As Bengal rallies on Kamduni rape, has Mamata met her Nandigram?

As a 24-member team from West Bengal’s Kamduni meets president Pranab Mukherjee today to seek justice for the 20-year-old gangrape-murder victim, we revisit chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the nondescript village near Kolkata – and how the incident is unifying the state in their rage against the govt

kajal-basu

Kajal Basu | July 15, 2013


West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at an iftar party organised by Kolkata municipality at Park Circus Maidan.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at an iftar party organised by Kolkata municipality at Park Circus Maidan.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has never been in more trouble than she is in today. The deeper trouble – for the state and for society, for women in the state, in particular, and, of course, for the democratic-electoral process – is that she doesn’t seem to comprehend it. And that’s surprising, given that the signs that she might have met her personal Nandigram on June 18 are everywhere.

Although her once-supporters have been jumping the Trinamool Congress dhow since a few months after she came to power, what’s really brought her infeasibility home to the state is her increasingly bizarre behaviour since that day, when she visited Kamduni, a stunningly beautiful village of 258 lower-class households surrounded by lakes and ponds and located 25 km north of Kolkata. But its beauty doesn’t reflect the fear that it has always lived in – and Banerjee’s was a visit 10 days too late.

On June 8, an especially brutal daylight gangrape and murder of a 20-year-old undergrad in the village left West Bengal astonished at the criminal rot eating its insides, and Banerjee’s visit was an unwilling reaction to opposition parties which, naturally, were milking the tragedy for all it was worth.

The young woman, returning from her second-year exams in Kolkata, was grabbed – at the approach to the village, at about 2.30 pm – by a group of ruffians (all documented as TMC enforcers) and gangraped over several hours inside a walled compound. They then threw her body into a bheri (fishpond) across a 14-ft-high earthwork levee running in front of the compound. It was evidence disposal of stunning insouciance, or stupidity, akin to being unafraid of dumping a smoking gun next to a gunshot murder. It was, as the autopsy report (which has gone almost entirely unpublicised) shows, also not just a release of lust: the rapists had stuffed her sanitary pad to stop her from screaming, ripped her up to the navel, broken her femur in several places and slit her throat. It was massive overkill; and it explains why the villagers of Kamduni have since been so enraged over Banerjee’s inexplicable – but by all evidence, psychologically unbalanced – attack on them, and inability to get the police to file a charge-sheet in 15 days, as she had promised.

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The CM’s trip to Kamduni was so hush-hush that neither the Trinamool MLA of Barasat, the actor Chiranjit Chakraborty, nor Barasat MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, had foreknowledge of it. Banerjee then spent a full six minutes with the victim’s family, asking after the health of the pater familias, a daily labourer dependent upon the MNREGS’s iffy largesse but felled by pulmonary weakness, with typical over-familiarity. It took Banerjee a second to become ill-at-ease when she heard the commotion outside of women protesting the endemic absence of safety in the area, at which she blew her fuse, snapped at TMC MP Mukul Roy (her flavour-of-the-season right-hand man who was instrumental in convincing her to go to Kamduni), “This is why I didn’t want to come”, and bustled out.

Most of Kamduni’s 190-odd women – led by Tumpa and Moushumi Koyal, who’ve gone on to become symbols of apolitical rage against two years of unrelenting criminality in the state – pursued Banerjee asking for her intervention. Banerjee had, by then, given in to her general-purpose resentment and all-purpose misogyny that is never far below the surface, and she ended up screaming at the women to “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” and “You are Maoists and CPM!”. When the women protested this cardholder identity, she shouted, “Chorer maayer bodo gola! (The thief’s mother shouts the loudest),” swung into her car, slammed the door and huffed off.

(But Kamduni, as Banerjee knew full well, is a Trinamool stronghold: It is part of the Kirtipur-II gram panchayat, where 11 of the 12 seats have gone uncontested to the Trinamool, which basically means that Trinamool’s enforcers in Barasat scared off the Left Front’s putative candidates.)

Within an hour, she had found two scapegoats, as she would imagine many others in the days to come – conspiratorial civil society, pornographic talk-show participants, rape-impelling population growth, a murderous major media house. In each case, she has been dead wrong, but too incapacitated by messianism to acknowledge it.

Earlier, Banerjee had turned to a chastened Mukul Roy and food and supplies minister Jyotipriya Mallick (who is also the minister in charge of the North 24 Parganas district) and shot off an allegation that neither she nor anybody else has since repeated (because such an indiscretion can cost valuable votes in this outwardly most secular of Indian states): “People crossing over from Bangladesh are committing these crimes. I have to speak to the Border Security Force (BSF). This cannot go on.”

Like with almost all her indiscretions, this one would recur in a few days. She would tell the media, “These areas [like Barasat] are fully unplanned. The CPM captured vast tracts of land and doled them out to any Tom, Dick and Harry, without bothering about the area’s development. There are no police stations or proper communication along these areas and people are paying the price for the CPM’s misrule.”

She added that she would “ask the BSF to step up vigil as criminals from across the border commit rape and murder here and then escape to the other side. I would like to congratulate people as they are becoming more aware. Previously people could not even file FIRs.”

But, in point of fact, Banerjee has failed Barasat – which has been a hotbed of activity for three decades, since the unceasing Bangladeshi migration began – more than the CPM. There are a mere 350 cops of the West Bengal police entrusted with safeguarding 15 lakh people in the 286 sq km that fall under the Barasat police station. (In contrast, there are more than 26,000 policemen in Kolkata’s 246 sq km.)

The Trinamool connection

Her finger-quivering accusation that the men were “CPM” is false. The key accused, Ansar Ali, who intimidates Kamduni’s inhabitants by merely glowering, as he did at the Barasat district court where he was arraigned, is a known Trinamool – and former CPM – enforcer and nephew of the Trinamool-controlled Kirtipur-II gram panchayat head Sayeeda Bibi (who is married to Trinamool’s Kirtipur-II block president, Ashraf Ali Mollah – the whole block, therefore, is ruled by a single family). He also owns a 2.63-acre bheri and, according to locals, has long had his eyes on the giant, 39.5-acre waterbody that defines Kamduni and has made it such a magnet for free-range hoodlums and political enforcers since 1973, the year the Amitabh Bachchan-starring Saudagar released. (The film, India’s official entry in the best foreign language film category for the 46th Oscar Academy Awards – and rejected – bombed at the box office, making Rs 5 lakh against its production cost of Rs 7.5 lakh. But it helped wreck forever the peace in the still-stunning purlieu of Kamduni by making its “fisheries”, as the film team’s thank-you note put it, far too famous for comfort.)

According to records of the Barasat police station, Ansar Ali was arrested in 2011 for rioting in the adjacent Parkharibari village, where another accused, Aminur Darbar, comes from. (Darbar is the rebel in a hardcore Red family, and like all quislings, is more loyal than the king.) Saiful Ali molested a woman in Kamduni in early 2013, and was fined Rs 16,000. Aminoor, a cutter in a marble factory, joined Ansar Ali’s mini-mafia after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Bhutto Ali is the group’s muscleman. Noor Ali Hossain is a ‘koshai’ (butcher). Gopal Naskar and Bholanath Naskar guarded Ansar Ali’s bheri.

Since 2011, they have all been Trinamool hatchetmen.

Nonetheless, Jyotipriya Mallick felt compelled to return to the Red bogey: “All the eight people used to be members of the private army of CPM strongman Majid Master. His murder syndicates killed 92 people in the area in 34 years. Ansar used to be the right-hand man of Majid Master, from whom he learnt the tactics of capturing fishponds.”

Not that he is wrong: Ansar Ali was part of the private army of Majid Ali, aka Majid Master, a CPM secretariat member of North 24 Parganas district credited with making it a Left Front stronghold. The militia operated across 12 villages in Sashon panchayat.

But here’s what Mallick didn’t say, which Mamata Banerjee, his micromanaging boss, couldn’t not have been aware of. Majid Master, who was accused of having TMC worker Noor Ali Mohammad murdered when he was guarding a bheri that he wanted to appropriate, was arrested in March 2011, released on bail in May 2011, and – having obstinately refused to transfer loyalty to TMC – rearrested in April 2013. Ansar Ali’s orders had always been to secure for the Trinamool the approximately 13,175 acres of bheris in the area.

With Majid Master out of the reckoning, Ansar Ali could finally get his machinery in motion – and rape, pillage and blackmail have always been the easy-use weapons in the ‘bheri war’ in West Bengal. Moreover, the bheris of Kamduni are adjacent to the Kharibari Sashon area, whose economy revolves around prawn cultivation.

Persecution complex

This is not to say that Banerjee has even implicitly advocated these weapons in Trinamool’s drive to take over the most lucrative rackets in the state. But few people here believe that she had no inkling that these weapons were being used. Illegal migration from Bangladesh – and the matter of using illegal Bangladeshi migrants as a vote bank – has been the single dominant theme of every West Bengal election since 2006.

Banerjee’s dissimulation, and rejection of Muslims as Bangladeshi “criminals”, is going to cost her as much as her early 2012 announcement of honoraria of Rs 2,500 per month to each imam of a mosque and Rs 1,000 per month to each muezzin – and her reneging of the deal three months later when she realised that the state coffers just didn’t have the handout money that her throwaway largesse demanded.

In the following weeks, a watch-the-Banerjee-jatra mania gripped West Bengal. On TV, she ranted:

  • “There is a conspiracy to kill me and party general secretary Mukul Roy. CPM, Congress, BJP and Maoists have joined hands.” (June 18)
  • “CPM has joined hands with Maoists in making a blueprint to kill me and make room for their return to power in Bengal.” (June 19)
  • “The police told me, ‘Do you know there is a conspiracy to kill you? I know the CPM, the Congress and Maoists have been conspiring to kill me. But the plan is of [a media house]. They are involved in planning, I can say that.” (June 19)
  • “Eminent people who dress up and appear on talk shows to discuss rape with relish, many of them are associated with pornography… They discuss rape and gangrape for money. These aren’t talk shows, these are money shows.” (June 20)
  • “There is a conspiracy to kill me. The Congress, CPM, BJP and the Maoists have joined hands.” (June 20)
  • “I can see what no one can. I have been watching them for the past 35 years and can easily recognise them (Maoists). I even told police to keep a watch on them. The place is isolated and ideal for them to indulge in a conspiracy.” (June 20)
  • “The central government has been telling me about the danger to my life. But I am not afraid of getting killed.”
  • “Are all women in Bengal getting raped?” (June 23)
  • “They blame me for everything. Now, they are even blaming me for rape. As if it was I who went to rape... Only if I were a man.”

The problem here is one that has not been evident in any political leader in post-Independent India – a giant persecution complex. On April 9, when state finance minister Amit Mitra had been manhandled by a bunch of over-zealous Left youths in New Delhi, she wrenched the spotlight on herself by loudly fretting, “They had an iron rod, tried to hit me with it... They can kill me but they cannot stop me.”

This daftness had been on show even more than a year ago. On May 22, 2012, she had told the Washington Post newspaper that the CPM and Maoists were plotting to kill her with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-State Services, financed by North Korea, Venezuela and Hungary. “They have given me the death sentence,” she said.

As for the state of women’s safety in West Bengal, the National Crime Record Bureau’s report (2012) is unambiguous: in 2011-12, at 30,942 cases of crimes against women, the state, with 7.5 percent of the national population, accounted for 12.67 percent of such cases in India. The number of rape cases was 2,317. The rate of increase over the previous year was 31.9 percent.

In 2012-13, according to a recent NCRB report (June 11, 2013), West Bengal recorded 30,942 crime cases against, including 4,168 of kidnapping, 593 of dowry deaths and 19,865 cases of domestic cruelty. The number of rapes recorded was 2,046.

All fall down?

After Kamduni, Banerjee has lost the battle with her ‘axis of evil’ (the Left Front, the Congress, the BJP, the Maoists) – or at least her extraordinarily schmaltzy attempt to demonise it – and might even have cost herself the allegiance of heretofore loyal women in the state. On television news channels across the state, women’s recall of her offhand, pre-investigation dismissals of rape accusations seems to have hardened into a conviction of misogyny. She had dissed the Park Street rape victim on February 6, 2012, a day after the gangrape, turning off the state’s buddhijeebi (intellectuals) support faucet.

Kamduni’s women are on the warpath. And news has come in that women in the Murshidabad countryside and in Barddhaman are demanding that heads roll in government after three women were raped there.

Kamduni, to Mamata’s discomfiture, has energised both semi-active and even half-dead organisations and movements. The Students’ Federation of India and Democratic Youth Federation of India rallied together a day after Banerjee’s visit to Kamduni. The Patanjali Yoga Samiti, which comprises followers of Baba Ramdev, held a candlelight vigil, a counterpoint to a post-Kamduni shot in the arm of sorts of the West Bengal chapter of the BJP. (Kamduni is a Hindu-only village, and organisations such as the Hindu Samhati have got into the epistolary act, shooting off letters of protest to the governor. In fact, Hindu Samhati activists clashed with the police in Barasat, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad held a rally.)

The All-India Democratic Students’ Organisation is back on its feet; so is the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights; the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association, the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha and Maitree have gained larger leads than the ‘civil society’ that helped in no small way to bring Banerjee to power and that she now detests.

Kamduni even found a very unlikely ally in a Trinamool rebel unafraid of speaking her mind – MLA Shikha Mitra, who criticised Banerjee’s intolerance and supported the barely-above-poverty-line Kamduni women who Banerjee had vilified as “Maoists and CPM”.

Mitra, wife of Trinamool MP Somen Mitra, said, “The chief minister is in a better position to say who those women were. To me they never looked like Maoists but ordinary village housewives. I salute the villagers who are protesting against the atrocities on women ... In my opinion any person sitting in her (chief minister’s) chair should be more responsible. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes. We all do that. But one should have the patience of listening to people and hearing criticism ... I am happy that villagers, women and intellectuals have now taken to the streets in protest.”

None of this would have been imaginable even days before the Kamduni incident.

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