June 19, 2013

The Kamduni Tragedy: Every such case is a crime too many

For the past 10 days, I have maintained a silence on the horrific rape and murder of a 20-year-old student in Kamduni, Barasat, North 24 Parganas, just outside Calcutta and not far from where I live and work. In these loud, media-driven times, silence is construed as weakness and defensiveness. This is unfortunate because it is not that I had nothing to say but it is just that I had nothing to contribute that had not already been said. More so, the incident troubled me at a personal level. As the father of a 17-year-old young woman who will probably spend the rest of her life in West Bengal, I couldn’t help but feel disturbed.

A rape is not a statistic; it is a brutal assault, a crime, a violent act, a forceful reminder of skewed gender relations and power equations. Every such case is a crime too many. There are no ifs and buts here, no question of which party the rapists and murderers may or may not belong to. That essential verity cannot be obliterated.

Eight persons have been arrested for the crime in Kamduni. The chargesheet in regard to the rape and murder of the college student will be filed within 15 days and the accused bought to trial before a fast-track court. In a month hopefully the culprits will be convicted.

Additionally, the state government has announced the setting up of four new police stations in the area. Currently, Kamduni and its neighbouring areas come under the jurisdiction of the Barasat police station. The CID, West Bengal Police, has been told to keep an eye on Barasat, and deal with local goons and prevent harassment of and crimes against citizens, especially women.

This is a case of rape and murder. As Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said, the prosecution will seek the death penalty for the accused. Indeed, as a party Trinamool Congress will push for the death penalty in cases of rape. Despite the recent anti-rape legislation, that debate – related to the death penalty – has not been settled yet.

My personal view is for those charge-sheeted and brought to trial in a rape case, state governments should refuse police clearances for, say, passports, government jobs and such facilities. These are small steps and may not apply to all culprits, but they are of symbolic value and suggest that the government takes such crimes seriously, with a zero-tolerance approach.

The government can do its bit, but there is a larger social obligation as well. Other than punishment that acts as deterrence, sensitisation is also called for. It has to start at home, by telling our sons to treat our daughters as equals. Sensitisation and civil-society monitoring have to begin in the bus and the Metro compartment which ordinary young women use to travel to study or to work or to meet their friends.

The other day, a man tried to harass a girl in a Metro train in Calcutta. She raised an alarm, and with help from co-passengers apprehended him and handed him over to the police. This is heart-warming. We cannot stay bystanders as our daughters and sisters suffer – not as government, not as citizens.

I would also urge the media to interrogate itself about the appropriate manner in which to cover such crimes. No doubt they have to be reported and should be reported. If the authorities have erred or if there are gaps that need to be filled, these should be explained and criticised, as necessary. Yet, the temptation to resort to grisly, basal instincts, whip up hysteria and enter a mad TRP war needs to be checked. In this context, I would like to single out two local news channels. In their race for ratings, have they reported the problem or added to it? Do they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem?

So many of the challenges we face in West Bengal – including under-policed regions in the periphery of Calcutta – are legacy issues that it is always going to be easy for me to blame the previous government and the 34-year nightmare of Left rule. Indeed, if one were to write an account of crimes against women in the Communist era and the then government’s egregious responses, it would fill a book, not merely a newspaper article. Yet, I will resist all that here.

I will only point to one episode and a chief ministerial contrast. On May 30, 1990, a government car coming to Calcutta from Gosaba-Ragabelia was ferrying three ladies: Renu Ghosh - an officer from UNICEF, New Delhi, and Anita Dewan and Uma Ghosh - both officers of the Family Welfare Wing, Department of Health, government of West Bengal.

As the car was about to pass the CPI(M) office on Bantala Road, four or five youth stopped the car. Another 10-12 youth joined them. The gang began abusing the women, and pulled them out of the car. Five hours later, dead bodies were wheeled into a hospital. The victims had been brutalised, subjected to unimaginable sexual crimes and then killed.

This happened right outside Calcutta. Such was the fear psychosis, no newspaper reported the crime the next morning. No arrests were made. When asked about the incident, the then chief minister was quoted as saying, “Anti-social acts like rowdyism, beating, dacoity happen everywhere. This [does] not mean that the situation of law and order in Bengal is poor.”

Our state has come a long distance from that cynical era. As the tragedy of the college girl in Kamduni reminds us, we still have a long, long way to go. Her memory must serve as our inspiration.