Kolkata’s shame

The insensitive state response to an alleged rape and murder shows what hasn't changed for women.

In Kolkata, a city which holds dear its mythical status of being safe for women, a 16-year-old died a horrific death this week. Two men, one a local tough in the neighbourhood with links to the ruling Trinamool Congress, allegedly raped her in October and believed they had the impunity to rape her again the next day, while she was on her way back from the police station. Her case was a stark illustration of how the system, from the police to the politicians to the amorphous agglomeration of prejudice that we call "society", turns against a victim of sexual assault. It showed how, despite the gains over the last year, and the consistent red-flagging of the issue of violence against women, little has lessened the rape victim's repeated traumatisation.

At the police station, familiar delaying tactics sought, but failed, to dissuade her from filing a complaint. The accused were arrested, but whispered questions about the victim's character and open intimidation hounded her family out of their neighbourhood. Most unseemly was the political brawl that erupted after the girl was set ablaze by two men on December 23, and died eight days later. The police tried to force the family to a hasty cremation, dragging the body halfway across the city, to prevent the CPI(M) from raising a clamour.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has shown little sympathy for women in Bengal who have spoken out against sexual violence, dismissing them as props in a ceaseless political conspiracy against her. When the NCRB figures (2011) showed that West Bengal recorded the highest number of crimes against women, the state responded by contesting the figures rather than going to work on its creaking systems of justice. This crude politicisation, typical of the state's polarised culture, discolours discussions of a woman's sexual autonomy. In the current case, a Trinamool leader has spoken of "the state's image being denigrated", making it once more about the Party, not the victim. Banerjee's team should desist from loose talk. It is time, too, for Kolkata and its bhadralok to shrug off their complacence about women's safety and freedom, hold the government to account.

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