Calcutta witnessed a strange ritual a few days ago. Makeshift podiums had been erected in the vicinity of several of the city’s busiest thoroughfares — Esplanade, the Karunamoyee crossing in Tollygunge, the 8B bus stand at Jadavpur, among other places — and these structures were manned by hawk-eyed functionaries, men and women, of the Trinamul Congress carrying fistfuls of rakhis. As soon as they spotted a man whose hands had not yet been adorned with these bands, a voice would crackle on the microphone, ordering him to stop in his tracks. Rakhi-bearing women would then accost the startled soul. Moments later, he would emerge from the melee unscathed, save for his wrists that would be bedecked with garishly coloured rakhis.
Not much can be said about private celebrations of familial bonds. But the ruling party’s act of unleashing its cadre and forcing even unwilling citizens to participate in rakhi celebrations, often at the cost of their precious time, is nothing but an infringement of citizens’ rights. The traffic snarls that resulted from the frenzied celebrations — most notably near Esplanade where a joyous, gyrating throng held up public transport — inconvenienced those who had managed to keep their wrists free of rakhis.
The rationale cited by some of the organizers was equally galling. At one of the crossings, men were being instructed to accept the offering as proof of their commitment towards a society that was safe for their newly found ‘sisters’. Etymologically, the term, raksha bandhan, has its roots in the concept of a bond of protection. Symbolically, it represents a social contract by which men are obligated to protect the honour of women, who, in return, shower them with gratitude and affection. Unsurprisingly, raksha bandhan is extremely popular in the northern parts of India. (The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has appropriated the festival too: the head of every shakha is apparently expected to tie a rakhi around the pole of the saffron flag on that day.)
It is shameful that the Bengal government has now chosen to institutionalize a regressive ritual that remains steeped in feudal traditions. Isn’t such protectionism a devious means of exercising control over women? Why, in the first place, should women need to be given protection? Isn’t this a tacit admission of the government’s failure to honour women’s rights to safety as equal citizens of a State?
What is equally objectionable is the sight of the elected government of a state with the dubious record of the highest number of crimes against women resorting to populism to address the critical issue of violence against women. Such tokenism — women tying rakhis on the wrists of men in public under the party’s stern gaze — along with the chief minister’s penchant for describing sexual assaults as either ‘staged’ or ‘insignificant’ and an MLA’s paternal advice that women should dress conservatively is likely to intensify criticisms that the government remains indifferent to its responsibility of making the state safe for women.
Such government-funded initiatives are also a drain on the feeble exchequer. The government cites its empty coffers, among other things, to explain the delay in the implementation of several development projects — sturdy embankments are yet to come up in the Sundarbans, the distribution of rice at subsidized rates to the poor in Jangal Mahal is proceeding haltingly, not to mention Calcutta’s myriad civic problems. Hence expenditures incurred in organizing extravaganzas such as a raksha bandhan festival are likely to shore up allegations of the government sacrificing Bengal’s socio-economic progress at the altar of populism.