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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Danger Signal of Degeneration

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Nikhil Chakravartty

I write these lines after a fortnight has passed since that shocking incident took place in a suburb of the city of Calcutta. Three women and their driver returning from duty assigned by the government’s Health Department were detained by a gang of ruffians, their belongings looted, their van set on fire and they were beaten and the women criminally assaulted, in which one of them died alongwith the driver and two others are still hospitalised.

This ghastly crime was committed in a locality where the people did not come out to stop the gangsters or rescue the victims. The subsequent explanation trotted out was that they were all terrorised to paralysed silence by the criminal gang. The police station nearby had turned a blind eye as has become their practice in many parts of the country, as they either acquiesce or abet in the operation of the underworld in areas under their charge.

The West Bengal Government reacted in the normal routine manner. The Chief Minister called the incident barbarous and after a few days decided upon an inquiry to be conducted by a retired Supreme Court judge. The police authorities have gone through their usual motion, with rumours flying about that some of the officers reacted and the others took it calm. Some of them went into details, and one of them reportedly denied that the three victims were actually raped, as if hideous assault on women was not such a heinous offence. There was also another version that the attackers were under the mistaken impression that the ladies were child-lifters though the van carrying them had the unmistakable Red Cross sign with the government marking on it.

The Health Minister in the State Government seemed to have initially deplored it as a run-of-the-mill misdeed and in all seriousness offered the generous sum of Rs 15,000 as compensation to the murdered lady’s husband, who outright spurned it reminding the Minister that “the rule of the jungle now prevails in West Bengal”.
No doubt the authorities in West Bengal did not anticipate the welling up of public anger at the Bantala incident. Within the ruling party itself, there were signs of distress at what happened, and despite the constraints that is normally felt on issues directly affecting one’s own government, there were voices of anger—two of their MPs, Dr Malini Bhattacharya and Dr Biplab Das Gupta visited the spot and expressed horror. Their women’s organisation was reported to have debunked the police alibi that the victims had been mistaken for child-lifters.

One of the unspoken constraints supposed to have been imposed upon the ruling Left Front was the fear that any outright exposure of the Bantala incident might sway the outcome of the imminent election to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, the biggest and most prestigious among the local bodies in the State.

Inevitably, Bantala has become an election issue, despite the Left Front’s anxiety to keep it aside. Pradesh Congress President, the irrepressible A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, branded “Jyoti babu’s boys” as being involved in the ghastly killing. The CPM District Secretary hit back by charging the Congress with having plotted it. The more aggressive Congress demand was that the Jyoti Basu Government must resign. Not that other voices were not raised. The veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister, Prafulla Sen, went on a day’s fast to highlight the enormity of the crime. Some of the eminent freedom fighters and social workers met and condemned it as “a moral disaster” and expressed concern at “the fast growing insensitivity at the criminalisation of politics”. There were some silent processions by women’s bodies. In fact, all the expected rituals have been gone through. And there is concern at, what has come to be part of our present-day political parlance, “the growth of anti-social forces”.

Beyond this, nobody seems ready to go and pin down the criminals. As is tacitly conceded nowadays by political bosses, not only in Calcutta but in many parts of the country, these so-called anti-social forces are harnessed by different parties for the purpose of managing things in election season, in keeping at bay any adversary at any time. Extending patronage to them has become a common feature of today’s style of politics. Whenever there is a public uproar, some people are rounded up or challaned, and sometimes judicial enquiries are sanctioned. At Bantala too the police have arrested a few hundred or so.

But that does not amount to fighting the very scourge itself. If as is being made out that Bantala is a thriving centre of such as gang, are we to take it that such pockets of criminality have come to be recognised in a city ruled by a fairly modern government with an all-India reputation of having managed the problems of law and order? What is missing in all this is the demonstration of determination to confront such an evil force and exterminate it. The same political parties which unhesitatingly sanction the outright use of force against militants in Punjab and Kashmir, hesitate to demand an all-out operation against what is conveniently termed as mere anti-social elements.

What is amazing is that the city of Calcutta which we all claim as the very heart of the sensitive community of Bengali intelligentsia—the city of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterji, of Nazrul Islam and Subhash Bose, of innumerable martyrs in freedom struggle, of men and women of letters and science—that great city has not been stirred to its very marrow by the horrendous event in which innocent persons engaged in honest, philanthropic mission were pounced upon by despicable brutes and two of them were done to death. There were occasions in the past when such a gruesome happening would have shaken the anger of millions of men and women, young and old, to stir out of their homes to demand retribution. Such memorable moments are part of the heritage of this proud city.
And I write this not in anger, but in anguish. Anguish that we, the common humanity of this great land, are not stirred to the depths of our soul that such horrors should be permitted to pollute our great city, whose majesty is embedded in its moral stature.

Bantala stands as our danger signal of degeneration—degeneration of not only the perpetrators of the crime, but those of us who do not spend sleepless nights over how to combat what it stands for.

The time has come to wake up, to bestir ourselves, to reinstall that moral authority which is at the very heart of any true abiding politics.

(June 23, 1990)

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