West Bengal:

Women on the Move against Growing Violence

AIPWA observed international women’s day in West Bengal in a bleak backdrop of escalating violence on women. In most cases, the perpetrators of violence, their accomplices and protectors were the rowdies in uniform and CPI(M) cadres.

Workers’ March to Parliament

On 26 February, Delhi witnessed a mammoth ‘Workers’ March to Parliament’. Called by 8 central trade unions, namely AICCTU, AITUC, CITU, HMS, UTUC(LS), UTUC, TUCC & INTUC, the rally was held to protest the NDA government’s anti-people economic policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, America’s war threat on Iraq and Sangh Parivar’s communal-fascist designs to divide the nation. Working people from all corners of the country came to attend the rally mainly under the banner of left trade unions. The striking feature of the rally was an impressive participation of working women, mainly from unorganised sectors such as agriculture, stone quarries, construction and textiles. Some independent trade unions based in Maharashtra also participated in the rally.

It was declared at the rally that the working class will heighten resistance against the disastrous policies not only to defend the rights of livelihood of the workers but also to save our country from inevitable disaster. A countrywide general strike will be observed during the second half of the current budget session of the Parliament.

Addressing the huge gathering, the General Secretary of AICCTU, Com. Swapan Mukherji held that a powerful all- India General Strike in the budget session was necessary to impart momentum to workers’ campaign to change the saffron regime and reverse its anti-national, anti- people policies. He also condemned Vajpayee regime for its pro-US stance in the name of pursuing a middle path. Other speakers who addressed the meeting were M.K. Pandhe of CITU, Gurudas Das Gupta of AITUC, Umrao Mal Purohit of HMS, Abani Roy of UTUC, Achinta Sinha of UTUC(LS) and Shyam Gaur of TUCC.

Five police constables celebrated New Year’s Eve in Park Street area of central Kolkata by molesting a young woman and Bapi Sen, an exceptionally upright police sergeant who tried to intervene, was murdered by the miscreants. During the first week of January, Malati Sardar, a teenager in the Sandeshkhali area of North 24 Paraganas, was tortured for full five days by a group of sorcerers in the name of repelling ‘evil spirits’. Malati had to be hospitalized in a serious condition. On January 10, a group of BSF personnel raped a helpless Bangladeshi woman who had come to West Bengal for medical treatment, and hatched a conspiracy to kill her. In Jalangi area of Murshidabad district, panchayat functionaries and party leaders of both the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress joined hands to ‘try’ and punish one Khazema Bibi on allegations of ‘adultery’. Khazema was subjected to inhuman torture and humiliation in full public view for three days from 24 through 26 January. And then on the midnight of 5-6 February occurred the Dhantala (Nadia district) gang rape, the nastiest such incident in West Bengal in several decades. Two busloads of men, women and children who were returning from a marriage ceremony were held up at gunpoint and beaten up, looted, molested and raped. The driver of one of the buses was shot dead on the spot. The nightmare continued for hours together within half a kilometer of police outpost but the patrol never appeared on the scene.

The Dhantala incident was the outcome of bitter power struggle within the CPI(M), with one group targeting the womenfolk close to the other just to teach it a lesson. Dacoity was not the main motive. The incident reminds one of the Gujarat genocide and gang rape incidents, where the saffron brigade used violence against women as the easiest and the most effective means of hurting and demoralizing the ‘enemy’. The involvement of local CPI(M) leaders acting hand in glove with the police was evident from the following facts:

* According to eyewitnesses account, the bus driver was murdered not for offering resistance, but because, being a CITU activist, he recognized some of the miscreants although the latter had their faces covered.

* The claim that the police heard none of the cries of two busloads of panicked people and the sound of firing in the dead of night from a distance of half a kilometer is simply unbelievable. Collusion with the local police station is therefore anybody’s guess.

* The allegation of mass rape was lodged by a number of women, the khalasi (helper) of one of the buses, and even by a local CPI(M) leader. Still the OC, Dhantala Police Station, refused to record that in the FIR. Nor did he arrange for medical examination of the victims.

* The few persons arrested in this connection with the incident were local leaders of CPI(M), including one who lodged the complaint of rape, and they have since been expelled from the party. Investigation by AIPWA and CPI(ML) teams, which visited the area, revealed that these persons belong to one faction of the ruling party, while the dominant faction maintains close rapport with the police and district administrations and patronises the gang leaders who are still at large.

* Even the State Women’s Commission charged the OC, Dhantala Police Station, squarely with dereliction of duty and hobnobbing with the main accused Shahidul Islam. According to local residents and media reports, the OC visited the site of violence at Aismali village early next morning along with Shahidul and destroyed the evidence of rape such as torn clothes and bloodstains.

The police-politician-criminal nexus against women came to light in the Sandeshkhali and Jalangi cases too, where absolutely no attempt was ever made to bring the guilty to book.

After Dhantala, the Ghoksadanga incident in Coochbehar district rocked the state once again. An AIDWA activist named Runu Das was raped by several persons on the 22 February midnight. After much dilly-dallying, six CPI(M) activists including the local leader dubbed “an asset for the party” were arrested. But the party’s state secretary and polit bureau member Anil Biswas came out in defense of the accused and cast aspersions on the character of the victim. This was vehemently condemned by all civilized people in West Bengal, including other partners of the Left Front and women’s organizations attached to them.

The continuing spate of atrocities, however, failed to shock the state women’s commission into action. It visited Dhantala after 10 days only under the pressure of severe public criticism, although the place is just about 80 km from Kolkata. An AIPWA delegation led by state secretary Chaitali Sen met the commission and submitted a memorandum. The commission was criticized for doing too little too late and its guarded statement belittling the incident was likened to the National Women’s Commission’s despicable state after the Gujarat genocide. The delegation demanded that in order to enable the commission rise above partisan bias and function independently, it must be democratically reconstituted. Organisations and personalities fighting for women’s cause but not attached to the ruling parties must also be represented in it. AIPWA also asked the commission to seek explanation from the state government regarding the heinous role of the police, the administration and the main ruling party in connection with growing violence on women.

An AIPWA team visited Dhantala soon after the incident, met some of the victims, and submitted a memorandum to the local police station. We also organized a series of protest demonstrations, during February in such places as Jadavpur and Kolkata, the DM office in Krishnanagar (Nadia district headquarters), the district court premises in Barddhaman and Barasat (district headquarters of North 24 Paraganas), etc. Finally on 8 March a day-long dharna was organized in front of the Esplanade Metro station. In addition to state secretary Chaitali Sen and president Geeta Das, the gathering was also addressed by CPI(ML) leader Meena Pal, Shyamshree Das (secretary, Paschimbanga Mahila Samiti attached to CPI and member of state Women’s Commission), Mira Tunnahar (member, Women’s Commission), Sudeshna Chakraborty (professor, Presidency College), Maitreyee Chatterjee (Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Manch) and many others. As part of the programme, Jawaharlal Nehru Road – the busiest thoroughfare in Kolkata – was blocked for 40 minutes demanding exemplary punishment of culprits and resignation of Buddhadev Bhattacharya as home minister. Other demands raised in course of the above-mentioned AIPWA programmes were:

The movement is going on with these and other demands.

-- Chaitali Sen