On 28th April night a seventeen-year old college first-year, an AISA activist, was raped in a lane branching off Bidhan Sarani, one of Kolkata’s busiest streets. She had picked up dinner and was on the way back to her PG accommodation when a middle-aged well-dressed man she does not recall to have met before, called out to her, introducing himself as a family friend and a ‘gynaecologist’ at the Calcutta Medical College. He quickly struck up a conversation involving certain familial details and inquired about the girl’s medical issues. Having masqueraded as a parental acquaintance, he convinced her to cross the road into an alley to his ‘clinic’ where he would quickly prescribe for her a medication or two to ‘help her out’, apparently on her mother’s repeated urgings.
Once in the alley, dim-lit and deserted at quarter to ten, he forcibly held and molested her and pushing her to a wall, raped her, violating her multiple times. At the sudden onset of physical violence, she was numb with fear for her life. The whole thing happened so fast that when she was able to push him off and pull herself together, the man had fled. Traumatised, she went to the PG and narrated the assault to her roommates. In half an hour, several AISA and AIPWA activists got informed. The same night we accompanied her to the Police Station in a large group and made sure that an FIR was registered. But the second round of her ordeal was only to begin.
The ‘medical test’ ordeal
Pressure from our large support group ensured that throughout the night responsible officers dropped into the police station one after another. She had to repeat her statement as many times. Finally at dawn they took her for the preliminary medical test at Kolkata’s ‘prestigious’ Medical College. The doctor took an hour to arrive. He examined her in presence of a lady police personnel, but did not allow me or her friend to be in the room, although both of us are persons in a position of trust to the victim and the “Guidelines and Protocols: Medico-legal care for survivors/victims of sexual violence” issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare allows us to be observers, and mandates that police personnel may not be present. The medical examination was over in less than ten minutes. Key specimen (like pubic hair samples) were not collected/looked for irrelevant information (relating to the hymen, elasticity of vagina, admissibility of fingers etc.) was noted on the ‘report’. Such information only seeks to introduce the question of the rape complainant’s past sexual history – it has no medical or investigative purpose. Quoting from the guidelines: “Pubic hair is examined for any seminal deposits/ stray hair. Combing is done to pick up any stray hair or foreign material, and sample of pubic hair, and matted pubic hair is taken and preserved.” and “Per vaginum examination, commonly referred to by lay persons as ‘two-finger test’, must not be conducted for establishing an incident of sexual violence and no comment on the size of vaginal introitus, elasticity of the vagina or hymen or about past sexual experience…..should be made.” To top the overarching apathy, no steps were taken for the victim’s medical care, and health concerns. No urine test or testing for STDs was done and no psychosocial care was offered. When she requested the doctor to take a body swab she was curtly told to shut up. Two days later, another doctor performing a second medical test, forced her to talk about her ‘past sexual history’ in connection to the attack on her.
Paperwork continued till around 10 am in the morning before we were let go. Over the next week, she had to run multiple times- to the PS, police headquarters and medical college. We in the women’s movement have often raised the demand for setting up adequate 24-hours 1-stop crisis centers with trained personnel in every district for reporting of sexual violence and care of the survivor; where the complainant can register an FIR, get a medical examination done and receive medical and psychological help, and all necessary police information can be gathered promptly and without her having to run from pillar to post in her traumatic state. During her week of daily ordeal, that one demand from our ‘women’s charter’ – the acute and actual meaning of it – came alive in front of us. ‘Perhaps this is why women think so many times before reporting’, sighed the survivor. One could only admire her composure and courage as she went through it all and consistently narrated details about the attack on her.
Victim-Blaming and Trial by media
The latest Ministry of Health guidelines clearly state -
“Never say or do anything to suggest disbelief regarding the incident.
Do not pass judgmental remarks or comments that might appear unsympathetic.
Convey important messages such as: the survivor is not responsible for precipitating the act of rape by any of her actions or inactions.”
The Joint Police Commissioner (Crime), by holding a Press Conference suggesting that the complainant’s version was questionable, clearly flouted those guidelines. His action was in line with the Chief Minister’s infamous allegation that rapes in her rule were “sajano ghotona” – a fabricated tale. But the JCP did not consider it necessary to apologize to the complainant even after the culprit was caught and protests registered against him.
The crime was in most of the papers and media channels by the next day, although the media did not deem it first-page worthy during an election season. That a minor student could be raped on a open street in the heart of Kolkata at 9:30 in the night must have been a banal affair for the press to act so matter-of-factly. Moreover, some of the reports managed to drop hints of ‘inconsistency’ in the victim’s statement. Unsubstantiated. The reputed Bengali daily ‘Ei Samay’ went a step further and quoted the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) to declare that ‘there was no proof of rape found in the medical examination report’. The journalist or the editor of this particular daily were clearly not aware of the basics of medical and legal jurisprudence. Unlike popular and mistaken perceptions, rape is not a medical disease that can be proved/disproved by medical examination. It is a medico-legal matter in which the medical reports are only supporting evidence among many other such supporting evidences in court. More importantly, the newspaper’s declaration was factually a lie with forensic reports and examinations pending at the time. It took an angry protest letter from AIPWA followed by a week-long ‘campaign to stop rape-culture in the press’ in the social media, in which hundreds took part by sending letters, emails and faxes to the Editor of the daily, for the ‘Ei Samay’ editor to publish an apology along with our letter.
A fortnight of protests
Not a day passed without demonstrations, meetings and rallies on the street. On 29th, the day after, a rally comprising students and women in large numbers marched 10 Kms to the PS, blockaded the road for over an hour and served a 72- hour ultimatum to nab the culprit. Several women students spoke of their own perception of lack of safety in the city, the crisis of finding safe and comfortable affordable hostels to live, and about the palpable fear that was biting off at their freedom. After that 3-day deadline got over, the PS saw daily deputations and demonstrations. A mass signature campaign was conducted in the locality following distribution of leaflets and putting up posters. A press conference was held by AIPWA and AISA. Fact-finding teams from APDR visited the victim and we took her to the Women’s Commission to lodge a complaint detailing multiple mistreatments at the hospital and malicious press briefings by the top cop. Finally the culprit was nabbed seven days after the attack.
We have since learned that he is a local and a repeat offender, with a history of targeting young college girls in the area. On 6th May hundreds marched to Lalbazar (Kolkata Police Headquarters) with demands of swift justice for the victim with a speedy chargesheet followed by a fast-track court trial. The rally demanded a public apology from the Joint Commissioner (Crime) for victim blaming. Sensing the militant mood of the march, police set up barricades few hundred meters from Lalbazar (where section 144 is perpetually in effect). Students stormed the barricades braving a huge police presence. Two students were injured in the clash. As a 5-member delegation went in to give a memorandum addressing the police commissioner, the remaining mass blockaded the road for more than an hour. The street temporarily turned into a stage with resistance songs accompanied by daphli, bold slogans, speeches and vigorous leafleting among bystanders. The street became a canvas too with slogans painted with bold yellow across the street. Maitree, a consortium of women’s groups held a street protest at the spot of the crime on the 9th. On 13th May, several intellectuals of the city met at the Press Club and called for a citizen’s rally against gender violence. The rally marched from College Square to Esplanade on the 14th when people from all walks of life took part.
Questions staring us in the face
Kolkata has a large number of students from suburbs and other districts to study in colleges or to work. The situation of government-run or government-aided hostels for college students and working men and women is grim. The demand and supply is so heavily skewed that mushrooming of privately run ‘mess’/PG/hostel accommodation is a visibly booming and profitable business. These accommodations have their own rules and regulations, own fees, own vulnerabilities like the absence of safety measures and protocols, and own standards for what is acceptable and decent living space. The manager at the victim’s PG had initially tried to dissuade her from reporting the crime apparently for insulating them from police investigations/enquiry. When nonetheless she courageously went ahead with reporting the crime and demanding punishment, the manager called the victim’s father and asked him to pack her bags and leave. He said that the other inmates might no longer like to share space with the victim and his business would suffer! It took us three different police complaints before he was summoned and questioned at the PS. The episode underlines how vulnerable thousands of girl students are in the city, on the questions of safety and living space. It is a time to renew and strengthen the demand for good quality, affordable and adequate hostel facilities for all.
All the while during the whole phase, I could not but help recalling the series of rapes in West Bengal, in which the rapists had enjoyed impunity and complainants/victims were blamed or persecuted. It shows a pattern. Here she is, a politically aware, intelligent and brave young woman who was lucky to have so much immediate support from her student comrades and women’s organizations. Even she had to cross so many hurdles and so much of stigma and maligning attempts, during the immediate aftermath of her traumatic experience. Justice remains elusive as ever. Her father wants justice for his daughter, but is extremely skeptical about the prospect of justice, going by the prevailing standards and conviction rates. One can imagine what women of lesser privilege and in places where even basic medico-legal infrastructure are missing, go through. Justice is a lottery.
But she has hope. She is strong-willed. She refuses to bow down under pressure. Her political convictions are truly reflected in her actions. And there are so many determined faces around her. As we have collectively pledged during our marches – We shall fight, and we shall win.
To read the full report (till May 2), please visit http://kafila.org/2014/05/02/anatomy-of-a-rape-and-its-immediate-aftermath-a-report-from-kolkata-kasturi/
For updates post May 2, please visit https://www.facebook.com/JusticeForBidhanSaraniSurvivor