On the night of February 5, a woman, on her way back from visiting a nightclub in Kolkata’s Park Street area, was raped inside the vehicle in which she had been offered a lift. Horrifying as it is, the violence perpetrated was not unique in the annals of urban crime. A mother of two, the 37-year-old was alone, her companions having already left. She had been drinking for a while, a fact that probably made her vulnerable to the sort of predators who offered her a friendly ride, one of whom went ahead and raped her once inside the moving car. For the woman in question though, the ghastly ordeal had barely begun.
Given that the victim’s profile seems to be a summation of all that falls outside the ambit of society’s expectation of ‘good womanly behaviour’, it is not difficult to gauge what lay ahead for her. She was divorced (and by inference up for grabs); her business had failed (which made her desperate and needy); she was out drinking at a nightclub leaving her two daughters and ailing mother at home (of course, only men can drown their sorrow, anger and despair in liquor; women must contend by beating their heads against the wall).
No wonder then that four days after the alleged rape, when she had mustered up enough courage to approach the police, the officers who were supposed to register the complaint propositioned and ridiculed her instead. And since life is yet capable of throwing up surprises, the state's first woman chief minister in Mamata Banerjee considered it prudent to label the crime a “conspiracy to malign” her government’s image, a view immediately parroted by the city’s police chief RK Pachnanda before even a perfunctory investigation could be completed.
Banerjee’s politics is known to be importunate and abrasive, her worldview accommodating a huge shadowy space that launches malignant attacks for the sole purpose of discrediting her, whether by causing train accidents, or the deaths of small infants in hospitals. But for one whose rise to political prominence came on the back of the grisly rape of two women officials and the murder of one of them in 1990 in Bantala — an incident dismissed by Jyoti Basu, the chief minister at the time, as a sort of incident “that happens” — and for one who exploited to the hilt the rape and murder of the teenager Tapasi Malik at the height of the anti-land acquisition Singur agitation, parading Malik’s bereaved parents regularly at political gatherings, the brusque dismissal was surprising.
It can be nobody’s case that Banerjee must be more overtly sensitive to cases of sexual assault just because of her gender. But a responsible and restrained use of language, given that no accusing fingers were being pointed at her politics or governance, would have prevented a heinous act of crime from becoming just another tool that she uses to spar with the CPI(M), her bete noire. It would have shown that she has traversed at least part of the journey from oppositional rabble-rousing to the more responsible demands of elected office. The impression Banerjee ended up conveying was that there were two kinds of rape in her scheme of things: the right ones yielded political mileage; the rest were, well, just annoying law and order problems.
Kolkata specifically, and West Bengal in general, had traditionally prided itself on being a safe haven for women, especially when compared to its ‘boorish’ north Indian counterparts. This vague complacency is, of course, not supported by facts. Statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau in its 2010 report showed that though Kolkata registered lesser number of cognisable offences under the Indian Penal Code, the rate of growth of crime, at 13.9%, was higher than in other metros. This special ‘respect’, which West Bengal supposedly had for its women, was, according to historian Tanika Sarkar in her essay, ‘Reflections on Birati Rape Cases: Gender Ideology in Bengal’, (Economic and Political Weekly, February 1991), largely “nebulous” and more “a male attitude rather than… specific features in women’s existence or consciousness”. Kolkata, that “city of processions”, did not erupt in any spontaneous and vast demonstration of protest after the Bantala savagery either, Sarkar had noted in the same essay.
Society has become way more vigilant against any perceived inversion of the course of justice at the State’s behest in the 21 years since Sarkar made that observation. The smallest sense of outrage, whether it is miscarriage of justice or rampant corruption, can bring people out in sombre candle-light processions on streets or launch torrents of online activism. None of that was visible over the past fortnight in the city known to foment tempests in the tea cup, even as the rape victim went live on a local television channel with vivid details of the atrocity, only for the police to publicly call her bluff, only to find that the victim was speaking the truth all along. (The detective department's investigations led to the revelation that the attackers were also impersonators, which led to the initial sense of bafflement.)
Kolkata’s rape victim was no self-proclaimed hedonist, making the most of that narrow window of opportunity that patriarchy allows us so that we can go out drinking and pub-hopping before we are whisked back to the safety of the father’s or husband’s care. That she might have engaged, as is being alleged, in providing ‘escort service’ seemed to have automatically sanctioned any kind of physical brutality and violence against her, and the futility of raising one’s voice in condemnation. After all, there are those wrong kind of rapes that’s the lot of the ‘fallen woman’.