Women in West Bengal: A comment on the current situation

Nilanjana Paul

It is the time of fear.

Women’s fear of violent men and men’s fear of fearless women‘. 


‘Global Fear’ by Edurado Galeano


An article published in June 2015 in Vikalp: People’s Perspective for Change entitled
“The Tip of the Iceberg” by Abir Neogy highlighted crimes against women in West
Bengal since regime change in 2011. Neogy shows that violence against women are
propelled by a strong “misogynist political current, informed by patriarchal
and propertied social and economic interests.”[1]
Her article further showed how the first female Chief and Home Minister of West
Bengal denied justice to the Park Street rape victim. Moreover, rape and murder
of victims at Kamduni, Madhyamgram and Birbhum have broken fresh grounds on the
culture of gang rape in the state. Building on Neogy’s article, this study
shows that since 2015 little has been done to address women’s issues. Even the
recent declaration by the ruling Trinomool Congress (TMC) that forty percent of
its candidates are women in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, only helps
suppress the scale of the current crisis.


The National Crime Records Bureau Report
published in 2015 noted that 1100 cases were registered in West Bengal under
the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Highest numbers were
reported in Bankura (twenty-three) followed by Nadia (sixteen) and
Purba Mednipur (ten). Most of the minors were between the age groups of five and
seventeen. Mainstream newspapers, which have become the mouthpiece of the
current government, hardly highlighted these stories where a five-year-old girl
was raped near Tamluk Police Station in Purba Mednipur. In other words, rape has
become an instrument to terrorize the general population.[2]

The mainstream media has also overlooked
how a student of Jadavpur University was sexually harassed by a group of
supporters of the ruling party. Protests by students were demonized but the
university administration. The state government finally gave in to the student
movement and removed the Vice-Chancellor. The government used every possible
means to suppress dissenting voices. Neogy raises important questions in this
respect. Most of the protests are concentrated in the metropolitan environment.
Rural voices of dissent are hardly visible in the corporate media.[3]
Since 2016, under-reporting of daily violence against women, especially of
rape, has become a feature of the regional media. The enabling political and
social climate has instilled fear in the victims and afraid of facing of
stigma, they are reluctant to report cases of sexual violence.

The attitude of the state government
towards women’s issues draws parallel to the current position of women in India
under the BJP government. Thousands of women marched in New Delhi on September
4, 2018 to curb violence against women, create jobs, and to end hunger and
malnutrition. Cases of violence against children pending in courts have reached
a record level of over two lakhs. Conviction rate for all crimes against women
were just nineteen percent and only twenty five percent for rape. In other
words, three in every four rapists were getting away scot free. Families of rape
victims have been terrorized by the goons of the ruling parties both in West
Bengal and all over India.[4]

Along with violence against women,
schemes such as Rupashree introduced
by the current government in West Bengal have increased gender disparity. The
whole purpose of giving money to poor families for their daughter’s marriage
has reinforced dowry and deaths related to such practices. Efforts to bring
gender equality have been subverted as female leaders themselves are
insensitive to gender issues. This is true of the current nominations for the
Lok Sabha election. For example, Nusrat Jahan was aware of the Park Street rape
case and made every effort to protect her partner, Kader Khan, one of the prime
accused in the case. Senior government leaders dismissed the incident as
‘fabricated’. In the upcoming elections, one cannot overlook Jahan’s role in
obstructing justice to a rape victim. Similarly, another candidate Mimi
Chakraborty acted in films that had strong anti-feminist messages. None of the
candidates ever addressed issues related to women or even participated in
movements to empower women. Members of Parliament like Deepak Adhikary and
Tapas Pal trivialized rape in their campaign speeches. To quote Neogy, “The
manifestation of violent patriarchy has reached its crudest summit. The culture
of machismo is being enthusiastically promoted by a gang of film star turned
politicians.”[5]

In a country like India
where women’s virginity is associated with family honor, unmarried women who
report rape are forced to marry their attackers. They  also face the risk of being killed by their
fathers or brothers to restore family honor. Women who disclose their abuses
are often blamed for their choice of clothes and asked to avoid ‘tempting’ men.
It is often ignored that women are raped by men they trust, or it is a violent
assertion of male authority. In this context, the current ruling government of
West Bengal has taken a systematic anti-woman stand in its policies.

India has a long history of women’s
movement, which found expression through the fight for national liberation and
social transformation. After independence, terms like empowerment, choice,
reproductive freedom, and spiritual autonomy became goals of women’s movement.
In other words, the movement was directed against conservatism and reaction.
For example, after emergency, slogans such as ‘Brides are not for Burning’
became popular to save women from dowry deaths. By 1982 organizations in Delhi
built up formidable evidence related to dowry deaths. Activists recorded
declarations of dying victims. After much struggle by individual organizations
and groups like Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch
(Platform that Opposes Dowry) that the government introduced laws against this
social menace. Similarly, a strong women’s movement was able to bring about a
major legislation that protected rape victims. In this context, policies such
as Rupashree only reinforces violence
against women and takes away any form of agency designed to bring about
economic and gender equality. Rather the state uses violence to suppress
progressive movements.[6]

Along with the spurt in rape culture,
Bengal has recorded the highest number of domestic violence cases in recent
times. The country witnessed 110,378 domestic violence cases in 2016, of which
19,302 (17.48%) were recorded in Bengal. West Bengal secured second position
after Uttar Pradesh in crimes against women. The mainstream news channels did
not highlight these figures. Both tolerance and experience of domestic violence
are significant barriers to the empowerment of women. In the current scenario,
the government needs to support victims and women’s organizations that fight to
protect them. This can be achieved by making better efforts to spread literacy
and empowering teachers at the grassroots level. The current government has moved
in the opposite direction; it has made every effort to suppress progressive
voices, dissent, and women’s movement. Women candidates with a strong history
of anti-feminist activities will not solve the problems which women are facing
today in West Bengal.[7] It
is therefore important to support initiatives such as the Women’s March on 4
April 2019 across the country against the current politics of hate and
violence.[8] At
the end of day, the personal and the public are political. Unless a different
political intention guides governance, the conditions can only deteriorate
further. Those seeking liberation from the gendered regimes which control and
suppress women, must resist and search for a different world without the rulers
who rule.

(Women’s march for change 4 April 2019)

Dr. Nilanjana Paul is Assistant Professor in History at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

[1] Abir Neogy, “The Tip of the Iceberg,”Vikalp: People’s Perspective for Change, June
17, 2015
[2]
Soumya Das, “West Bengal sees 100 cases of child abuse in 3 months,” The Hindu, October 17, 2017; Neogy, “The
Tip of the Iceberg,” June 17, 2015.
[4] Tarique
Anwar, “Massive Protest by Women Demands Food, Jobs and End To Violence” NewsClick September 4, 2018.
[5] Neogy,
“The Tip of the Iceberg,” June 17, 2015.
[6] InduAgnihotri and Vina Mazumdar, “Changing Terms of Political
Discourse: Women’s Movement in India, 1970s-1990s”
Economic and Political Weekly v.30 n.29 (July 22, 1995), 1869-1878.
[7] Agnihotri
and Mazumdar, “Changing Terms of Political Discourse: Women’s Movement in
India, 1970s-1990s”;Jasodhara Bagchi ed., The Changing Status of Women in West Bengal,
1970-2000: The Challenge Ahead
(New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005), 119; Snignendhu Bhattacharya, “Kolkata
among safest cities for women but Bengal tops country in domestic violence,” Hindustan Times, December 1, 2017.