Monday, February 3, 2014

Ruins of Unfinished Assaults

Gargoyles on Woodchester Mansion, Woodchester Park, Gloucestershire by Steve Walker/ Creative Commons                                            
© Shamoni Sarkar

In the months leading up to the new year in the Indian state of West Bengal, a sixteen-year-old girl’s life was calculatedly taken away by two sets of people: those who should have protected her simply as a person (her only friend in a new neighbourhood, and the neighbours themselves), and those whose legal duty it was to protect her right to life (politicians, doctors, and the local police). Both sets of people violated her, at times with combined force. She was gangraped twice. The first time was with the pure intent to assault, and the second with intent to silence. The third assault came from the police, with the intent to cover up and minimize trouble (trouble that might be caused to them). The fourth assault was by failed politicians, with the intent to make quick gains from death. The result was an assaulted human body in an expedient chain of associations and intentions– a collective failure of every possible kind of human civility, and an even bigger collective failure to act.

The girl had recently migrated to the city with her parents from another state, because the future looked better for them there. She had made one friend in her neighbourhood– a fish trader named Chhotu. In October, Chhotu and five of his friends raped the girl in a deserted house and left her in the fields. Her parents found her many hours later. After she filed a complaint with the police the next day, the same gang of boys intercepted her and her father on the road, abducted her and raped her again, this time leaving her on the railroad tracks, clearly wishing for her to slowly die. The six perpetrators were arrested over the next ten days. But back at home, their friends in the area, as also some of the neighbours, began to taunt the girl and her family. They were forced to move to another part of the city. But the landlady there happened to be the mother of a friend of one of the rapists. She suggested that the family leave because their daughter’s presence was soiling the neighbourhood, and she made sure they were verbally abused everyday. Her son and some of his accomplices made frequent visits to the house, threatening the family with violent consequences if they did not withdraw their police complaint. On December 23rd, the girl was found in flames in her house while her mother had gone to the market. She died of 70% burn injuries eight days later. Initial reports had claimed she had killed herself, but in her final statement to the police, she named the two men who set her on fire, and now her death has officially become a murder.

After death, there was a frighteningly petty tussle over who was entitled to guard the body and for what reasons. The police have been accused of rushing the body to the crematorium without the permission of the parents, to avoid protests from angry people. But then the labour arm of the state’s opposition party hijacked the hearse from the crematorium to use as bait for their “protest march”. They shouted that the party in power was behind the crime and all its consequences. In defiance, they held on to the body of the girl in the hearse because they could give her family what the ruling party had not. The police were incapable of controlling the situation, and the labourers’ protest ran its full course. The body of the girl had been conveniently claimed and made to move long distances for more than a day before it was allowed to disintegrate legally, with some sort of peaceful finality.

A rape is an assault on a body’s basic right to feel freely. The perversity of its violence comes from the fact that the assaulted person is always made to feel in a way inherently responsible for her/his own sense of victimhood and pain. Simply by being victims of rape, their bodies become receptacles for what should be their attackers’ guilt. This particular case is built on a chain of transferred guilt and responsibility. The girl was consistently reminded of her “responsibility” for the circumstances of what had been done to her. Ensuring that she felt every stage of what had been done to her without there being an “end” was a process initiated by the two rapes and continued after her death. The six boys did not rape and kill, but they raped, taunted and teased. Neighbours did not drive the family out physically, but they whispered and connived. So, the act of not “completing” their crimes took on more criminality than the crimes themselves.  

After the girl’s death, the police, the doctors and the politicians left their crimes “open-ended” as well: The police were inept so they just scolded and then gave up to see what happened; the doctors apparently showed no urgency to admit a patient with 70% burns on her body; and finally the labour union did everything in the name of justice for the family but ended up staging a self-indulgent charade in which the cause of the charade– a young girl’s life– became a little prop. After this, the least bit of humaneness possible would be an uneventful– hopefully even peaceful– cremation. But even this was rushed, stalled, and eventually carried out as a tired formality.

In the middle of these perversely prolonged crimes, the young girl herself was the only person who acted and took accountability for it. She filed a rape complaint, made an effort to adapt to new living spaces against the odds, and named the men who set her on fire even if she probably knew that she wouldn’t survive their attack. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to believe that even after being raped, threatened, burned and taken up as a false cause, her body was silently in control of its own sense of existence.         

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