A remarkable mass movement is underway in Darbhanga, Bihar, in which there is a struggle between people’s memory and political amnesia, between a progressive vision of a people’s Bihar, against a Bihar shackled in the feudal-communal mould.
It all began when some doctors of Darbhanga Medical College decided to commemorate a remarkable alumnus of their institution –Dr. Nirmal. Nirmal Singh was a bright student, born in a middle class, backward caste peasant sfamily in Bhojpur. He qualified for the Darbhanga Medical College by his high marks is his intermediate school exams – a rare instance where a student from any backward/dalit or oppressed backward could breach the unspoken barrier of entry to medical college.
He took on the suffocating Brahminical-feudal hegemony in the DMC hostel and administration (a feature which persists in many medical colleges in India even today). A popular student, he soon rallied progressive students around him in the fight against caste discrimination, braving several attacks on his life in the process. On one such occasion in February 1973, he was injured, abused even in hospital and jailed on false charges. Spurred by a sharp sense of the inherent injustice of the judicial process towards the oppressed communities and the poor, he returned to Sahar, Bhojpur where the CPI(ML)-led movement against feudal oppression was raging. Eventually, on 29 November 1975, Dr. Nirmal was martyred alongside CPI(ML) General Secretary Comrade Jauhar (Subrata Dutta) following a 72-hour gun battle.
This glorious legacy of Comrade Nirmal continues to inspire students and professors of Darbhanga Medical College who decided to erect a memorial and dedicate a park to honor his legacy. The Medical College administration had already accepted a proposal for installing a statue and dedicating a park in his name which was duly published in college’s Souvenir and various newspapers and magazines. When Medical College administration installed a statue with active cooperation of present students and alumni on 27 Dec. 2012, it was widely welcomed by the democratic and progressive circles in the region. But BJP leaders in the town became restless and the local BJP MLA demanded that the health minister Ashwini Chaube and CM Nitish Kumar have the statue removed.
Installing of statues is not new to this college and many statues have been installed at earlier occasions in the campus. One park is dedicated to Dr. Chakradhar Jha, one gate is in the name of two ex-students Mohan Rai and Vimla Rai, the front of the old college building has been reserved for the statue of erstwhile king of Darbhanga! And no one had ever objected to such proposals. But feudal-brahminical regressive forces are trying to obstruct a memorial of a revolutionary who sacrificed his life. The BJP in ruling alliance of the state is conspiring to remove the statue and BJP Minister of Health in Bihar had announced shamelessly that the statue will be removed in three days! A week passed since then and no one was able to touch the statue, thanks to thousands of people who came to challenge the right reactionaries.
Dr. Ajit Kumar Chaudhary who is active in this struggle first received a show-cause notice from the college administration and when he led the people opposing the police attempts of removing the statue, was implicated in criminal sections along with Dr. BMP Yadav, employees’ leader Yogendra Ram, one hostel employee Ramsagar Ram and 50-60 other people. Police failed to remove the statue.
On the fifth day, on 17th March, a massive mass meeting was held near the statue. People from across their political-social divides reached there in support. Leaders from different streams supported Dr. Ajit Kumar Chaudhary and garlanded the statue. Representatives of various social-political streams lent their support.
Ex-minister Ashraf Fatmi said that while there is wave of support in favour of installing the martyr’s statue, the Bihar govt. is disrespecting people’s sentiments and is a real burden for the people.
Dr. Ajit Kumar Chaudhary said that he had started this mission with a very small team, but in face of govt. repression this has transformed into a massive mass movement. People’s support is giving enormous strength and now there is no force in the world strong enough to prevent us from successfully accomplishing our task of installing the statue of martyr Dr. Nirmal. CPI(ML) leader and ex-MLA and National General Secretary of All India Kisan Mahasabha Rajaram Singh said that Dr. Nirmal carried forward and lived the legacy of Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh which is continuing in the martyrdoms of comrades like Mahendra Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Brajesh Mohan Thakur and Bhaiyyaram Yadav and many others even today. Bihar will never tolerate regressive forces which are trying to insult the martyrdom of Dr. Nirmal. He said that Nitish Kumar is now sitting in the lap of feudal-communal forces.
Prominent medico and founder General Secretary of Overseas Doctors Association in Britain Dr. Rajeshwar Prasad Sinha remembered his college days and his martyred friend and greeted students and teachers of the medical college saying this is a great struggle for giving the history its due place. Litterateur and ex-member of Bihar Legislative Council Prem Kumar Mani said that the forces opposing Dr. Nirmal are same who had murdered Gandhi. He added, the movement of which Dr. Nirmal was an integral part and laid his life was a movement which brought revolutionary changes in Bihar’s polity and society. Now fundamental issues of Bihari society are being evaded by present chief minister Nitish Kumar who is backing reactionary feudal forces. CPI(ML) leader Arun Kumar said that rulers know it well that the statue of Dr. Nirmal will be an everlasting inspiration for the struggling poor and toiling people of the state hence they are trying to oppose him. But no one can deny that the movement starting from Darbhanga has the potential to give a new direction to the whole of Bihar. Retd. Colonel Lakshmeshwar Mishra also addressed the gathering where he strongly condemned Bihar government and said that people’s aspirations can never be suppressed by the repressive tactics of the state. Many other speakers including teachers and students of Darbhanga Medical College also addressed the mass meeting and expressed their determination to defeat the reactionary, fascist forces and in favour of the victory of the people.
The resolutions were also passed in presence of thousands of poeple demanding withdrawal of all cases imposed on the activists and doctors of the college, dismissal of Bihar health minister, and that the government must stop defaming the martyr vanguards of the social political movements which brought progressive changes in Bihar and elsewhere.
On 18th March, the police arrested Dr Ajit Choudhury and Dr. BMP Yadav, but the arrest only sparked off an even more massive day-long protest that lasted till 11 pm at night, till the doctors were eventually released. In protest, thousands of people blockaded streets in Darbhanga that day, demanding release of the doctors.
The anti-rape legislation that was supposed to be Parliament’s tribute to the Delhi December 16 braveheart was passed in India’s lower house on 19th March. Far from being a momentous and historic blow to patriarchy, however, the occasion only served to remind us what kind of patriarchal reaction we’re up against.
Only 200 out of 545 MPs remained in the house. The top leadership of the Congress party and the UPA coalition stayed away from the house. And the debate in the Lok Sabha – marked by open sexism, misogyny, and misinformation – could not have presented a greater contrast with the sober and painstaking process of learning from activists on the ground as well as international best practices, undertaken by the Justice Verma Committee.
Leading the charge was BJP MP Bhola Singh, whose idea of women’s rights meant invoking mythological examples to extol women as models of sacrifice and beauty. Meanwhile, he echoed the RSS chief and blamed westernization for rape! Then, there was Shailendra Kumar of the SP, who, yet again, blamed revealing clothes worn by film stars for rape, and even made a personal sexist dig at his colleague Jayaprada, a former actress. And JD(U) MP Sharad Yadav declared that stalking was a form of courtship (‘Which of us men has never stalked a girl? Girls do not respond till you stalk them for a while’) and a law against stalking would end up putting lovers in jail. Sharad Yadav also made knowing remarks about even the MPs in the house would be stirred by songs like ‘Shaila ki jawani’ (“We are men, after all”), to be greeted by smiles and sniggers by many MPs. He said that if such laws were passed, fewer women would be hired at work, and SP leader Mulayam Singh, who did not speak in the house, said that if such laws were passed, coeducational schools would have be shut down! Laloo Yadav took the opportunity to display homophobia and declare that Parliament should have challenged the Delhi HC verdict decriminalizing homosexuality.
Can we dismiss deplorable aberrations that we can ignore as fringe elements? Not so, because these are the voices and opinions that managed to influence the Bill: getting the age of consent raised to 18, the first offence of stalking made a bailable and non-cognisable offense; reducing the proposed punishment for acid-throwing; making sure that only women could be victims of rape (rather than all persons as proposed by the women’s groups). With even the Law Minister of the country subscribing to the bogey of ‘false complaints,’ it is hardly surprising that this notion prevailed, leading to dilution of the law against stalking. Acid attacks, murders and rapes are often preceded by stalking; making stalking bailable will mean that when a woman files a complaint against the stalker, he will not be arrested immediately and will remain at large to carry out his threats of acid attacks or murder.
And even in the process of drafting the Bill, it is patriarchal forces that ensured the rejection of Justice Verma’s recommendations that the marital rape exemption be deleted, the principle of command responsibility in case of rapes by armed forces or police be recognized, AFSPA amended and reviewed, and molestation no longer described as ‘outraging a woman’s modesty.’
The situation was such that a huge part of the struggle was to keep the legislation from doing damage to women’s autonomy and rights! The ordinance, for instance, had made the accused in the rape law gender neutral, allowing women to be accused by men of rape; it had introduced ‘punishment for false complaints’ into the sexual assault laws; and raised the age of consent to 18. It is thanks to the vociferous protests and efforts of the ongoing movement that the Bill approved by Cabinet corrected these extremely harmful provisions, but very soon, the age of consent was again raised to 18 in the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha.
The debate over age of consent was a classic case of misleading and mischievous propaganda by patriarchal forces. The age of consent had been 16 for the past 3 decades since 1983. The Government, without any serious consultation or debate, first raised this to 18 in the Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) a few months back and the ordinance a month ago, overruling the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee. It was not only the women’s movement that objected to this change: at least two court judgements in the past few months appealed for age of consent to be retained at 16, with judges pleading that they were having to convict young boys for rape, even when the girl declared in court that it was a consensual relationship. And when the women’s groups prevailed on the Government to keep age of consent at 16 in the Bill, a huge media storm was manufactured over the supposed ‘lowering of the age of consent to 16,’ which was interpreted, laughably, as ‘license for teen sex.’ Eventually, this campaign of misinformation and moral policing carried the day, and the age of consent was raised to 18.
So, whatever is positive and progressive in the new legislation was achieved by the movement in spite of the patriarchal forces of the Government and Parliament. These include: jail-time of 6 months to 1 year for police officers who fail to file FIRs in sexual violence cases; prior sanction provision will not extend to police officers, MPs and MLAs accused of rape; and sexual violence during communal or sectarian violence or by a person in uniform will carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; stalking, voyeurism, disrobing and acid-attacks have been codified as crimes. We may recall that not long before December 16th last year, the Home Ministry had rejected most such recommendations made by the women’s groups, and the Government’s ordinance too had avoided incorporating many of these provisions. It is clear, therefore, that it is only the pressure of the movement that forced an obviously reluctant Government and Parliament to enact some of the long-pending amendments into the rape/sexual violence laws.
The people’s movement against sexual violence will continue and grow. We will not rest till we change the offensive laws that legitimize marital rape, protect rapists in Army uniform, criminalise homosexual relationships, and preach feminine ‘modesty’, allow those charge-sheeted for rape to contest elections, and fail to allow for severe punishment for rapists of dalit women!