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Wild, wild east
Women in Kolkata have stopped venturing out for morning walks or an evening out with girlfriends. Is time to bid goodbye to the Bengali bhadralok?
There's nothing 'bhadra' (courteous) about Bengal's 'lok' (men) anymore. The era of the polite, wellbred and cultured Bengali gentleman is over. Check the statistics on violence against women in the state: while crimes against women have been on the rise in the state since 2004, figures compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that such crimes have increased steeply after the Trinamool Congress came to power in the state.
It is doubly ironic that the spurt in rapes and other crimes against women has come under the watch of a woman chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. According to NCRB records, incidents of rape have gone up by 60 per cent in Bengal over the last one year, which is almost twice the nationwide increase of 33 per cent. And Bengal has recorded the second-highest number of rapes (29, 133) after Madhya Pradesh.
Cases of molestation of women have gone up by 52 per cent, which is more than double the all-India increase of 24 per cent. Overall, cases of harassment of women have gone up by 68 per cent in Bengal over the past 12 months while the national increase in the number of such cases is 14 per cent.
What's more, women in Bengal are not only unsafe outside their homes, but within them too: the state has recorded 19, 722 cases of torture of newly-weds by in-laws over the past one year and tops the list of all states in incidents of domestic violence. But women's rights activists say the number of unrecorded cases - the incidence of victims of rape, molestation, domestic violence and other forms of harassment being suppressed with, quite often, the connivance of the police, is common - is quite high, making Bengal one of the most unsafe places in the country for women.
There's a palpable sense of fear and foreboding among women even in state capital Kolkata. This is reflected in the dwindling number of women going out on morning walks or travelling alone, driving themselves or even going for an evening out by themselves or with their women friends. Chain-snatching incidents are so rampant that women are keeping their jewellery in lockers.
Savita Krishnan, a senior executive with ITC, stopped driving after she was stalked by young men on motorcycles one evening last month. "I have hired a driver and have also stopped returning home late from parties alone. I ensure a male colleague accompanies me in my car, " she says. This is not an isolated example. Across Bengal, women feel unsafe.
Two new helplines for women at the city police headquarters have been flooded with more than a hundred calls everyday. Callers complain of everything from stalking and attempted molestation to verbal abuse and domestic violence. "There has been a sudden spurt in crimes against women, " admits Kolkata Police joint commissioner (crime) Pallab Kanti Ghosh.
Many blame Mamata's dismissal of the infamous Park Street rape case early this year (as "fabricated with the intention of maligning the government" ) as having sent a wrong message. "She (Mamata) sees politics behind everything, even in crimes against women. She kept dubbing many subsequent cases of crimes against women as 'fabricated' and that has encouraged criminals, " fumes opposition leader Surya Kanta Mishra.
There has also been a churning in the state's underworld following last year's regime change. This has become more complicated with the replacement of the Left's monolithic political and power structure with Trinamool's faction-ridden establishment.
"With various Trinamool leaders jostling for power and influence in their respective areas, small-time criminals who enjoy patronage of these factional leaders at the local or village level have entered the picture. It's difficult to control them, " says a senior Kolkata Police officer who did not want to be named for obvious reasons.
Women also say that chivalry among menfolk in Bengal is a thing of the past. "There has been a steady lumpensiation of society. Even the average middle-aged man swears mindlessly. Four-letter words have become part of colloquial Bangla now. Women are portrayed as objects of desire who succumb to cheap wooing by men in mainstream Bangla movies, " says Nilanjan Ray, a sociologist.
Writer Mahasweta Devi deplores the declining respect for women in Bengali society. "The decline of the Bengali bhadralok culture coincided, and naturally so, with the decline of Bengal's industry and economy. The educated and accomplished folks started leaving Bengal. This drain led to an all-round decline in arts and culture. The void left by the genteel, educated and well-bred was filled up essentially by the masses who migrated to Bengal in the late 60s and 70s, from erstwhile East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. These people have been too involved in their fight for survival to care for gentlemanly virtues".
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