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A SHARED CULPABILITY

A 16-year-old girl, the daughter of a migrant family from Bihar, was gangraped by an acquaintance and five others in Madhyamgram in October, last year. While returning from the local police station after lodging a complaint, she was abducted by her assailants and raped a second time. She was rescued the following day, and the accused arrested by the end of the month.

The local police refused to accept a first information report confirming the second rape. On being asked why they failed to provide security to the victim, the police stated that they could not imagine that the accused and his accomplices would dare to abduct and rape her again.

Unable to bear the threats from friends of the alleged rapists and their neighbours’ taunts, the victim’s family fled Madhyamgram and rented a single-roomed house in Dum Dum. The landlady, the relative of a friend of the prime accused, asked the family to vacate the house after word of her ‘misdeed’ spread in the neighbourhood. The friend of the prime accused traumatized the family with repeated threats and abusive behaviour. In December, the girl witnessed her mother being insulted by one of her neighbours in a verbal spat. She ran back to her room and allegedly set herself on fire. In her dying declaration, she accused the landlady’s younger son and his cousin — the friend of the prime accused — of pouring kerosene on her.

After the second complaint of rape and the first arrests, a police picket comprising two armed constables was posted in front of the victim’s house. Yet the threats and abuse continued. The local police were not aware that the family had fled to Dum Dum; consequently, they did not inform their counterparts in the Bidhannagar commissionerate under whose jurisdiction the family’s new address fell. Officials from the North 24 Parganas Child Welfare Committee had counselled the victim in hospital. But they did not pursue the case after her release.

The girl’s father, a taxi driver, is a supporter of Citu, the labour arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He sought the union’s help after complaining in vain of medical negligence at a government hospital. After the victim’s demise, a women’s organization affiliated to the CPI(M) decided to organize a protest march with the body of the deceased. The police were directed, presumably by the ruling dispensation, to whisk the body away for cremation. But the absence of a death certificate foiled the plan. In the melee, the victim’s body was taken back from the crematorium —twice — in less than 24 hours.

The CPI(M) thought that the allegations of delayed intervention were unfortunate because it had claimed to stand by the family all along in the face of threats from the Trinamul Congress. Meanwhile, forensic experts had not been sent to the victim’s house to look for clues that could help to establish that the girl was murdered. A police officer has also been accused of putting pressure on the family to return to Bihar.

Much of this information is in the public domain. But a reiteration of this narrative is necessary to examine the chain of failures that links the various institutions of State involved with this case. The police could not protect the girl — not once but twice; the hospital stands accused of providing shoddy medical treatment (according to the police, there are instances of patients surviving 60 per cent burn injuries); the district child welfare committee chose not to put the victim in a government home even though she was vulnerable to further violence. The political response — a cynical attempt that undermined the grieving family’s right to privacy and violated the dignity of the victim — was all too familiar.

What gets lost in the face of such bewildering apathy and culpability is the powerlessness of the family to secure its rights and dignity. But such powerlessness is as much the product of structural iniquities as State indifference. Poverty, patriarchal oppression, the lack of education and of equitable employment opportunities, and the undertow of violence in everyday life come together to create a reality that cannot be overlooked while examining the role of individual choices in this sequence of events.

What are the conditions that led the prime accused — an acquaintance of the victim — to think that she was ‘available’, an assumption that led to her rape? Privileged citizens, including journalists, usually fall back on forms of investigative inquiry at the site of the incidents while attempting to answer such a question. I remember meeting a group of young men in Kamduni, which had witnessed a rape and murder not too long before the Madhyamgram incident. What I have not forgotten is that after pointing at prosperous Rajarhat in the distance, the men had articulated their anger at the forms of economic disparity prevailing in Kamduni. They had been equally scathing about their families and the community that intervened in their personal choices concerning marriage and employment. They admitted that they had furtive cyber-lives, but none of them had any women friends.

One does not have to rely on statistical evidence to know that violence against women permeates every social stratum. Hence citing social, economic and cultural disparities among the classes as a possible explanation for crime on the margins is fraught with the risk of abetting institutional efforts to further persecute the weaker classes. In fact, the social profiling of the accused in the media, a trend that has caught on after the Delhi horror, is likely to create problematic correlations between crime and deprivation in the public eye.

But what remains undeniable is that a vicious churning is taking place in the hinterlands to the cities. This transformation is undeniably related to entrenched inequalities and the tension generated by the resistance offered by an older way of life to newer aspirations and perceptions. Reform or intervention — institutional or philanthropic — must acknowledge the differences between disparate worlds, as it must the contradictions in a society undergoing rapid transformation, in order to comprehend individual choices.

Given the enormity of the State’s failure to protect the rights of the people from the periphery, or even to grant them visibility, the challenge for the media, welfare organizations and other such voices of conscience is to facilitate institutional intervention by meeting the marginalized on equitable terms. That is a decidedly awkward task. Indictment from the pulpit is the safer and preferred option.