Pages

Monday, 9 January 2012

A NATURAL CRUELTY

A NATURAL CRUELTY
- Has the fight against gender violence lost its edge?
Bhaswati Chakravorty
This city is not inured to cruel deaths; it still turns against officials who can be held responsible for them. So it seems strange that the cruellest deaths and tortures continue in and around it every day without the same citizens turning a hair. Or, when pushed to it, just with words blunted by repetition, made meaningless by a peculiar inner distance. Some remarks reported after the death of a baby may be taken as an example. In Nadia, a man made a habit of coming home drunk to beat up his wife, especially after she gave birth to not one, but two, daughters. One such evening last December, the mother picked up the older girl and ran for shelter to a neighbour, while the father snatched the five-month-old from her grandmother’s arms and dashed her to death.
We deprecate and pass on: somehow the agonizing physicality of the act, the eruption of raw hatred tearing to shreds the illusion of a parental bond, the fact that this story is both old and common and therefore continuing around us all the time, do not really engage us. How do we manage this? Is it the lack of visuals? Would we engage with the issues here if we saw the murder on television? Or would those images, too, slide into the half-fictional, nightmarish stream of pleasurable violence that now makes up our sense of TV-mediated ‘reality’?
Reportedly, the chairperson of the district child welfare committee said that ‘even now’ girls are unwanted in society, as this incident proves. The district president of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti apparently said that girls are ‘still’ seen as a burden. She added, with as much piercing insight as the other speaker, that such incidents are born out of the inequality between men and women at the family level. The president of the primary education council reportedly said that this was a social sickness. All of which signified — after years of movements to stop violence against women — exactly nothing.
The decorous inanity of the remarks — all the officials were women, maybe an example of gender equality — is the veneer for an active viciousness that bares itself in the following incident. In early November, two 11-year-old boys raped the four-year-old daughter of a woman domestic worker in a village in South 24 Parganas. The woman lives with her mother, again a domestic worker, while her alcoholic husband lives elsewhere. Once she understood what had happened upon returning from work, she turned to the upapradhan of the gram panchayat for help. He told her to send the child to a shelter home, but she wanted justice. At which the man insisted upon hearing the account from the child. Having had his virtual satisfaction from a deeply reluctant mother who was forced to make her baby tell her story from behind a curtain, the upapradhantook the accused boys with their parents to the local police station and made them beg for mercy from the baby’s mother. She was also made to sign on a salishi document.
If we engage with this at all, it would be difficult to deny that there is something hideous in the deliberate intrusion of a public official into the most intimate and indescribably vulnerable of private spaces of a helpless, poor family run by women. Yet it is acceptable, ‘normal’ — no one penalizes the upapradhan; instead, he takes the lead in what follows. An insatiable relish in prurience seems part of ‘procedure’; it is obviously shared, or it would not be passed over in silence. This heart of darkness within society makes the broad concept of ‘violence against women’ look almost simplistic. The process then shifts from the possibility of law to a social peacemaking with the blessing of the police. Both the apology and the salishi smooth over the sexual violence done to a toddler; the sick boys, who raped the child instead of playing with her, are perceived as ‘normal’. Why else did everybody take their side?
Outlawing the law is what the police do well. It seems that the mother was made to write a general diary instead of a first information report since she did not know the difference between the two — the FIR would force the police to act — and she was warned off from registering a case since her daughter would be taken to a shelter home where ‘crazy people throw things at one another’. No, they did not dash a five-month-old baby to death; they merely thought that the four-year-old baby of a housemaid was natural fodder for rape and similar pleasures. Frightened for her child, the mother withdrew, but not before having her daughter examined by a doctor. Even there, the police allegedly told her to say that her little one was hurt by falling off a fence or wall.
Now a non-governmental organization is providing legal support and monitoring the case. The mother has been told the difference between a GD and an FIR, and that the description of the shelter home was a lie to make her withdraw her case. But she is still being threatened by the upapradhan and his friends: ‘the mother will soon meet the same fate as her daughter’. This is a common enough threat, whether it be rape or murder. The same NGO has extended support to another family in another village in the South 24 Parganas, where a mother’s refusal to withdraw an FIR filed after her 16-year-old daughter was apparently murdered prompted the accused young man to threaten her — she should be prepared to be strangled and hung from the ceiling ‘like her daughter’. Although the police were in the know from the very beginning, the accused in the FIR and his kin, including women, beat up the dead girl’s parents with swords, sickles, and bamboo poles. Six women and two men were injured: one man had two fingers cut off, the girl’s father cannot use his right hand and the girl’s mother was hurt in the head. The villagers then attacked the attackers’ house and the girl’s mother, undaunted, went to the police station with a group of women. The police turned on them, apparently for attacking the house of the accused.
Pressure from the NGO and the villagers has reportedly compelled the police to arrest the accused, although the village lives in daily terror of a backlash. No element in any of these stories is novel, neither are they the only such incidents to occur during the period of November and December last. I described them in detail because of two reasons. The three incidents show the different forms violence takes as it spreads from the central fact of hatred for women, whatever the ages and relationships of the victims and perpetrators, and the forms taken by social and official resistance to women’s search for justice. The second reason is that these incidents — obviously among many others — took place roughly during or close to the international fortnight of protest against gender violence. Originating in 1991, the fortnight, beginning November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ending December 10, International Human Rights Day, suggests that violence against women is a violation of human rights. All over the world, as in India, West Bengal and Calcutta, women’s groups and organizations conduct special programmes during this fortnight every year. As they did this year too.
We hardly noticed. That is telling. There are NGOs, such as the one I mentioned, daily fighting terrible odds, yet that seems not enough. We cannot afford to confront the reality in the dark heart of gender violence, with its connotations of social and political power, its pathological core of smelly prurience and hunger to hold down and hurt, because that means confronting ourselves. Also — and this has to be asked — is there something in the women’s movement that allows us this easy way out? Is it the sense of moral superiority we imagine it has? Or is it the exclusivity? It is impossible to believe that there are no sane men who could take up the fight against a problem that originates in male attitudes. While it is fitting that women should fight for the right to live a free and healthy life without oppression and torture, the gendered nature of the struggle may have also cornered it. Violence is not simple, as these incidents show. Is it time to think in a different way?