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State of fear
Bengal has the highest number of crimes against women in the country. Are the state's economic decline and the lumpenisation of its jobless youth to blame for this dubious distinction?
For a state that was the cradle of the women's liberation movement many decades ago and home to many social reformers, Bengal has indeed fallen a long way. According to the latest figures released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Bengal has the the highest number of crimes against women in India. But, say women's and rights activists, this should come as no surprise. The recent spate of shocking rapes and murders include the gang rape and murder of a college girl in Barasat on the northern fringes of Kolkata on June 7, followed by the rape and murder of a minor girl in Murshidabad district, the rapes of a girl in Malda and another of a school-going girl in Gede, the rape of an Irish woman in Kolkata and that of a differently abled woman in the New Town suburb of Kolkata - all of them in just the past two weeks.
There are multiple reasons, say activists, for crimes against women and domestic violence figures rising steadily over the last 15 years in West Bengal. The industrial and economic decline of the state is a prime one. "Retrenchment of industrial workforce, joblessness and lack of employment opportunities give rise to frustration and bitterness among men and often, this finds an outlet in brutalisation of women by men, " says sociologist and columnist Amitava Dhar. Social commentator Gautam Chattopadhyay tells TOI-Crest that the steadily growing number of uneducated and semi-educated unemployed combined with opportunistic political patronage over two decades has led to a "lumpenisation of society".
"The use of such young men as foot soldiers by political parties has increased in Bengal over the last one decade and more so over the last two years. So these men feel they can get away with anything. It is not just crimes against women;see the aggressive attitude of autorickshaw drivers on Kolkata's roads or the local toughs and you'll understand what I mean, " says Chattopadhyay. In a state where women were once treated with respect, and a city (Kolkata) where women partied and danced into the night, things have indeed changed, perhaps for ever.
Kolkata, for instance, registered the highest number of "assaults on the modesty of women" among all metros. "Earlier, women were safe returning home late at night and wearing clothes of their choice. Not so anymore. One of the recent rapes in Kolkata happened near my house, on a lane that I often take as a shortcut at night. It happened at 8pm and not late at night. It's very scary," says actor Swastika Mukherjee.
Elocutionist Bratati Bandopadhyay testifies to the trend of growing insecurity among women. "We never faced anything like this while growing up in this city. Now, my students, most of whom are girls, complain that commuting on public transport in Kolkata has become unsafe and most have faced physical or verbal abuse on buses and trains, " she says.
Many feel that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's insensitive comments about the Park Street rape case last year and the action taken against a senior police officer who cracked the case, thus proving the CM wrong, have served as encouragement to criminals. "The CM has been instrumental in encouraging violence against women by casting aspersions on the characters of rape victims. Complainants are still being harassed and turned away by the police, who often go soft on criminals with political affiliations," says Bharati Mutsuddi, ex-member of the state's Women's Rights Commission.
Political commentator Sunil Guhathakurta adds: "While the trend of granting patronage to lumpens (sic) started during Congress rule in Bengal and continued throughout the CPM's reign, it has only increased over the past few years during Trinamool Congress' ascendancy. Due to the lack of a dedicated cadre base like the CPM, the Trinamool had to recruit lumpens (sic), petty criminals, local toughs and opportunists as its foot soldiers. It still relies on them and cannot act against them. The police are also helpless and perceived to be so by the general public, and this has not only brought down the morale of the force. As a result, crimes have been on the rise throughout Bengal and since women are soft targets, crimes against women have also increased. "
There's also another worrying factor: of people not coming to the aid of women in distress. "People are scared that if they take on the tormentors, they may land themselves in trouble because the criminals could well be close to the ruling dispensation. The police would then harass the do-gooder. There have been many such instances. In Bengal today, it's perhaps best to do nothing and go one's own way. If you protest, you're likely to be branded a CPM supporter, " says Ranjana Lahiri, a professor of political science, alluding to the CM's ugly outpouring against a group of women who were seeking an assurance of safety when Mamata Banerjee went to visit a rape victim's family in the northern fringes of Kolkata.
Sadly, the simple things now look challenging to many. Danseuse-actor Indrani Dutta, who runs a dance academy, says she now makes it a point to ask her girl students to leave early if they have to travel by train to the suburbs. "One feels fear even when walking through any crowded street in broad daylight. The stares, the remarks, the gestures and the aggressive behaviour of a section of the youth we see crowding the streets these days is very unsettling, " she says.
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