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Rape as cultural aggression

Rape as cultural aggression

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 16, 2003

Assam, which is still reeling under the impact of continuing illegal immigration from Bangladesh, is suffering equally from acute cultural violence in the form of a rising graph of rape and abduction of minor girls and young women by suspected 'guests' from this worrisome neighbour. This is an affront that India can ignore only at its own peril, and New Delhi would do well to take up the matter with Dhaka on priority basis.

Recently, while investigating the gang-rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Karimganj, the National Commission for Women (NCW) found that a deep sense of insecurity pervaded the district. The Chairperson, Dr Poornima Advani, who probed the matter with member Nirmala Sitharaman on November 15, 2003, received public depositions from nearly 150 citizens at Neelam Bazaar, where the tragedy occurred. A resident of Neelam Bazar summed up the situation tersely: "All attacks are on one community-how is it, for instance, if the attacks are random, not one girl/lady belonging to non-Hindu community is kidnapped or raped?"

Residents complained to the NCW that violence against women has assumed alarming proportions with school-going teenaged girls and young women being targeted and attacked when alone, raped, abducted, and brutally murdered. Insecurity has led many poor families to abandon their villages, with resultant problems of livelihood and displacement. Besides Neelam Bazar, this problem of largescale desertion is affecting other border towns like Mekla Bazar and Nutan Bazar, as also the districts of Cachar and Hailakandi. Indeed, the problem is being further aggravated by the fact that new immigrants keep moving in, changing the demographic profile of the region and causing lawlessness and unrest.

The NCW met the parents, relatives and neighbours of late Kalpana Dey, the 15-year-old Class IX student who was kidnapped on August 25 this year, while returning from school. She was tortured, gangraped and murdered. Her body was found the next day and the dog squad led the police to the house of one Eklasuddin Ali Rahman, who is now absconding. Neighbours deposed that the kidnapping of girls and young women had become a regular feature of life in the area. Girls are kidnapped, molested, raped, taken to brothels in Bangladesh, and killed if they protest or get difficult to handle.

Kalpana's mother stated that Siddi Butt, a member of the Village Defence Committee, had told one of their relatives that there were rumours of plans to kidnap girls from the village. Kalpana's father, Dilip Dey, alleged that Siddi Butt was a tout and was involved in the trafficking of women. Another resident asserted that in the last five months in the Barak Valley (Cachar, Hailakandi, Silchar) girls of Class VIII-XII were being targeted. He said an attempt was made even the day before the NCW team arrived, but the girl had managed to escape with help from people around.

The police managed to arrest two persons, but the principal accused, Eklasuddin, is still at large. Citizens complained that the police were casual and inefficient. Not only did strangers regularly enter the region, they actually cleared the thick jungles of bamboo and deciduous trees and settled down, earning a living as coolies or rickshaw-pullers. They were routinely implicated in petty crimes, but no action was taken against them.

What is more, smuggling is rampant; roads are poorly maintained and badly lighted; and some infiltrators openly run small hotels and restaurants for new migrants, which also serve as centres for touts and traffickers. The hotel owners are powerful enough to create trouble for residents who protest at their activities. Worse, the infiltrators regularly bring in new relatives from Bangladesh, mostly men, who marry locals and settle down.

The Karimganj Superintendent of Police admitted that the district's demography has been changing rapidly since 1971, and that there is rampant illegal felling of trees to make way for illegal settlements. Upholding citizens' complaints regarding the deliberate desecration of temples, he said that the infiltrators use lunatics to desecrate temples. This becomes a hindrance in proving the crime, as lunatics cannot be held for questioning for very long, even if caught red-handed in the act.

This admission by a responsible police officer that Bangladeshi infiltrators attack Hindu temples purposively (besides intentionally targeting and assaulting Hindu girls) needs to be taken note of by cosmopolitan commentators who romanticise India's "shared common culture" with its ungrateful neighbour. The pointed questions raised by anguished citizens of Assam's border towns cannot be muzzled by false homilies about composite culture, when the grim reality is an unspeakable and continuing socio-cultural genocide.

Nor can I accept the position that the Bangladesh Government has no responsibility in the matter. Indeed, it is culpable on several points. To begin with, manning its borders and preventing its citizenry from overrunning a peace-loving neighbour is Dhaka's primary responsibility. Secondly, when those citizens repeatedly display criminal tendencies, particularly ones that involve the molestation, abduction, rape and even murder of minor girls or young women, Dhaka is duty-bound to be extra-vigilant and to help the Indian authorities to apprehend the culprits and bring them to justice. Finally, as Bangladesh is an Islamic state, it is enjoined upon its Government and clergy alike to devise appropriate means to inhibit the faithful from abandoning Dar ul-Islam in favour of Dar ul-Harb, for if devout Muslims are permitted to put mere economic concerns above faith, there is no saying where such liberalism might end!

To return to the Assam tragedy, it is imperative that we urgently fence the international border, as demanded by Neelam Bazaar residents. Infiltration must be curbed with strict vigilance, and the top brass of the Border Security Force (BSF) held accountable for lapses. I may point out that in many border States, the intelligentsia derides the BSF as a "border supply force"; it is in the best interests of the nation and the organisation alike if this perception is erased. Indeed, the NCW report on the Karimganj incident makes special mention of the fact that the people consider the force to be corrupt and compromised. The BSF would thus do well to tighten its internal corrective mechanisms to weed out crooked officers and men, and thereby raise the organisation's morale and public esteem. At the same time, BSF and State police forces should be augmented, if necessary.

Patrolling must be round-the-clock, and women police officers and constables deployed to handle cases relating to women. It is truly amazing that the State Government has not shown the sensitivity to deploy policewomen in the region (there is at present not a single policewoman there), given the nature of the atrocities that are taking place on a fairly regular basis.

The Assam Government must immediately implement the NCW directive to constitute "vigilante" groups with volunteers from the town and neighbouring villages to help in patrolling, and thereby curb both crime and illegal infiltration. The suggestion that Nagrik Committees be formed in every town and village, with members drawn from every strata of society, such as teachers, lawyers, farmers and so on, is most apt, as it is an easy, effective and credible method of detecting new entrants in each region. The police must then rigorously check the antecedents of all reported newcomers in the border areas and deport the uninvited.

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