Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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 Bengal.

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.

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