The Tip of the Ice-berg

Abir Neogy

Society in West Bengal has taken a distinctly violent
turn. Within the wider sphere of rising violence, what is the character of
sexual violence we are witnessing everyday? It is being propelled, as all
evidence suggests, by a strong misogynist political current, informed by
patriarchal and propertied social and economic interests.

In the last three years under the TMC regime,
violence has risen noticeably in the state. Escalation cannot be calculated just
in terms of numbers but in its gory concentration and sickening consistency.
The ruling party in West Bengal is directly responsible for shielding the perpetrators.
Let us turn to the cases that have received national and international
notoriety. The much publicised Park Street Rape Case set the template of the
incidents that have preceded and followed it. The victim-blaming statements by
the first woman Chief Minister and Home (Police) Minister of West Bengal and
other public representatives, the transfer of the woman police officer willing
to investigate, allowing the accused to move around freely in broad daylight,
the refusal of the government-run law and order machinery to act on behalf of
the victim-all these features were evident. The victim, having come forward as
a rape-survivor in public, has recently died without having received justice. Meanwhile,
the chief accused is still at large. There are strong reasons to believe that
the police are aware of his whereabouts. Atrocities have piled up. The rape and
murder of victims at Kamduni and Madhyamgram have broken fresh grounds in sadistic
torture within the current culture of gender violence. On 7 June this year, the
incident of gang-rape and murder at Kamduni has completed its grisly second
anniversary. The CM had promised, in 2013, in the face of tremendous public
outrage, that justice will be delivered within a month. After two years, not an
inch of legal progress has been made regarding this case. The gang-rape of a
young girl in a Birbhum village, sanctioned by a Khap panchayat-like illegal
village body has presented the spectre of complete hooliganisation of society. In
each and every recorded case of rape/rape-murder, the ruling party has been
involved as sponsor, perpetrator or facilitator of a cover-up. These events
have demonstrated that the rape culture in the state is a form of sexual
politics which enables those who rule to remain in power. Rape is an instrument
to terrorise the general population, one of the ultimate acts to prove that hooligans
control all public spaces at the behest of the ruling party.
I had joined ‘Maitri’, a platform of individuals and
activists to fight violence against women. In July 2013, we organised a protest
outside the Chief Minister’s residence. We had no other option since she had
refused to give us a formal appointment despite repeated requests. It was a
non-violent assembly. Our aim was to meet her and submit a memorandum on the
escalating violence against women in the state. Suddenly the entire Kalighat police
station descended on us. The police told us we must leave the area immediately.
Then the Black Maria arrived and 14 of us, all women, were arbitrarily picked
up and sent to the central lockup at Lalbazar. The news of our arrest spread
quickly. The pressure mounted in the public sphere forced the government to
release us. This convinced us that the right to protest is under severe threat
in the state of West Bengal. Those who stand up to the regime will be crushed
through draconian means.
The protests are mostly concentrated in the
metropolitan environment of Calcutta. Many of these have been organised by
educated, middle-class, professional women protestors with access to mainstream
and social media. We are part of this social/class segment. Despite our
elevated status in relation to the rest of the society, we were subjected to
the kind of repression I have described above. One can only wonder what the
rural protestors in remote areas of Bengal face when they stand up to criminals
and an administration which protects and is run by them? How do people respond
who have little or no access to the publicity offered by the media or legal
representation? This is the lived reality of ordinary folk in today’s West
The government, the administration, the police are on
the side of the perpetrators and pitted against the victims. In each and every
case, the accused have been given the time to escape or seek some form of
political protection. We are being quite unable to keep track of the deluge of
violent incidents being directed against women. We learn of most cases through
the media. The mass media, a large segment of which is also facing state
repression, is guided by government or private big business interests. The
management of the media houses, instead of reporting all the cases, decide
which among them are ‘news-worthy’ and proceed to present them in a
sensationalist manner before the reading public. Despite the plethora of such
reports, the truth is, the media has been unable to reveal the extent of
criminality in the state. We are familiar
only with the tip of the iceberg.
One of the latest incidents is yet another grotesque
testimony to these conditions. On 17 May at 4.30 PM, Suparna Naskar who had
come first in the Secondary (Madhyamik) examination from an impoverished school
at Jibantala, Canning was murdered in front of her mother and other eye-witnesses
in the street. She was deliberately mowed down by a thwarted ‘admirer’ from a
neighbouring village. He dragged her half-dead body under his motor-bike and then
stopped briefly, only to run the wheels over her again and again to make sure
she had been crushed to death. She had turned down his marriage proposal and
was looking forward to further studies.  Suparna’s
family was very poor. They had no electricity. Her brilliant scores in the exam
came from long hours of study by candle-light. Her killing has not been
registered as homicide but ‘accident’. Such ‘accidental’ deaths are on the rise
in West Bengal. Threatened by the government, the police are afraid to record
crimes against women. Suparna’s murderer, despite the presence of witnesses,
will be receiving a light sentence. This is a chronicle of criminal injustice
foretold where law is deliberately deactivated. Not the victims but the government,
and the killers flourishing under its authority, are being protected.
Who are the chief victims of mounting sexual abuse,
molestation, harassment and finally, rape and murder? Who lives as the
unprotected victim or potential victim in the current climate of rape culture
which draws on daily doses of psycho-social and sexual violence? The class
dimension of gender violence cannot be ignored. From the age-group of zero to
70, the overwhelming majority of the victims are drawn from the ranks of the
poor. While the media does not highlight this aspect, the social situation of
the majority of the victims needs to be recorded. The largest concentration of
victims come from working-class and peasant families, from caste and community
locations run down by neoliberalism-induced and entrenched material hardship.
These young girls and women have tried to empower themselves through education and
struggles for livelihood in an increasingly brutal climate. In a wider sense,
they are the victims of anti-democratic policy reversals, lumpen take-over of
school-college-university managements after dissolving elected governing
bodies, and widespread corruption and asset-stripping which have visited rural
and urban governance since the TMC came to power. Even the most vociferous
critics of the Left Front government will be forced to admit that this type of
a socially degenerate and pathologically violent climate did not prevail in the
previous era. Alongside the impoverished young women, are the handicapped poor
women, infants of all classes, and the elderly. The transgender men of the
working-classes are also ‘feminised’, thereby labelled as socially weak and being
subjected to horrific violence as deviants. Does their situation not convey the
character of sexual violence engulfing the whole of society, with poor women
and girls as special targets of oppression?
Why is this happening? The body of the woman, and that
of others who can be ‘feminised’, have become the site of predatory political
control through terror. From the view-point of the rulers-as-perpetrators, the
passivity of the woman is becoming the symbol of the passivity of an entire
society in the face of organised political terror let loose from above. The aim
of violence is to breed political passivity, to spread political control and to
perpetuate political power. The war against women is the ruling offensive in
another name. The ruling party swept to power after 34 years of unbroken
elected left rule by making political capital out of ‘rape’. The rape-murder of
Tapasi Malik remains unsolved till today. She was iconised by the current CM
during her Singur campaign. Tapasi’s grisly death partially helped catapult
Mamata Banerjee to her carefully crafted ‘warrior-saviour’ media image before
the electorate. Is Tapasi Malik’s erasure from the memory of the CM/Home
(Police) Minister now complete? What about the women of Nandigram whom the
current CM had sworn to ‘protect’? Have they benefitted from the TMC regime? As
for women belonging to the opposition parties, rape and murder have been
unleashed on them as a tool of terror, repeatedly. The Arambagh (Burdwan) and
Sattor (Birbhum) incidents are the latest, glaring examples of sexual violence
as a tool to rape, murder and terrorise opponents. There is nothing subtle about
the normalisation of violence in daily life. The manifestation of violent
patriarchy has reached it crudest summit. The culture of ‘machismo’ is being
enthusiastically promoted, especially by the gang of
film-stars-turned-politicians. TMC wears it as a badge of honour. An MLA
delineated the party’s agenda during the election campaign while recounting the
glory of ‘didi’: rape will be engineered against the women of the left opposition.
Another star-candidate, now an MP, asked victims to ‘enjoy’ rape. What does
these sickening words and actions imply? Do they not expose the political
character of sexual violence?
This brings us to the question of protest and
resistance. There are two routes that are open before us. We can organise and
build up organised movements seeking justice for individual victims. We can
also organise a wider social movement which recognises political motivation
behind rape and other forms of sexual abuse as methods of economic and social
control by those who are ruling us. If we do not take the second path, the
first will never succeed. Unless socialisation of male power through political
authority is questioned, unless violent masculinity sanctioned by the ruling
party is made answerable before society at large, the culture of rape cannot be
overturned and defeated. This means we must mount a movement that aims to
defeat the dominant form of power-politics which rests, among other
foundations, on demolishing every notion and practice that empowers women.
This movement, which speaks for the future, must be
as wide as possible in its social and political reach. Ordinary people are
silent. But fear does not mean acquisition or approval. The class dimension of
gender violence must be emphasised when organising the people. Medium and small
protests have taken place so far. The atrocities far outnumber them. In order
to stand up to the tsunami of violence, a large-scale unified protest movement
involving marginalised social segments and exploited classes of people has to
be launched. The movement must go beyond courting sensationalist media coverage
and reach the workers who have been made invisible from the public eye. Migrant
women workers and village women, women in construction work and stone quarries,
those who earn their living as day-labourers in the unorganised sector, those
who do not receive minimum wages or have any job security and are economically
and sexually exploited by their bosses – they and their social interest must be
given a central role within the orbit of the new movement. Anyone who believes
what is going on should be stopped, whether belonging to any organisation or
without any organisation, must be welcomed into the fold of the unified movement.
If this is organised, a wave of resistance can shake up society from below. The
mass democratic aims and character of the new protest movement will stir and
empower millions living under a regime of terror and torture, violence and
discrimination, destitution and poverty.

A different
ice-berg will emerge from under the tip
to take on
the expropriators who must be expropriated.

Abir Neogy’s life as an
organiser began in the left student’s movement. Since then she has been active
in social movements fighting for sexual equality and rights of sexual minorities
in West Bengal.