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BOUND FEET

The recent incident of the gangrape of a 20-year-old tribal girl in Birbhum district of West Bengal on the order of a kangaroo court, when she expressed her inability to pay the Rs 50,000 fine demanded of her for falling in love with a man from outside the community, is not just horrific; it also brings in the politics of sexual, caste and human rights violations. Different political parties have condemned the incident, nevertheless pulling in political rivalry. These incidents give many an opportunity to put the responsibility on women and bring in more restrictions. It is said that the woman was wrong as she was just not having an affair with a man of another community; the man was married, so she was actually destroying a family. Even among the so-called educated circles, and also administrative authorities, it is heard that ‘it is the woman who has invited the rape’.

There is always a tendency for moral policing on women. This incident is not something isolated or sudden. It reflects a wider process whereby, in different parts of India, women’s sexuality and reproductive labour are sought to be controlled by the family and other social institutions. However, what we see in this instance or in other similar cases of oppression is that the State has differentially enabled specific groups of actors to exercise political power in specific ways. This selectivity has become an integral part of the societal structure.This is an incident in a tribal village where the societal relations are different. Even then we see such horrific humiliation of a woman. There had been previous instances of humiliation of a teenage tribal girl in 2010, paraded naked for nearly 10 kilometres in West Bengal. There was no information from the local panchayat. How do we delink patriarchal privileges and the exercise of State power?

The wider societal structure should give equal positions to both men and women so that they can live with self-esteem and dignity rather than in a state of discrimination. Capitalist society no doubt puts women into double oppression, but the larger society developed in West Bengal amidst the Left ideology should have transformed the social relations in the state, taking more responsibility towards the well being of marginalized groups.

During the Left Front regime, patriarchal oppression has just taken on a subtle variation. The villagers could not accept the possibility that a woman can have a love affair with a Muslim man — a man of another community. Today she has raised a voice regarding her personal choice, tomorrow she can raise her voice to claim some other rights that she is entitled to, while the societal structure would like to deny her those rights. Her affirmation reflected coming out of bound feet — a sign of empowerment, which was squashed in the name of justice.

The Supreme Court has already termed khap panchayats as kangaroo courts, declared them illegal and to be ruthlessly stamped out. But still we observe salishi sabhas in Bengal. It is the morol, the chief of village council, who acts as the quasi-judicial body. There are two issues here. One, the morol had been used by the political parties to pull in votes; second, the girl was gang-raped by her neighbours, by the people she knew, some of them were elders. What happened to the progressive ideas, gender sensitivity and civic sense which had been nurtured by the 34 years of Left rule?

This is not to support the present government either, as West Bengal topped all states in crimes against women in 2011 and 2012 according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There is a growing atmosphere of violence in the state. This is just not violence against women; it is a violence against democracy, against human rights. The state should work towards creating a developed and egalitarian society so that no societal actors are favoured, mobilized and strategically used to overpower the weaker.