It was a warm September day in 2007. Newlywed Priyanka Todi, 23, the daughter of an influential Calcutta businessman, found herself being packed off from her in-laws’ house and sent back to live with her parents. Neither she nor her husband, Rizwanur Rahman, a 29-year-old graphic designer who came from a humble background, wanted her to leave. But, in a bizarre turn of events, allegedly acting on behalf of the girl’s irate father, the Calcutta Police had forced the move. It had called the couple to the police headquarters for ‘interrogation’ several times and advised them to annul the marriage. When they refused, the police persuaded Priyanka to return to her parents’ home for just a week and reassured the distraught husband that if he was cooperative she would return to him within a due date. That day came and went.
What followed is well known. Rizwanur was found dead beside a railway track on September 21, his mangled face and body barely recognisable. While the initial police claim that it was suicide backfired with allegations that it had driven him to kill himself, a subsequent Central Bureau of Investigation probe also investigated the murder angle. And as public outrage poured forth, accompanied by continuous media attention, the political opposition pounced on it—West Bengal’s large Muslim voteshare was deemed to be up for grabs. With its police accused of hounding a poor Muslim youth to his death in collusion with the girl’s rich business family, the Left rulers had let down their most loyal support base. Outraged Muslim mobs rioted in sections of Calcutta on September 22, viciously targeting the police.
Indeed, the Rizwanur case—which roiled the urban heartland of Bengal for weeks—indicated, more powerfully than even Singur and Nandigram, as it demonstrated the extent to which the state government could interfere in the private lives of people, that the decline of the Left in West Bengal was inevitable.
But if the Rizwanur Rahman incident shattered two of the Left’s most ardent claims—that it was a party which stood for the poor and the minorities—it also busted another myth: that the CPI(M) was committed to gender equality. The Left Front government in West Bengal habitually proclaimed that it was the first among the states to implement 33 per cent reservation for women in rural governing bodies.
The fact of the matter remains that in a ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ state like West Bengal, Priyanka, an adult, was not allowed enough freedom over her own body or mind to decide on whom to marry, not just by her conservative family, but also, horrifically, by the state police. A repressive state was more comfortable dishing out gender equality like a dole, rather than granting a woman the agency to shape her own future, something that was her birthright. In other words, women’s emancipation was a good thing provided the state controlled it.
As per the classic forms of patriarchy that seeks to control women, the Calcutta Police felt that it was ‘protecting’ Priyanka by snatching her from her husband. A police officer had said, “It is not just that she is a Hindu and he a Muslim, but they were from entirely different economic backgrounds. He lived in the slums of one of Calcutta’s most congested neighborhoods. Soon she would have...realised her mistake.” Yet another offensive remark—“He was an upwardly mobile man from a poverty-ridden family who was using her as a ticket to a better life”—exposed the deep-rooted scorn for the poor and the disadvantaged harboured by the administration and their powerful cronies. As if in a trice, the government—which had been forced into a hasty retreat by the furore—lay exposed as an obscurantist, reactionary regime.
It is telling that soon after the Rizwanur incident, Bangladeshi author Tasleema Nasreen, who had been living in exile in Calcutta, was unceremoniously evicted from her rented apartment in Calcutta after several hardline Muslim organisations objected to her presence and made her leave the state in less than 24 hours. Left leaders cited fears of religious clashes as the reason, with prominent leaders declaring that “if her continued presence in West Bengal was disturbing the peace of the state, she should leave”.
The incident has been interpreted as being an attempt by the Left to curry favour with Muslims, who had been alienated en masse by the Rizwanur episode. Speaking to Outlook, Nasreen expressed concern that West Bengal, a state known for its secular ethos, was “bowing to the diktat of the moulavis”. She said that she was pained that the Left displayed a complete lack of respect for women not just because they hounded a woman and threw her out without any prior intimation, but because the incident shattered her trust in a ‘secular’ state and was tantamount to negating the crux of her writing, which deplored the religious oppression of women. “After I was chased out of my country I found refuge in Calcutta and made it my home. I had felt that this was the perfect city.... Not only could I communicate in Bengali, which I could not do anywhere else in the world, but this was a place where I felt I had the creative freedom to express myself,” Nasreen had said. “I had not thought that a Communist regime which advocated secularism, justice and equality would bow to the diktats of dogmatic clergy who are against women’s rights,” she added bitterly.
Khadija Bano, head of a women’s NGO, who had been on the forefront of a battle against triple talaq, agrees that women have faced the brunt of policies which try to keep orthodox community elders happy as they dictate voting patterns. “Without exception, the political class has reduced women to non-entities. And the former regime was no exception.”
CPI(M) MP Mohammad Selim points out, however, that particular incidents cannot determine the general approach of any group or its ideology. “It must be remembered that Communist ideology does not get impacted. That remains.”
Unfortunately, in spite of its assertions to the contrary, the Left regime’s closing years in Bengal was woefully tainted by gender insensitivity—whether it was the flagrant and criminal violation of a women’s bodies in the rapes in Nandigram, Singur and Birati, allegedly by ruling party goons/cadres, or coercing a woman to end her marriage. If the Left really wants to make a comeback in Bengal, it should try to understand what women want.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta