By Mirza Mosaraf Hossain
In the first week of July, Bengal was engulfed in communal tension, with the North 24 Parganas simmering with incidents of violence. However, nearly 400 km from Kolkata, another incident of people expressing their anger over the behaviour of political party goons went largely unnoticed. Reason? This case was related to the Adivasis of Bengal, who rarely if ever, make it to the news.
In a single day, four women from Adivasi community were abducted, sexually harassed and two of them, who are minors, were raped by people who were said to be the members of the ruling party Trinamool Congress. The four women managed to escape from their abductors and were able to reach their homes, but the failure to capture all the perpetrators of this crime resulted in massive protests from the Adivasi community in West Bengal.
On July 9, two Adivasi girls (13) and (14) in their seventh grade, from the villages of Pochabari and Bharia respectively of Uttar Dinajpur’s Karandighi block, were coming from Udaipur High School Girls’ Hostel, Raiganj, waiting for a bus at the Raiganj bus terminus to head home, about 60 km from the bus depot. There they met two sisters, (26) – a member of staff at a Missionary School at Raiganj and (30) from Mohanpur village of Itahar block, 24 km away from Raiganj. She went to meet her son who reads in a missionary school at Raiganj and with her younger sister who joined her in the bus stop from her workplace.
At around 2:30 P.M. six to seven drunk men began harassing the sisters and subsequently dragged them to the upper floor of the waiting room, which also serves as the office of the TMC-led Raiganj Bus Association. They were sexually harassed and tortured; their phones were snatched and they were made to call their family to bring money as ransom. The girl instead called the local panchayat of their village when they offered the phone for calls to their family. Later, that panchayat member called the local police and rescued the two sisters from the spot at around 8 P.M.
In the meantime, two of the drunk men dragged the two sisters (13 and 14 years old) to a nearby hotel, namely Nightingale Hotel Cum Bar which is located just 50 metres from the bus terminus. There they were raped several times before somehow managing to flee from the hotel and boarding a Malda-bound state bus. At Gazole, a sub urban area of Bengal’s Malda district, 50 km away from Raiganj, they got off on the bus and with the help of a local woman they were handed over to their families by the police of Gazole.
At around 9 pm on July 9, she filed an F.I.R against the accused and three of the culprits were arrested by the police from the spot. The police, as well as local people who were present, then came to know about the two minor girls from the two sisters, whose address the police and Adivasi community got to know from their school on Monday. A separate F.I.R was lodged by Sangita and Dhani at the Raiganj Police Station.
However, this is not the first time where people of Uttar Dinajpur witnessed such a massive protest march by the Adivasis. Last year, another woman from Karan dighi block of this district was raped and killed and her dead body was thrown away in a pond.
Following the ghastly incidents and the fact that only three of the perpetrators had been caught by the police, the Adivasi community in the state took to the streets and on Friday, July 14, more than 30,000 Adivasis marched to ensure justice the rape victims.
According to Rabin Kisku, a school teacher at nearby Rampur High School, also the Vice President of All India Adivasi Bikash Parishad, “We took to the streets only because the police failed to arrest the accused. We started our protest march at Siliguri More which is about 3 km from the Raiganj Bus terminus and assembled near the NH 34. At around 4 pm, we gave a memorandum to the district administration who came at once and promised us that necessary steps will be taken at the earliest.”
The six-clause memorandum includes the arrest of the hotel manager and its owner and of the rapists as soon as possible, CCTV should be stationed at the bus terminus, skilled advocates to argue for maximum punishment possible for the offenders and ensuring safety and security of the Adivasi as well as other marginalised communities.
Many non-political organisations stood together in this protest march, including Adivasi Socio-Educational & Cultural Association (ASECA), Adivasi Mahasabha, Sara Bharat Adivasi Adhikar Mancha, Bhumi Rakha Committee and All India Adivasi Bikash Parishad All India Santhalis Students and Youth Association of India, Uttar Dinajpur Adivasi Sommonoy Committee. The protests got a little out of hand when some protesters burnt bikes, cycles and tyres. They also vandalised the Bus Association’s office, the reception room of the hotel and many shops near the bus stop.
The Superintendent of Police, Uttar Dinajpur, confirmed on Saturday, July 15 that seven accused are arrested have been arrested and the police recovered one country-made gun and seven rounds ammunition.
Locals of Raiganj are in the opinion that the accused have a good liaison with the TMC led Vice Chairman of Raiganj municipality. “He was with the culprits all the time when it happened and he tried to divert the case in its earlier stages with the help of local police,” said a local on the condition of anonymity. “If they were not from Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC) led Raiganj Bus Association, how did they get the keys to the office room where they accomplished their heinous deed.
The spirit of the protests also went beyond Raiganj. Once the news was posted on Facebook, similar protests took place in various other parts of Bengal. In Santiniketan of Birbhum, students of Adivasi community marched for this cause, while there was another march by the Adivasi community in West Medinipur district.
Ampo Mardi, the grandfather of one of the victims, said, “we are day labourers and now we are in a state of a social boycott in our village. Every day, more than 60 men and women are coming to our house and abusing her and my family. We want death sentence of the bloody culprits who have spoilt my peaceful happy family in a single moment,” he said.
The other victim from Pachabari village lives with her mother working as domestic help in many homes to earn a living. According to Samuel Mardi, the General Secretary of Uttar Dinajpur Adivasi Sommonoy Committee, “villagers and locals are harassing the victim with the same questions asking how it happened, She even tried to hang herself on Monday afternoon, saying this stigma will only chase her throughout her life.”
Kisku, the teacher of history at Rampur High School summed up the situation. “We the Santhalis had fought against the British Colonialism for Independence of our country in 1855. More than 15,000 Santhalis lost their lives. But in this post-Independence India, we are treated in dehumanised behaviour in hospitals, schools colleges and in public life. What is our fault? Sidho Kanhu fought for India’s Independence against the British and we will fight against the majoritarian, sectarian upper caste-led ideologically-biased society for our own share, our right from the Independent India,” he said.
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