The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Justice would be served least by blaming Priyanka Todi

“If you were Priyanka Todi, what would you have done'” The implications of this question are alarming. But it is a question that is being asked, and often being answered without it being asked at all. There is, first and most obvious of all, the assumption that Rizwanur Rahman’s beloved — and I use this term deliberately — is not doing all that is expected of her. She is failing him, his love, his life and tragic death. She is failing the members of his family, who accepted her and are now fighting for justice for him, she is failing his bereaved mother. The question, apparently innocuous, is a sly and cruel trick to inject doubt into the natural sympathy for a grieving woman.

For one does not have to be particularly imaginative to realize that Priyanka is grieving. Even the syrupy account presented by the members of the state women’s commission after their social visit to her mentions repeatedly that she is deeply unhappy, once even that she is lonely. It is not just that she was Rizwanur’s beloved, he was hers. She risked her family’s opposition to marry him and live with him, although she could not have ever guessed what would follow. Anyone, who sees in the projection of Priyanka that is beginning to take shape a dangerous trend of Indian popular morals, would be overcome by a sense of indecency and shame for having to drag the recently bereaved young woman into a discussion without her permission. But there is nothing decent in the kind of existence that makes such a discussion essential; silence will only add to the damage.

Blame the girl. This is the commonest, easiest, most convenient strategy to turn the direction of people’s anger and sense of injustice away from the real culprits, whenever a woman is at the centre of a crime. As a general tendency, this is not special to Bengal, or even just to India. But the tendency gains force in proportion to the lack of value accorded to women’s lives and choices; hence in India, and particularly in Bengal, we can feel it in all its frightening sharpness. There are numberless crimes against women that go unpunished here because the institutional and administrative readiness to dismiss them suits the different political parties’ dependence on criminals, and because there is a social consensus to disbelieve and discredit women. Blaming the girl suits everybody. Just turn the victim into the cause. It is a symptom of this sickness that among crimes against women we tend to remember only those in which a man is a hero and martyr. After Bapi Sen was battered to death in front of a street full of witnesses who watched the killers in action, the police and the public screamed for the vanished woman whom Sen had tried to protect from molestation. Her silence was put down to cowardice and ingratitude, a rhetoric of censure that the media faithfully reproduced. But what did she have to do with Bapi Sen’s murder'

More recently, two young men, Jagannath De and Subhendu Roy, were thrown out of a bus and beaten up when they tried to stop a group of men from molesting a woman passenger. In a sequence of events that would have bewildered any sane citizen, the police apparently failed to find the bus, its driver and conductor, or any other witness to this very public incident. They focussed instead on touching appeals to the girl to reappear, in order to have someone identify the criminals. The victims’, or heroes’, evidence was strangely glossed over. And so contagious is the blame-game that the young men themselves ended up sending out this apparently justified appeal through the media. It seems nothing could be done about looking for the criminals because the girl did not “speak up”.

A man’s courage, when faced with a public crime against a woman, is somehow always extraordinary: we either do not expect him to be courageous or we feel he is condescending to put himself at risk for a cause that is not worth it. It is the everyday courage of women, for whom the simple act of coming out and speaking for themselves still remains, tragically, an ordeal, that we refuse to acknowledge. To “speak out” might entail consequences that only the woman in question can foresee, for she has her own life and its circumstances and experiences to go on. The one thing that she, that is, any woman, would know without a shred of doubt, is that the morally righteous who demand that she speak up will not be there to protect her thereafter — from society, from criminals, from the administration, from her relatives and her family. Silence is her only defence, and also the surest reason for collective condemnation.

This must not be allowed to happen to Priyanka Todi. To forget her acts of extraordinary courage now would be to undermine the force of the demand for justice for Rizwanur. It is also a demand for the right to freely choose one’s partner, the right to happiness. That is a choice she made, a right she claimed for herself and for her partner. If an unthinking moralism and ugly prurience seek to sabotage the value of that choice at a moment when her world of choices has become frighteningly limited, it is not just an act of mindless insensitivity, it is also an attack on the principles of human rights and justice that the people of Calcutta are celebrating every day with lighted candles before Rizwanur’s college. “If you were Priyanka Todi, what would you do'” is a question which also implies that Priyanka has choices, morally right choices, that she is not taking. The inhumanity lies in the silent accusation, as also in the prompting of easy-to-access conventions of judging women.

What is even more alarming is that her silence is being filled up with other voices. The members of the state women’s commission offered, in the intervals of their account of what Priyanka had actually said, a picture of her untroubled life in her father’s home. It is difficult to believe that the members have forgotten that it is the difference of economic status between the Todis’ home and that of the Rahmans’ that has been perceived as the main cause of the violence that followed the marriage. This account alone is enough to channel popular resentment towards Priyanka; “class” and “wealth” are what hurt most. There has been one death, the end of the one support on the strength of which Priyanka had chosen a new, different, life. Who is to guarantee Priyanka’s safety if she “comes out”, and speaks her mind' Is she supposed to confide to the world her inner torments, her uncertainties about her future, the hidden tensions that could afflict her in the shelters available to her' Does her young life not enact all women’s predicament of forever being homeless' It is surely her choice as to whether she will speak at all, when she will do so, to whom, and what she will say. Public pressure should not affect her decision, just as the women’s commission’s representation of her loss of personal space should not push her into a corner.

To fall into the trap that is being insidiously laid, to succumb to the temptation of finding a scapegoat for a tragedy that has changed her life as well as that of Rizwanur’s family, would be to bow to the silent bidding of the powerful interests that are focussed on distracting people’s attention from the central issues. Let us try and stick to those. Who is behind Rizwanur Rahman’s death' And what prompted senior policemen to violate procedure' Only the answers to these questions will make the public anger meaningful.

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