Rape, Murder, Rape....

Two Rallies, One Objective

Biswajit Roy

Two rallies against the arrogance and intolerance of two ruling parties and their governments in 2007 and 2013 have revealed the growing popular appeal of non-sectarian civil society initiatives in hitherto politically polarized Bengal.

This time, it was a brutal gang rape and murder of a college student at a village close to Kolkata and the new ruler's tantrum to browbeat the protesters. But unlike 2007, the latest citizens' march on 21 June turned into rallies within a rally, processions within a procession. While opinions vary on its pros and cons, there is little doubt that the rally has triggered further fissures within the civil society, courtesy, the short-sightedness of its leading lights and supportive political forces.

On 14 November 2007, a silent sea of humanity hit the Kolkata streets against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government and his party CPM's armed recapture of Nandigram in a joint operation. Immediate provocations came from Bhattcharjee who had bragged: 'They (the opposition) were paid back in their own coin." Left Front chairman and CPM state secretary Biman Bose had echoed him by describing it as the 'Sunshine in Nandigram'.

Citizens from all walks of life joined the protest march at the call of leading intellectuals, mostly Left-leaning. It was largely spontaneous despite the presence of anti-CPM political forces. Trinamul Congress, then the main Opposition party, hardly had any following among the intellectuals. It gave the ‘‘moral support’’ but the party supremo Mamata Banerjee had to stay away as the organizers wanted to keep her at bay.

That did not prevent CPM to dismiss the rally as a show orchestrated by its political rivals, particularly Trinamul. The party and its apologists went further and attacked the very idea of a non-partisan civil society led by intellectuals and a social-political space for non-aligned citizens in a competitive electoral polity, which is increasingly dominated by political parties. They organized a rival rally that failed in spontaneity, heterogeneity and numbers of footfall.

Much water has flowed down the river Ganges and Teesta since then. In the meantime, Bengal has witnessed role reversals between Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee and their parties, CPM and Trinamul.

On 21 June 2013, another civil society protest march was organized against the spate of rapes in post-Paribartan Bengal and alarming paranoia and conceit of Mamata Banerjee in her chief ministerial avatar.

Gone are the days when Bengal's "Didi" rushed to stand by every violated woman during the Left Front rule and barged in the corridor of power presided over by Jyoti Basu and later Buddhadeb. In the wake of Singur-Nadigram, the stormy petrel of Opposition rode the crest of waves of popular discontents to wrest the Writers' Buildings from the LF after 34 years. Now the rape victims are no more useful missiles for her political battery. They are embarrassing liabilities for her.

She has dismissed all the rapes, from Park Street in upmarket part Kolkata to far-flung village in Katwa, as 'Sajano Ghatana' (fabricated incidents) and accused the victims of being part of the Opposition conspiracy to defame her government. Echoing her predecessors, she refused to accept the reality of increasing crimes against women and described such incidents as 'one or two stray incidents'. That the chief minister is a woman herself has not made any difference to the plight of the victims or women in general who are feeling terrified and insecure.

Mamata Banerjee tried to ignore and belittle the latest brutal gang—rape and murder of a college student at Kamduni at the outskirt of Kolkata. Savagery of the crime was no less horrific than what had happened to Damini or Nirbhaya in Delhi. The chief minister first tried to douse the anger of Kamduni by promising money and jobs to the victim's family. Despite being very poor and needy, the family and the neighbors refused to take the bait. They demanded exemplary punishment to the culprits and security of women in Barasat-Rajarhat area.

The semi-rural area at the backyard of Kolkata has earned notoriety for series of crimes against women since the LF regime, courtesy the police-politician-(real estate) promoter nexus. They take the local thugs under their wings who thrive on criminalized urbanization that offers easy money from mostly illegal and coercive land transactions and construction boom. Mushrooming bars along main roads and village hooch outlets cater to this growing tribe of bastards of developmentalism.

These men no more feel constrained by traditional social values, village bonds or neighborhood affinities. They prey on the school and college-going girls or working women on their way back home even before the sundown. In this backdrop Kamduni's defiance stemmed from the villagers' accumulated pains and anger, collective horror and helplessness.

The victim's family and their neighbors wanted the 'Didi' to visit them as used to do in her earlier avatar. Mamata Banerjee made an unannounced and brief visit to the family, albeit 10 days after the gruesome crime. But she got enraged when she heard the village women raising slogans against lawlessness and demanding an audience. She refused to speak to them and left the village. But few women pursued her trail hoping that she would listen to their grievances and share their angst.

Mamata Banerjee now morphed into a ruler, however, smelt a conspiracy behind this village gathering. She took the two young housewives' insistence on audience as their audacity to challenge her authority. As her shouts of 'shut up" failed to silence the two she branded them as 'CPM and Maoist' cadres. Later she called the Kamduni women a part of the CPM-Maoist plan to kill her, supported by a section of media.

It's nothing new that she has made a habit of labeling anybody who dared to question or criticise her—be they college students, farmers, university professors or anti-eviction activists—as 'CPM and Maoist’ cadres. Latest victims of her mercurial rage and stigmatization were the two housewives who later denied any political activism. Stepping into the shoes of her predecessor and his party, now she dismisses all protests and criticisms as a joint conspiracy of CPM, Congress, BJP and Maoists aimed at destabilizing and dislodging her government.

In retaliation, she made it a point to threat menacingly to be 'rough and tough' against her enemies, imaginary or real. On many occasions the threats have become real as questioners or critics have been implicated in false cases, put behind bars or hounded by her party-men. Democratic space for dissent has been curtailed increasingly as her administration has made it almost impossible for opposition to hold lawful public meetings and processions. Most vulnerable are the far Left groups, rights bodies and others considered close to the Maoists.

In fact, the stigma of being called a Maoist is no less dreaded in Bengal than Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Andhra. Even the most brave-hearts have reasons to feel the chill. The branding follows the danger of being thrown into the dungeons for years and forfeiture of all democratic niceties when one is accused of an enemy of the Indian State, not the government alone.

She seems to be suffering from Macbeth's guilt-driven delusions about Banquo's ghost around her now. Mamata Banerjee now wants to scare every critic with that ghost. But her angry 'Choop' (shut up) to Kamduni women has triggered the public uproar beyond Kamduni. It also stirred intellectuals' conscience against arrogance and abuse of power once again. But the stirring triggered new equations in the civil society.

Divisions and Dilemmas
In post-Paribartan Bengal, the leading lights of Kolkata's civil society have suffered further division after initial break up between pro- and anti- regime-change factions. Some stuck to Mamata Banerjee and joined her charmed circle and got berths in government committees with fat salaries and cushy perks. Some others fell from the grace or distanced themselves from her over gradual disillusionments and disagreements. Only few had chosen to be independent before and after the assembly polls in 2011. It is the third, rather a minority section represented by elderly poet Sankhya Ghosh, filmmaker Aparna Sen and young theatre personality Kaushik Sen have earned the public respect most for their independence.

Interestingly, Kamduni made an occasion for new line-ups among the intellectuals. Some big shots of 2007 rally who are now well-entrenched in Mamata's government and cultural establishment like playwright Bratya Basu, theatre personality Saoli Mitra, poet Joy Goswami and artist Subhaprasanta did not turn up this time. On the other hand, pro-CPM section came close to the independents and disillusioned. Mamata's detractors in the LF camp like veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee, filmmaker Mrinal Sen and daramtist Chandan Sen as well as disillusioned writer Mahasweta Devi, educationist Tarun Sanyal, artist Samir Aich were among those who criticized Mamata Banerjee on Kamduni. Together they called a citizens' rally.

But that made new ruptures. Kaushik Sen reminded that both the earlier and current regimes had branded the conscientious dissenters among intellectuals as well as commoners as Maoists. He declined to walk together with those like Chatterjee and Sen who either refused to join the protest march after Nandigram or stayed fence-sitters. Theatre veteran Bibhash Chakroborty is still with Mamata Banerjee  but he criticized her on Kamduni while refusing to join those who had kept mum over state terror in 'Singur-Nadigram and called the protesters dogs with green buckles'. Aparna Sen and many others who were publicly critical to new regime too skipped the rally. Many others among independents and disillusioned followed the suit.

While Ghosh and few other celebrities were the popular pole of attraction to non-partisan dissenters, the latest rally was actually organized by plethora of organizations, ranging from anti and pro-CPM intellectuals forums, Naxalite groups with varying attitudes towards CPM as well as civil liberty groups equally opposed to the both regimes.

The rally drew huge turnout that included the villagers from Kamduni and other areas that suffered gang-rapes, murders and goonda-raj. Students and youth as well as middle-aged middle class commoners from all walks of urban society also joined. Some NGOs and a trans-gender group too were present. But unlike the 2007 rally, it was less populous and spontaneous. Apart from Ghosh and few other consistent conscience-keepers like film and theatre director Suman Mukhopadhay, former finance minister Asoke Mitra who had been critical to Buddadeb's corporate-driven industrialization joined, theatre veteran Rudraprasad Sengupta and novelists Samaresh Majumdar and Amit Choudhuri as well as social scientist Partha Chatterjee walked together.

But unlike 2007 again, the politicians like former CPM mayor Bikash Bhattacharjee as well as Congress leader Nirbed Roy were allowed to join. The presence of CPM's cultural clan was also unmistakable. They included vocal CPM supporters in Tollywood—Tarun Mazumdar, Biplab Chattarjee, Badsha Maitra, Chandan Sen, Sabyasachi Chakborty—as well as former CPM MP and MLA, Malini Bhattacharjee and Bharati Mutsuddi. The latter two had tried to belittle the rapes during the LF era as members of state women's commission. None of them condemned rape and murder of leading protester against land-grab in Singur, Tapasi Malik or sexual crimes against Radharani Ari and many other peasant women in Nandigram.

Rallies within the Rally
Only a handful of CPM supporters had a change of heart following hindsight. Poet Subodh Sarkar is one of them as the media reported. He felt he should have walked in 2007 rally too. But for the rest of the CPM clan, women in Bengal have begun suffering since the change of guards in Writers' Buildings. Their selective amnesia was evident from their posters, banners and slogans.

In contrast, Naxalites and rights groups like APDR reminded the victims of rapes and murders in Left regime—from Bantala in early nineties to Singur-Nandigram to Dhantala in the early last decade as well as those in Park Street, Katoa, Barasat, Sutia, Gede and Kamduni since the new government assumed office. There were slogans like—"Bantala theke Kamduni, sab sasaker ek bani (from Bantala to Kamduni, rulers reacted in the same manner)." Though Bratya Basu, the playwright and present higher education minister in Mamata Banerjee's ministry was not absent, dialogue from his play—Kamaobadi hawar cheye Maobadi hawa bhalo (It is better to be a Maoist than a corrupt self-seeker).

As both the main camps made it a point not to walk behind the politically incorrect banners and festoons, a third voice was heard protesting against partisan politics. Women members of Pashimbanga Khet Majdoor Samiti sang a song—shudhu sasaker nam badlay... samajta badlay na—that noted the continuity of petty politics over the plight of people. A trans—gender protester was holding a poster—'bandha kore sabar much, sairacharer tatei sukh' (the autocrats always gag people), Atyacharito narider pashe rupantarkami pathe (Those who seek sex transformation are in solidarity with the violated women)'.

It's good for democracy that the tormentors of yesteryears and their apologists did join the ranks of tormented today. The turn in the wheel of electoral fortunes make the ruling parties humble for a certain period when they too are vulnerable to state and non-state violence. So civil society space is bound to be in a perpetual flux because of role reversals of mainstream political forces.

There are two ways to look at the rally on 21sl June. First, CPM, the master of sectarian manipulations, almost managed to stole the show without making any confession on its crimes against women and democracy in Singur-Nandigram and elsewhere. This proved its unparallel expertise in cunning and shrewd games promoting its own agenda at the expense of others in an issue-based platform. The party's UF and LF allies know better how Allimuddin dictated terms and had its way while paying lip service to united front politics and Left unity.

Another perspective posits the rally in the emerging non-party popular space for dissent in Indian subcontinent and rest of the world. From Shahbag to Delhi, Tahrir to Taksim Square, from Wall Street to cities across Brazil-rallies within rallies have been taking place, gave space to plurality of agendas and ideas, politics and ideologies. The hitherto regimented political culture in Bengal has cracked wide. CPM had to accept the legitimacy and strength of civil society by joining it since the party's own show would not have received the same public attention and approval.

It is the non-mainstream political groups and social movements who are not part of power machination have become the mainstay of all mass demonstrations across the globe demanding social, political and economic democracy.

Their strengths lie not in their ability to attract celebrities and media attention but in their articulation of the mass dissent in popular lingo and forms of agitations. Instead of harvesting the popular discontent for their party's electoral fortune and pursuit of power, they helped to prepare groundswell for more fundamental changes. They practice largely non-regimented forms of organization, participation and decision-making, which are mostly free from the control of old-styled right and left parties. It's true that such new forces are still marginal in Bengal. But people's longing for them deserves serious attention.

Vol. 46, No. 3, Jul 28-Aug 3, 2013

Your Comment if any