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Kolkata gangrape: How the 16-year-old victim became a political football

As the rest of Kolkata ushered in New Year with the usual showers of confetti, groaning buffet tables, and jam-packed malls, a taxi driver’s family was reeling from one of the most horrific losses imaginable – the death of their child.

In this case, one could say the 16-year-old girl did not die just once. It was a death that was repeated over and over again. First there were the rapists who lured her out of her home and then gang-raped her. Then the same rapists raped her one more time for daring to complain to the police. The administration and police were unable to give her or her family any meaningful security. Then there were the goons who allegedly set her ablaze. Even after she finally succumbed to her injuries on December 31, there was no respite. The last blow came from the political parties who turned her body into the object of a grisly tug-of-war, going back and forth from the crematorium before she was finally cremated.

Sushma Swaraj once called the rape victim’s life as “zindaa laash” or a living corpse. Swaraj was widely criticized for reinforcing the rape victim stereotype instead of the rape survivor. But this 16-year-old certainly embodied a “zindaa laash” in ways Swaraj could not have imagined.

A CNN IBN screengrab of the rape victim's body being taken to the crematorium. IBN Live.

A CNN IBN screengrab of the rape victim's body being taken to the crematorium. IBN Live.

Here are the basic facts as reported in the media. The young woman’s father is a taxi driver from Bihar. She and her mother had moved to Kolkata about five months months ago apparently because the girl wanted to study in a school in Kolkata. On October 25, Chhotu Talukdar, a local fish trader called her out of her house saying her father needed to see her. Instead he and five friends allegedly gang-raped her in an abandoned house. Her parents found her in a field the next morning.

The father took her the next day to file an FIR but on the way back, Chhotu and friends allegedly kidnapped her and raped her again in a taxi to teach her a lesson. This time she was found dazed and injured at a nearby railway station. The men were rounded up but the family’s horror story did not end.

Faced with threats from the rapists’ friends, the family moved from their tenement and rented another place. As fate would have it their landlady was related to an aunt of Chhotu’s friend. The family was once again pressured to withdraw the case and the girl was taunted and abused incessantly.

On December 23rd she was brought to the hospital with 40 percent burns. The police first thought she had doused herself with kerosene but now it turns out the young woman gave a statement naming two youths, including the son of her landlady, as having set her on fire.

The girl’s taxi-driver father is affiliated with Citu, the CPM’s trade union wing. So the CPM decided to protest her death in full force. They brought out a mammoth procession, got into scuffles with the police and it all led to a stand-off at the crematorium. The police were accused of “hijacking” the body and taking it for cremation on Tuesday night against the family’s wishes who wanted it to happen on Wednesday.

“It is being alleged that we are playing politics with death,” opposition leader Surya Kanta Mishra told The Telegraph . “But if it takes politics to counter such threats to our social order, then we will bring politics to the table. We will not take this quietly.”

The Congress also wants to organize a dharna in protest.

“The incident is unfortunate. The rest is an attempt by the Opposition to denigrate Trinamool and the government,” Trinamool leader Mukul Roy told the Times of India.

The Trinamool Congress might cry foul but it is reaping the bloody harvest of what it too sowed. Mamata Banerjee as an opposition politician was never shy about using the bodies of the dead to shame the government, most famously the nine people killed in West Midnapore in 2010 whose bodies were laid out in Kolkata’s Esplanade.

West Bengal now has a new government but it’s clearly caught in an old and vicious cycle where each side tries to give the other a taste of its own medicine. An unnamed CPM state secretariat member told The Telegraph “(T)he reality is Mamata found success by capitalizing on deaths. Why should we sit idle if such incidents happens?”

But the mudslinging just moves the conversation into a different realm of settling political scores. The focus shifts from where it should really belong – law and order.

What use is it to lament that so many rape victims do not come forth to file an FIR, when the act of filing an FIR has so clearly and demonstrably led to this young woman’s re-rape, her family’s ouster from its home, and eventually her death? What confidence will the police’s actions, or lack thereof, inspire in any other assault victim?

In this case, unlike many others, the police could say they were not idle. The FIR was registered. The principal accused were in custody. Yet despite that the family found no relief at all. Within two months, a young woman who was a rape survivor became a rape victim. Though police are often accused of failing to file FIRs even when a rape victim comes to them, this young woman’s death shows that the nightmare does not end with the successful filing of an FIR. That is the most frightening aspect of the whole tragedy.

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