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No longer a safe haven

It has recently come to light that West Bengal, long considered one of the safer havens for women, now heads the list of states in the incidence of violence against women. Suhit Sen writes.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2011 17:58 IST
Suhit Sen

It has recently come to light that West Bengal, long considered one of the safer havens for women, now heads the list of states in the incidence of violence against women. Specifically, it's first on the list as far as domestic violence is concerned, second on the rape register and fifth in the matter of dowry deaths. So what explains this sudden masculinisation of both public culture in the state and the dynamics of the domestic sphere?

Let us begin with the public arena first. Why has Bengal climbed so precipitously to second place in the incidence of rape? The explanation lies, I would argue, above all in what has happened to the political culture of Bengal. For some time, especially since the last decade or so of Left Front rule in the state, political action has become increasingly violent. There is no question that this violence has been initiated by the Left Front. As especially the CPI(M)'s political style has increasingly eschewed any kind of politics of cross-party consensus, it has relied on violence and intimidation as the favoured means of enforcing its writ.

Wherever the CPI(M) has encountered any resistance, any challenge to its monopoly of power in an area, it has resorted to armed violence to quell opposition. The names of places devastated by violence rolls off the lips — Chhoto Angaria, Nanoor, Kespur, Garbeta and, last, but hardly the least, Nandigram. This violence has escalated over the past three years or so as the Left Front has found power slipping out of its hands and as the opposition has mounted a campaign for capturing what were the impregnable bastions of the Left. A spiral of public violence is what starkly characterises politics in West Bengal now. And most observers expect that this will continue till the elections this year and beyond.

In this politics of violence, the worst sufferers are, clearly, those who are most vulnerable — women. Crimes against women have, therefore, become one of the most preferred weapons in the political struggle Bengal is now witnessing. This was true, say, in Singur, where an anti-land acquisition activist, Tapasi Malik was raped and killed. It was even truer in Nandigram, where innumerable women were allegedly assaulted and raped to establish domination of the area by armed CPI(M) cadres. But as things stand, it is not just the Left that unleashes violence against women. The opposition, too, has learnt those lessons. In political conflicts all over the state, the opposition does exactly what the Left used to do and still does.

But what explains the increase in domestic violence and dowry deaths? I would argue first, but not foremost, that there was a large element of myth-making behind the image of the Bengali male being more considerate of the sensitivities of women in their homes. In other words, what may have happened is that the potential for violence against women in the home is increasingly being translated into actual violence. One explanation for this could be that the brutalisation that has resulted from the endemic violence in the public sphere is now being expressed in the domestic sphere. In other words, a kind of machismo is expressing itself in many arenas: the political war zones, the streets and in the home. A more charitable explanation, one which bureaucrats will no doubt favour, is that the empowerment of women has resulted in an increase in the reporting of such violence. While this may have in it a grain of truth, it would be a marginal explanation.

What the National Crime Records Bureau statistics say, however, should not come as a surprise to people who live in West Bengal. They have seen this escalation of violence against women all too visibly. And most see little hope for the future.

Suhit Sen is senior researcher, the Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata. The views expressed by the author are personal.