As thousands of people took to the streets in Kolkata on Friday protesting the spate of crimes against women, their chief minister Mamata Banerjee was addressing a panchayat poll rally in Burdwan.
“We have introduced 50 percent reservation for women in panchayats,” she bragged. “This is the real paribartan.”
It seemed like a desperate attempt to change the conversation. Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s first woman chief minister, is struggling with something no one expected – a woman problem.
Her dilemna is not just that her state tops the National Crime Records Bureau statistics for violence against women. Or that it’s seen a string of grisly gang rapes like the one in Kamdhuni village in Barasat.
Mamata’s problem is two-fold – her current response and her past record.
Mamata’s response has appeared more irritated than empathetic, very unDidilike.
“Ami shuney niyechhi. Apni beshi kotha bolben na, chope! (I’ve listened to everything. You don’t talk too much, shut up),” she snapped at the village women in Kamdhuni who were crowding around her with anguished grievances about unlit roads and liquor dens.
A couple of days later she was accusing talk show panelists of having “salacious discussions disrespecting our mothers and sisters day after day.” Then for good measure she added “Many of them are involved in pornography.”
“She is not the person we had voted to power,” film director Aparna Sen admitted at a protest rally last week. “We had expected her to be more sensitive.”
“She can say anything she likes about the panelists on television,” says Brinda Bose, an associate professor at Delhi University. For example, Mamata's outlandish statements about talk show guests with pornographic links aren't really taken seriously. But Bose says, “Her visit to Kamdhuni should have been different.” That was her political constituency. And she flubbed it.
Say the right things
Bose says one lesson politicians learned after the Delhi gang rape was “not to discount public outcry” and to at least “say the right things.” Mamata’s party MP Derek O’Brien writes on his blog that “every such case is a crime too many. There are no ifs and buts here, no question of which party the rapists or murderers may or may not belong to. That essential verity cannot be obliterated.”
But his boss seems to have missed that lesson in “essential verity”. Instead her police rounded up women activists protesting on the main road outside her house and threw them into the lock-up.
“I was very very alarmed,” says Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, who has worked with women’s issues for 30 years, at Friday’s rally. “If this could happen to us vocal women, educated women, articulate women in the city, for whom there are lots of people to speak out and go file bail applications for, one can imagine what’s happening to the less vocal and the less articulate.”
Politics of rape
Now trying to retake control of the conversation, Mamata is accusing her critics of politicizing rape to get at her. But one could argue Mamata Banerjee herself used rape in her political rise. When 16-year-old Tapasi Malik, an activist in the Singur agitation was killed and raped in 2006, Mamata took to the streets demanding a CBI enquiry. In 1993 she sat on a dharna outside Jyoti Basu's chamber with a deaf and dumb rape victim from Nadia. People remember that.
“The issue of rape helped her rise to power,” says Ratnaboli Ray, founder of the NGO Anjali. “People thought she was empathetic to women’s issues, particularly violence against women.” That is her record.
Anyway the charge of politicization of rape is a red herring. “Rape is not a manifestation of sexual need or desire. Rape is very much political,” says Supriya Chaudhuri, professor at Jadavpur University. “It has always been an instrument of subjugation and power whether in Serbia or South America or Africa. Acts of rape will be turned to political purpose - either by support or protest. That is inevitable.”
Mamata is right is that the CPM is in no position to point fingers at her. “Starting with the Birati and Bantala cases of lynching, rape and murder, to Tapasi Malik of Singur,… the party has left no stone unturned to shield the rapists and murderers in its rank,” writes Monobina Gupta in her book didi: A Political Biography. In Birati, three Bangladeshi women were raped. In Bantala women social workers were sexually assaulted and murdered near the CPM office. After Bantala then chief minister Jyoti Basu said dismissively, “Anti-social acts like rowdyism, beating, dacoity happen everywhere. This (does) not mean that the situation of law and order in Bengal is poor.”
Unfortunately, as chief minister, Mamata sounds tone-deaf too. “Are all women in the state being raped?” she thundered at a rally in Minakhan.
The Left might have been dismissive. But Mamata’s response has been one of “paranoid politics” says Ratnaboli Ray. She sees all criticism as personally aimed at her. "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," Mamata had said earlier.
The side-effect of her paranoia is that the polarizing figure of Mamata eclipses the real issue at hand - violence against women. Even the activists are being sidetracked into a conversation about Mamata when she attacks their credibility.
“We are getting provoked and we are all responding to her when the real focus should be on safety audit, booking police, accountability,” says Ray. “The central conversation is about what and how she is doing.”
Let them stay at home
When Mamata does respond to the issue instead of throwing around wild charges of Maoist assassins, it's usually in terms of retribution and compensation. She promises speedy trials, charge sheets filed within 15 days (though that deadline was not met) and says the government will seek the death penalty. “Only her promises pertaining to more police stations actually relates to more security in the future if they are implemented,” says Supriya Chaudhuri. “Her focus is largely on apprehension and punishment. That’s short-term.”
“What happens to the numerous other women?” asks Dutta Gupta. “The ones who have to walk long distances and commute in trains, very infrequent buses, abysmal public transport, unlit roads, what’s going to happen to them?”
“The actual number of rapes is not as frightening as girls being afraid to go to school, harassment, domestic abuse,” says Chaudhuri. “Will these fears become all the more reason for girls being prevented from studying after Class VIII? Will parents say the (senior) school is too far away? Baariteyi thaak (let them just stay at home).”
The female students at Derozio Memorial College, where the Kamdhuni rape victim studied, already don’t take classes after 3 pm to avoid making the long journey home after dark reports The Telegraph. Many are first-generation college students from farming families. Almost no girl can attend the “remedial coaching” that is offered after classes for them.
She could have led it
After the Delhi gang rape there was a rare moment of unity when all kinds of people came together in outrage and protest. But in Kolkata when everything becomes about Mamata, even the marches turn into a referendum on her. That results inevitably in splintering.
Friday’s big rally had the blessings of Mrinal Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee. But it was deemed as too close to the Communists. Another group including Aparna Sen and theatre personality Bibhas Chakrabarty staged a protest on Thursday. Both happened at the same place – College Square. The Trinamool Mahila Congress had its own protest. Its president Chandrima Bhattacharya told IANS it was “against atrocities being committed against women across India” and to protest “the character assassination of Mamata Banerjee in a planned way”.
“What would be far more effective is one big march rather than being split into three or four where you are more busy showing who you are walking with rather than what you are walking for,” says Brinda Bose. “In fact, Mamata could have led it. She could have said let us come together. She could have got the people together and on her side.”
That she did not is Mamata’s loss – both as a woman and as a political leader.