I would say that the fantasy period is over and so am I returning to my first love, the Congress party.’’

Such sage pronouncements, however, did not stop him from attacking Mamata Banerjee’s lackadaisical attitude towards Madhyamgram. He chose the occasion to dig up decades-old rape cases like Champala Sardar and Felani Basak that had once rocked the state. Criticising what he called Mamata’s dual-personality, one as an opposition leader and the other as a ruler, he drove the knife in further. “It’s hard to believe that our chief minister who had once even summoned the then chief minister Jyoti Basu demanding justice for Felani Basak, is now keeping her mouth shut. Since Mamata came to power, there have been similar incidents in Katwa, Kamdani, Jagacha, Barasat and Park Street.'' Mitra quoted from a National Commission for Women (NCW) report which ranked Bengal second in the number of rape cases reported. “Girls from the age of seven to women of 72 have been subjected to rape.” It went on to add that the category of rapists ranged from students to tutors, teachers, family members, robbers, political party workers/elders and government workers and indicated that “no woman is safe anywhere, at anytime.” According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) figures given in June 2013, there had been 2046 rapes in West Bengal in 2012. This time too the NCW has sought a detailed report from the state government, something that has not gone down too well with Mamata.

Intriguingly, the chief minister’s response to rape cases in particular and other scandals in general have been unnecessarily dismissive. Some village women who came to meet her asking for a speedy investigation in the Kamdani rape case were all described as CPM cadres. “Mamata treats every such rape case as a legacy of the CPM or as a manufactured charge by her political rivals and opponents. Beginning in 2009, it was the slogan of change which brought her to power in 2011. But just what are the changes for women,’’ queries a member of radical socialists.

In such a scenario, busybodies and NGOs have a natural interest. NGO Association for India’s Development Petitions has recently filed a petition protesting the Madhyamgram incident. They have detailed the scandalous cover up by the state police; the victim’s body was seized and cremated without the family’s permission, for instance.

Letters have also been addressed to the President of India, the governor of Bengal and chairperson NCW. Other demands include:

 •  Bringing the accused to justice at the earliest regardless of their political affiliation.
 •  Ensuring the safety of the girl’s family
 •  Prosecution of all officials, regardless of rank or position, who failed to act on the girl’s First Information Report (FIR) and those responsible for forcibly trying to cremate her body without the parent’s consent.
 •  Setting up of an independent state-wide support group for survivors of sexual violence and implement recommendations of Justice Verma Committee immediately.

There are all signs that Bengal is going to be confronted with another bout of activism even as national elections draw close. But for Mamata – as for any other politician in this coalition raj – such feverish opposition activity does not bode well, particularly when a party is looking for allies.  Of course, she cannot be held to be singularly responsible for the rapes, but the least that she should do right now is to implement public action initiatives to protect women – one example being state and police manned helplines exclusively for women. But then, the Bengal chief minister, as a former activist who made her name demanding justice for others in similar cases, is expected to know this better than most.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017