TT Epaper
The Telegraph
 
CIMA Gallary

THE WINDING ROAD THAT CAN GIVE AND TAKE LIFE

There is one feature in the protest in Barasat’s Kamduni against the gangrape and murder of a college student that is especially remarkable. This is the local community’s success in sustaining an apolitical campaign for justice in the face of cynical political attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the people’s movement through a combination of benefaction and coercion. The people of Kamduni rejected the state government’s offer of financial compensation and employment for a member of the victim’s family. When the chief minister visited Kamduni several days after the gruesome incident, one of the women protesters, Tumpa Kayal, entered into an argument with Mamata Banerjee, who refused to answer legitimate queries concerning the institutional failure to protect Kamduni’s women. Banerjee, subsequently, described Tumpa as a Maoist and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Tumpa was ordered to apologize to the chief minister for her ‘unacceptable conduct’ in a press conference by a local Trinamul leader. However, the people’s movement has continued to gather strength and has retained its apolitical nature in spite of the attempts by political parties to appropriate it. A bandh called by the Socialist Unity Centre of India received tepid support in the village last Monday. The march organized by the Trinamul Congress on Thursday required women to be mobilized from neighbouring areas. Some of Kamduni’s villagers pooled in their own resources to travel to Calcutta and join a rally only after ascertaining that it was being held by an apolitical forum.

Twelve days after the horror and a day after the chief minister’s visit, I travelled to Kamduni to examine the emerging contours of this inclusive, democratic, but fledgling, community movement, a rare phenomenon in our democracy. During the day-long visit, I also chanced upon other tenuous links among seemingly disjointed phenomena. For instance, I discovered that the manner in which the character of public space altered between the city and its hinterland was not only the result of the inherent asymmetry in the quality of State vigilance but that it also had a direct bearing on public safety. The deterioration in standards of public safety, in turn, adversely affected a community’s access to critical resources such as education and employment. Moreover, in places like Kamduni, public spaces and institutions — roads, schools and colleges — are rapidly turning into sites of complicated contact, and, thereby, conflict, between old and emerging economies and cultures. This aspect, too, cannot be discounted in any discussion related to public safety in places like Kamduni that have turned, metaphorically, into a sieve that allows two different worlds, and ways of living, to meet amidst considerable unease.

On my way to Kamduni, as the car turned left from Chinar More and embarked on the Rajarhat road, I noticed that the city had begun to recede. The wide road heaving under early morning traffic and New Town’s gated residential communities suddenly gave way to a stretch dotted with dilapidated tea shops, gleaming automobile and mobile phone showrooms and buildings that were under construction. The landscape changed further as we left the choumatha (four-point crossing) and headed towards Khoirabari. We drove past bheris — vast waterbodies used for pisciculture — and I could also see the boundary walls of several abandoned factories. The changing landscape — city to suburbs and then onto Calcutta’s hinterland — served as a register of the changes in the character of public space. The markers of civic administration — police stations, traffic kiosks, street lights — that are synonymous with a cityspace began to thin out and almost disappeared as I neared Kamduni, transporting me to a vast swathe of territory that seemed to exist outside the realm of governance. Soon enough, we reached the scene of crime: a walled enclosure on a patch of land on which stood a one-roomed structure with an adjoining toilet. When I stepped out to take photographs, I could not see a single electric pole. The bheri nearby was unattended. The road was deserted and I could only hear the eerie, strong breeze. What I did experience, was the sense of fear that has become a part of the lives of the women who have to take the road each day. My sense of foreboding communicated to me effectively the local community’s vulnerability on account of the government’s shocking apathy towards public safety. It also mirrored the gulf that separates public spaces in cities from those in the hinterland in terms of their access to civic amenities.

There can be latent, and disturbing, consequences when the government turns a blind eye to the dilution in standards of public safety. The principal of Derozio College — the victim was studying here to become a teacher — whom I had met on the way revealed that several families, anxious about the safety of girl students, were unwilling to continue with their education. This can deliver a crippling blow to the State’s literacy campaign that has now begun to attract Kamduni’s first-generation learners, many of whom belong to landless farming families and the minority community. The crisis has also laid bare troubling questions about the myopic nature of the State’s education policy. Not just in Kamduni but also in the Sundarbans or Jangalmahal, the construction of motorable roads and the distribution of cycles are considered adequate steps in the State’s manual to encourage girls to enrol themselves in schools or colleges. What remains unaddressed is the question of their safety in a state, which, according to National Crime Records Bureau data, has registered the highest number of crimes against women. A section of Kamduni’s labour force, which earns a living as daily wage-earners, has been forced to stay at home since the incident, thereby losing out on their meagre earnings.

The government’s response to the sustained agitation in Kamduni has remained limited to promises of administrative action. Three hundred and fifty policemen are entrusted with the onerous duty of safeguarding the lives of 15 lakh people residing in the 286 square kilometres that fall under the jurisdiction of the Barasat thana. (In comparison, over 26,000 policemen guard Calcutta’s 246 sq kms.) The government has promised to divide the Barasat police station into four separate thanas and announced that the case will be tried in a fast-track court. That day in Kamduni, I also witnessed the nauseating spectacle of an elected representative promising to fulfil civic responsibilities in return for favours. The MLA of New Town, who trooped in behind his supporters in a convoy of bikes, organized an impromptu meeting with villagers. After asking the journalists to leave — I managed to sneak in because I was not carrying a note book, camera or microphone — he promised the victim’s brothers and father that the accused will be given either the death penalty or a life-term and that Kamduni will be awarded better roads, transport (magic garis, a trekker-like service common in mofussil areas) and street lights after the panchayat polls. In return, he asked the people not to listen to the canards being spread by the Opposition and the media. Then he ordered his boys to cook khichuri.

That there is reason to doubt the political will to improve administrative measures to tackle crime against women is borne out by several facts. Already, the Criminal Investigation Department has failed to submit the chargesheet for the case within the stipulated time. In West Bengal, conviction rates in rape cases have fallen from 13.7 per cent in 2010 to 10.9 per cent in 2012. The state has managed to set up only 10 women only police stations and one women’s court in spite of the frightening rise in sexual assaults.

But crime against women is as much a law and order problem as a structural malaise. There is thus an urgent need to address the glaring structural inequities that persist in our private, intimate spaces and relationships. Earlier in the day, over tea and cigarettes, I had chatted with a group of students of Derozio College, all of them men, to understand how the stranglehold of the community — represented by family elders or the shalishi — continues to undermine individual choices and freedom in places undergoing drastic economic changes, which, in turn, have triggered massive upheavals in cultural values and aspirations. Each of the boys conceded that there is now greater visibility of women in public places, that they would like to have girlfriends, that peer conversations centred on politics, love affairs and sex, and that there is nothing wrong with free, consensual and equitable intermingling between men and women. They also added that critical decisions in their lives — marriage, for instance — continue to be decided by their parents after taking into consideration caste compatibility. Stifled by parental dominance at home, unable to communicate their changing needs to the family, young men and women are increasingly reimagining and utilizing public and community spaces — roads, parks, eateries — as refuges to lead fleeting, freer, lives. But even this interaction within a handful of liberal pockets — be it the college campus or the cinema hall — retains the residues of older tensions that forever inform gender relationships. This heightens the possibility of conflict and crime.

Ironically, this culture of protectionism that the students complained about bitterly forms the fulcrum of the community resistance that is now being witnessed in Kamduni. After reaching the village, I encountered a group of enraged women who had thrown a protective ring around Tumpa. The women demanded that journalists as well as representatives of civil society leave her alone. For sections of the fourth estate and civil society standing by Kamduni, it is imperative that they understand that the antipathy expressed by the villagers is a reflection of their sense of siege. Reclaiming the community’s sense of space, real and imagined, is now difficult because the site of conflict has been turned into one of contest among competing agencies — the media, political parties and civil society— heightening the anxiety of a vulnerable community, turning it insular. The erosion of faith repeatedly expressed by the villagers in the media and civil society — an institution fractured on political lines — also raises questions about the former’s ethics and the latter’s intentions. The commercial pressure on the media has meant that journalists have little qualms about demanding that a visibly shaken and fatigued Tumpa answer their not-too-innocent questions at all hours of the day. Civil society’s promise of assistance has come with a barely-concealed ambition to give direction and plan the movement on behalf of the people of Kamduni.

Hearteningly, the momentum gathered by the people’s protest in Kamduni is inspiring citizens in other remote, but equally unsafe, areas to adopt it as a model. Already, in Nadia’s Gede and Dhantala or in Gaighata, people have rejected the government’s dole and demanded punishment for those accused of similar crimes. But if the flickering hope of a truly democratic moment— ordinary people protesting against the apathy of the government that they have elected— is to be kept aflame, institutions such as the media and civil society ought to limit their roles to that of mere facilitators.

That day, I had stood with an old woman watching the bike bahini thunder past on the road that led to the city. The bikes were followed by an OB van and a few cars with Press stickers stuck on their windshields. As the dust settled around us and the silence returned slowly, the woman pointed to the serpentine road and whispered that the animals were leaving. She added that the problem lay with the road itself. It was a strangely twisted creature, this road. It gave life to the village, ferrying them to colleges or to work. Occasionally, it also snuffed out lives, like it did recently.