Sheila, Mamata and the plight of the rape victim

by Dec 20, 2012

To say women chief ministers should be more pro-active when it comes to rape sounds like we are giving the men a pass, turning rape into a women’s issue.

But it’s not too much to expect that a woman chief minister should at least be more empathetic.

Alas, two of our most prominent women chief ministers have shown themselves to be anything but that.

Where Mamata Banerjee leads, Sheila Dikshit follows.

Mamata set the bar way low when she dismissed the infamous Park Street rape case as a conspiracy concocted to malign her government and tried to cast aspersions on the character of the victim, out late in a bar by herself. Her minister Madan Mitra wondered why a “a mother had to go to a nightclub". When another woman claimed she had been raped at gunpoint by a gang of robbers in a moving train Mamata rubbished it saying the victim’s late husband had been a CPI(M) supporter.

Mamata Banerjee and Sheila Dikshit. Agencies.

In the most recent Delhi case, Dikshit didn’t go that far. After all the 23-year-old gang rape victim had followed all the “rules”. She was not in a bar alone. It was not 3 am in the morning. She had a male escort. She was not getting into a private taxi with a group of strange men. But Dikshit’s initial reaction, before the case turned into a political hot potato, was brusque, dismissive and frankly, insensitive.

She told a throng of reporters that she had spoken with the transport department and they had cancelled the license for the bus. For anything else they should go ask police commissioner Neeraj Kumar.

Madam, this is not a bus licence issue. Where’s the shock? Where’s the outrage? Perhaps it’s only to be expected given her party's official response. Congress spokesman Manish Tewari told the media that the gang rape should be “condemned in the strongest possible words”.

Then the “strongest possible” word the usually voluble Mr Tewari managed to summon up for it was “unfortunate.”  Dikshit cannot even seem to manufacture the appearance of outrage and grief. Contrast that to Obama’s reaction to the elementary school massacre in Connecticut. Whether he actually has the guts to really push through changes in gun control is a different matter. But at least he had a genuine reaction to the horror. There was something real about it. Dikshit sounded like the entire rape case was a nuisance that was interrupting her busy schedule.

Of course, that’s not terribly out of character for her. When journalist Soumya Viswanathan was murdered in Delhi in 2008, Dikshit implied she had brought it on herself. “All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people believe… you know… you should not be so adventurous.”

As the uproar over this rape refused to die down, and the BJP stepped up calls for her head, and Sonia Gandhi dashed off a letter to her, Dikshit changed her tune somewhat with all the creaking grace of a lumbering public bus changing course. She promised all help for fast track courts and pleaded with the media to not politicise the issue. “We will gain nothing by politicising it,” she said.

Then she promptly blamed everyone except her own administration - migratory populations, porous borders. She didn’t want the blame and she tried to spread the shame around. “It is something we all need to be ashamed of, not only as police administration or administration but also as a society,” she told Headlines Today. Mamata sought to blame the media for glorifying rape. That was “demolishing the culture of Bengal” she fumed and would “not be tolerated by the people". So Mamata’s get-tough policy on rape was about zero tolerance for the media coverage of rape not rape itself.

Dikshit offered up the blandest political fixit known to man aka death by committee.  “We have heard opinions from various persons representing various bodies. I am presently considering opinions to consolidate them and decide the future course of action. Such a committee should meet regularly and we will meet in 15-20 days.”

A woman is gang raped, brutalized with an iron rod, her intestines are pulverized, she is stripped and thrown out of a moving bus in her city and the CM comes up with the assurance of a committee. At a moment when a chief minister could be a leader, Dikshit managed to come across as a tone-deaf bureaucrat whose only job was to duck blame.

Mamata came up with the other stock response of the politician – throwing money. She announced that Rs 30,000 would be given to victims if they were minors and Rs 20,000 to adults. If the raped woman was  disabled she could get Rs 50,000 but only if she was 80 percent disabled. What she didn’t realise was that what victims would be better served by chief minister who was willing to believe their story and a police force that was quick to lodge an FIR.

The initial administrative reaction to both the Park Street rape case and the New Delhi case was telling. Neither had anything to do with the victim or the crime itself. It was all about window dressing. Delhi got busy with a crackdown on tinted windows and curtains on buses and Kolkata stopped serving drinks after 11 pm.

In Mamata’s Bengal, even that curfew is dying a quiet, if expensive, death. Bars can now stay open after midnight if they cough up Rs 10,000 for each additional hour after midnight. And even when they shut down, you can take the party home. The government is going to allow bars to sell bottles over the counter at retail rates. “In the past two months, the department has earned Rs 468 crore, around Rs 100 crore more than the projection,” an official at the excise department told The Telegraph. “Now we are confident of surpassing the target by 11 to 13 percent and earning at least Rs 320 crore extra.” Whether women in Kolkata are safer or not now, they can at least take comfort in knowing that some good came out of the Park Street rape case – the government figured out a way to add a little more cash to its empty coffers.

No one expects Sheila Dikshit or Mamata Banerjee to make rape their number one priority just because they are women. But is a little more sensitivity, a little more plain human outrage too much to ask?

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