Thursday, April 4, 2019

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.

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