Suzette Jordan sits in her two-room apartment chatting with her virtual friends from across India and beyond. There’s little that binds them, except their shared angst, the angst that is a rape survivor’s lifelong burden. It was in February, 2012, that Jordan hit the headlines after she was allegedly gang raped in Kolkata’s “party street”.
While Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, dismissed it as a sajana ghatana or “cooked-up incident”, some whispered that it was a case of “a deal gone wrong” and Suzette’s identity was lost in the grainy silhouette of the “Park Street Rape Victim”. Kolkata reacted with shock and outrage. Rape was not the kind of thing that one associated with Kolkata, much less Park Street.
When this reporter moved from Kolkata to the national capital two years ago, friends and family stressed the importance of being covered up while taking public transport or being alone on the street in the evenings. Delhi seemed very different from the Kolkata where a woman could still socialise after work in a little black dress and hail a taxi to take her home at midnight. Not anymore. A friend spoke about how she had to run into a market to escape a stalker in the satellite township of Salt Lake. Others avoid taking a taxi alone at night. The party on Park Street now has an unsavoury edge. Leery young men seem to populate some restaurants and gropers operate undeterred even outside the Kolkata Police headquarters at Lalbazaar.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 30,942 cases of crimes against women were reported in West Bengal in 2012, the highest in the country. West Bengal accounted for 12.67% of the total crime committed against women in the country, while Kolkata ranked as the third most unsafe metropolis for women, after Delhi and Bangalore. The figures for 2013 are yet to be announced, but the year saw Bengal struggling to cope with the aftermath of a young girl’s alleged rape and murder in Kamduni in North 24 Parganas, an alleged rape and murder in Madhyamgram, and the alleged rape of a street child in Park Street.
Early in 2014, an employee at a south Kolkata mall was allegedly raped in Kidderpore, and a tribal girl was allegedly gang raped in Birbhum on the orders of the Salishi Sabha or local tribal council. There were other, less highlighted, cases of assault on women too.
“In none of the cases have we heard the chief minister express any sadness or criticise the accused. The stand of the government is encouraging the rapists,” alleges Biman Basu, CPI (M) politburo member and state secretary. Banerjee also drew flak when she announced that compensation would include a grant of Rs. 30,000 for minors and Rs. 20,000 for adult victims of criminal assault. Activists had protested against such a categorisation. On her part, the chief minister has repeatedly accused the Opposition of spreading false propaganda to malign the government.
In Kamduni, during Banerjee’s visit to the family of the rape victim, when a group of village women demanded justice, she reportedly accused them of being “Maoists”.
Hindustan Times’ efforts to reach Mamata Banerjee for a statement went unheeded. Sabitri Mitra, the state’s Social Welfare minister, was more forthcoming. “There is no place in India, unfortunately, where rapes don’t happen. West Bengal is in a better position because cases are coming to light here. I have been an MLA for 21 years under the Left regime and seen how the police were directed to not register complaints,” she says. “Today, people are getting to know about the cases because complaints are being filed.” Mitra might have a point but it’s becoming clear that as news of rapes, violence and murders continue to pour in from across the state, the ruling party and the Opposition are locked in a battle to either downplay cases or stir up protest. Meanwhile, the brutalised victims have become tools used to manipulate public sentiment for or against a particular party.
Toeing the party line?
“I just want to request the chief minister to not dismiss crimes against women as ‘small’ or ‘cooked-up’,” says Mousumi Koyal, one of the two Kamduni women who had to bear the brunt of the chief minister’s wrath. Much has happened in Kamduni since June 2013 when a college student was allegedly raped there. According to neighbours, the victim’s family, who had rejected the government’s offers of help, have now accepted government jobs and have moved to another village. A section of villagers has broken away from the Kamduni Pratibadi Mancha (KPM), set up immediately after the rape, to form the Kamduni Shantiraksha Committee (KSC). “Initially, we had cast aside political inclinations to come together to protest against the rape of a girl from our village. But they (KPM members) wouldn’t inform us of meetings or developments. We knew who was instigating them,” alleges Pulin Mandal who is part of the KSC.
A KPM member says the CPI (M) has stood by them. “They have sponsored our rallies and demonstrations,” he says adding that the Trinamool Congress is supporting the other group. Mandal agrees that while most of the KSC members are aligned with the TMC, what they all want is justice for the victim and punishment for the rapists. Mandal has an acute response to the allegations that many rape accused in Bengal are TMC workers: “TMC is a new party. Even if the allegations are proved to be right, shouldn’t we ask from where they learnt such hooliganism? For years, West Bengal has been a predominantly Left state.” Other parties are also eager to claim a slice of the Kamduni political pie. Mousumi Koyal of the KPM claims Aam Aadmi Party representatives have expressed an interest in giving her a ticket for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. Those who are not aligned to any party live in fear. “We are with both teams. We have to live here. I too have a daughter,” says a villager who does not want to be named.
Conversations with families and friends of other victims across the state suggest that they too have become pawns in a larger political game. In Birbhum, opinion is divided on whether the gang rape on the orders of the tribal council actually took place. Most agree, though, about the influence of outside political agents. “A Salishi Sabha was held and the girl and her lover were tied up, but there was no rape. The village headman is being implicated,” says Opel Mandi, West Bengal convener of the Bharatjakat Majhi Pargana Mahal, a tribal organisation. “Outside political influence impacted the proceedings that day. Ajay Mandal, the local Trinamool leader, knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it,” he adds. Activist Mohol Kuri (name changed), who has been beaten up 15 times in the last two years for her work among the area’s women, believes only women who conform to conventional stereotypes are safe. “As for the parties, both the CPI (M) and the Trinamool are equally bad,” she says.
Not everyone agrees. In October 2013, taxi driver Ramshankar Jha’s teenage daughter was allegedly gang raped twice in Madhyamgram in North 24 Parganas. That same December, she was allegedly burnt alive by people known to the accused in Dum Dum, where the family had shifted after the rape. “The police did nothing to help us. When my daughter succumbed to her burn injuries, and as I waited for my relatives to arrive, the police and workers from the ruling party abused and threatened me all night as they wanted me to quickly cremate my daughter,” says Ramshankar Jha. Originally from Bihar, Jha has been offered a job by the Nitish Kumar government and has returned to his home state. Now, when he visits Kolkata to follow up on his daughter’s case, a posse of policemen accompanies him for his own protection. “The Left party and the media stood by me in my hour of need,” he says.
The Opposite Camp
A section refuses to buy into the Left’s concern. “The Opposition has no political issues to project ahead of the elections and so they are making an issue of the plight of these women,” says Sunanda Mukherjee, chairperson, Women’s Commission, West Bengal. “I have been an activist during the Left regime and I am disillusioned with the Left. Former chief minister, the late Jyoti Basu, had infamously commented, ‘These things happen’ in the aftermath of the Bantala rape in 1990. Years of effort to empower women is showing results. Today, women are feeling confident enough to come out and report assaults,” she adds.
Pallab Kanti Ghosh, joint commissioner (crime), Kolkata Police, agrees. “Calcutta is as safe as it was three years back. It is simply that, with growing women’s empowerment, crimes are being reported more. There are no cases of refusal in filing a complaint by the police,” he says.
Meanwhile, Suzette Jordan awaits closure. “My only request to every political party and party member is to not use incidents of rape or murder for their own profit. When a woman is raped she is not from any political party, she is just a woman,” she says.
‘Don’t send daughters to college’
There’s no school for higher secondary education in Kamduni,” says Pradip Mukherjee, a primary school teacher in Kamduni in North 24 Parganas. He had taught the Kamduni rape victim in Class IV. “She wasn’t an exceptionally brilliant student, but she was very sincere,” he remembers.
Those who pass out from his school, move to a secondary school that teaches students only till class VIII, he says. “They arrange for the students to appear for their class IX and X examinations through another school. For higher secondary education or graduation, the girls have to go to neighbouring towns,” he says.
The victim was returning home after attending college, when she was raped and murdered. Villagers have set up a monument near the abandoned building where she was killed. “Many families don’t send their daughters to college because no bus or autorickshaw comes to the village. The only option is to cycle or walk from the main road,” says Mousumi Koyal, who lives in Kamduni.
Many stretches in the village don’t have street lights. Police personnel have been posted at various points after the incident, but women continue to live in fear. “After the incident, one family made their daughter discontinue her college education and married her off,” says another villager.
‘The world believes her’
Subalpur, a sleepy little village in the interiors of Birbhum that doesn’t even have a proper road, made headlines in January this year, when a tribal girl was allegedly gang raped, on the orders of the tribal committee. The victim has reportedly been moved to a government shelter for security reasons.
“Her character was not good. She had gone off to Delhi earlier and lived with other men there,” says an old man, Ajit Soren, who identifies himself as her neighbour. “I knew her from the time she was a child. Her father is dead and her brothers live elsewhere. In such a scenario, if we find her doing something wrong, won’t we, as her elders, try to correct her?” he asks.
“There was no rape. The panchayat told her to either end her relationship with the Muslim man she was living with or leave the village,” he says. One woman only shakes her head when asked if what happened was fair. Another whose teenage son is among those arrested by the police in connection with the case, says, “The world believes her. What we say doesn’t matter.”
A social worker who doesn’t want to be named reveals that she met the girl and her mother after the incident. “She had been raped. The panchayat first tied up the couple and demanded Rs. 25,000 from each to release them. The boyfriend’s wife and brother paid the money and he was released. When the girl couldn’t pay, they raped her,” she says.
‘Close-knit community, so safe’
The house in Dum Dum where the teenage daughter of a taxi driver lived with her parents before she was burnt to death in December 2013 by people known to those who had allegedly gang raped her twice in Madhyamgram earlier, lies locked and empty. A notice on the wall directs anyone with information on the case to contact the police.
The victim’s parents have moved to Bihar. “She wasn’t murdered. There was some argument with the neighbours and the girl set herself on fire. I was with her mother when she was taken to the hospital. She was a little too outgoing,” says Tapan Sil, whose brother is an accused in the murder case.
It’s a claim that the victim’s father, Ramshankar Jha, rubbishes. Neighbours claim the locality is safe. “I have been living here for 20 years and nothing like this has happened before,” says Meena Sil, a neighbour. Another resident, Deepa Debnath, insists, “It’s a close-knit community, so the area is safe.”