Exactly three months ago, Kamduni in West Bengal was the scene of a horrific rape and murder. Today, the village is the simmering centre of a mass movement for justice.
The lives of the women in the remote village of Kamduni in West Bengal’s North 24 Paraganas district have changed. No longer are they a faceless conglomerate of weak and oppressed women, in the shadows of their fathers, husbands or sons, restricted to the confines of their impoverished and windowless homes. Today, they are at the vanguard of a much larger movement that is fighting atrocities against women.
Exactly three months ago, and six months after the brutal New Delhi rape case, Kamduni witnessed its own horror when 20-year-old student Shipra Ghosh was abducted on her way home from college, gang-raped by nine men, and limbs torn apart. Her body was found in a fishing pond by her brothers later that evening. This girl was among the first ones in her village to have stepped outside the precincts of her home in her quest for higher education. She had hoped for a better life. She is dead but unknowingly she seems to have passed on the baton to her sisters, who have now become the face of protest against the atrocities committed on women everywhere. Clearly, she did not die in vain.
After the incident, the village had erupted spontaneously in anger and gone on a rampage, refusing to hand over the body to the police. Paramilitary forces were summoned to rein in the crowd. But it was a seemingly small incident that occurred a few days later that laid the groundwork for what has become a mass movement today. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee came to visit and instead of consoling the villagers, lost her temper with them for asking too many questions! She labelled two women as Maoists and cadres of the Communist Party of India (Marxists), a remark that led to widespread outrage.
Thus were sown the seeds of discontent over the rising number of rapes in a state that was hitherto considered a safe haven for women. Two women, Tumpa Koyal, Shipra’s childhood friend, and Mousumi Koyal, a homemaker, took on the onus of leading the protest from the front. A protest that is now slowly and steadily snowballing into a movement.
Galvanising the opposition is Pradip Mukherjee, headmaster of the village primary school where Shipra studied. “I had never realised that there was so much fire in them,” says Mukherjee, talking to The Hindu from Kamduni. Simmering from the terrible crime that had happened in broad daylight, all that was needed to ignite them was perhaps a spark, which Mamata Banerjee’s intemperate utterances provided. A spark that goaded housewives and ordinary people to march out of their homes in protest. That flame is still burning.
Surprisingly, in this case, the men have supported their wives and sisters in full measure. The men of this under-developed village work as landless labourers or in the numerous fisheries (bheris). The support continued when some of these women took the first train journey of their lives to reach President Pranab Mukherjee in a march one month after the incident to voice their pleas before him. They wanted the case to be shifted to the CBI. Protest was also registered by a boycott of the recently concluded Panchayat elections, when 700 of the 3,500 Kamduni villagers refused to vote.
The visit yielded a few results. Moves have been initiated to light up the deserted stretches of the village. Shipra’s family and the villagers have steadfastly refused any financial help from the government. Money and help in kind has come from the residents, from the lawyers who are fighting the case for free, from the local transport operators who are ferrying people only for the cost of the fuel. Says Mukherjee, “So far we have managed without any external financing, as the people of the village feel at one with the entire effort.” The West Bengal Human Rights Commission has also stepped in, ensuring that police are posted at the houses of the two women leading the movement.
Till the other day Kamduni was just a nondescript village. Today, it has become symbolic of a mass movement for justice. In Gharey Bairey, Tagore speaks of the housewife’s first footsteps outside her home, breaching purdah, as symbolic of her liberation.
The Kamduni women have stepped outside their homes today, seeking justice for one of their own and to fight for their rights. Their protest is no longer about a single incident. It is coalescing to become a larger movement, with a forum formed recently to take up cases of atrocities against women anywhere. Soon, the village might become even more celebrated, as it is rumoured that an episode of Aamir Khan’s famous show Satyamev Jayate is being proposed on the movement.