Ishita Mukhopadhyay

Ishita Mukhopadhyay is a professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Calcutta. She is also the director of Women’s Studies Research Centre, University of Calcutta.

When Common Women Become Leaders: Story of Kamduni Villlage in West Bengal

Ishita Mukhopadhyay

six-in-kamduni-rape

Who is a woman leader? They are faces that take leadership roles in women’s movements. They can also be faces that lead any other form of social or political struggle. It has been observed in colonial India that faceless, nameless women took up leadership in the freedom struggle. In post colonial India, women leaders were found to be confined to either political struggles or independent women’s movements. It was also implied if women are educated enough or are made aware of the social discrimination, and if they are a part of the women’s movement, then they can be leaders. But what happened in Kamduni village in West Bengal during 2013 to 2016 can be a good learning towards the making of women leadership in India. Circumstances of social discrimination and political intolerance can also give rise to conditions which create leadership aptitude even in nameless, faceless village women. Village Kamduni provides an excellent example.
Kamduni is a village in Kirtipur II gram panchayet in Barasat II block in North 24 parganas district in West Bengal. Kamduni is close to Kolkata, the metropolitan city in the state. Although it is well connected and it takes only an hour’s drive to reach Kamduni from the heart of Kolkata, the latter’s level of education among women could not have an impact in the village. The village women are educated only till secondary or at higher secondary. Studying in an undergraduate college is rare for a woman in Kamduni, who are mostly homemakers. This is because the major part of the income in the families comes through fishing and rural non-agricultural sector, which are essentially male dominated. Women hardly work in these occupations. Although in India, many women take part in rural non-farm sector occupations, Kamduni village women do not. Animal husbandry and working in small factories are also the available options, which they don’t exercise. Some of them assist male members of their family, but women can hardly be seen in this village as principal bread earners. The standard notion of women’s empowerment is not operative in this region. Women’s education and work are seen to be drivers of women’s empowerment, which can take them to leadership roles. Such circumstances were not apparently evident in the village. The context was not ready to see birth of women leadership.
An incident occurred in the village in 2013. One girl from the village went to study in an undergraduate college, Derozio College located some kilometers away from the village along Rajarhat Main Road. The village had two entrances, one from the southern side of Rajarhat Main Road and the other from the northern side of Madhyamgram Road. Madhyamgram Road is a well connected and developed town. People mostly used the northern part of the entrance to get out and enter the village. Apart from convenience, fish mafia and local hooch goons inhabited the southern side, where the girl’s college was also located. Lumpens and anti-social elements cropped up in the fishing site, which is privately owned. Money laundering and all kinds of anti social activities were found to operate in that area. They were also allies of the ruling party in the state. This gave the lumpens a kind of protection.
It was June 7, 2013. The girl was coming home after her university examination. She was to give another examination the next day. She was hurrying, as she had to go home and study. She preferred to choose the shorter road home or namely the southern road not considered to be so safe. She had asked her brother to pick her up on his cycle so that she could go home from the bus stop on the main road directly. It was raining profusely. Her brother was late and she got drenched to the skin. It was then that she was attacked by lumpens and was drawn forcibly along the 4.5km long stretch of the BDO office road. She was taken to a factory shed, gang raped, murdered, her legs torn apart and her body mutilated. One can see bloodstains in the factory shed till today.
This brutal act angered the villagers and they organised a road blockade on June 9, 2013. Many human rights activists and women’s organisations joined in the protest. Chief Minister of the state visited Kamduni village on June 17 2013. When she was going away after meeting the villagers and was about to enter her car, two village ladies came running, one with towel wrapped around her nighty and another with food in her hand. It was clearly evident that one had just come after her bath and the other was feeding her child. They asked the chief minister as to why she was going away without talking to women of the village. What would she know about the ghastly crime by talking to only some men who control the village? These women were Tumpa Kayal and Mousumi Kayal. They were childhood friends of the murdered girl.
This was a repeat of the Nirbhaya case in a small Bengali village. She was named Aparajita after the crime, as if she should not be remembered in her own name like Nirbhaya. The chief minister snubbed them while Tumpa and Mausumi were still by her car and called them Maoists. They told her that they were not affiliated to any political party; they merely wanted justice for their friend. They wanted to ask her what she planned to do to achieve that end. When challenged, the chief minister reacted sharply. (The Times of India, June 18, 2013; NDTV video February 5, 2016, July 17, 2013) She made a press statement that very evening saying that she could identify communists and Maoists and Tumpa and Mausumi were one of “them”. She also promised a job to Aparajita’s brother. She committed to look after their family. But that day saw the rise of two unlikely women leaders in Bengal – Tumpa and Mausumi. Contesting the standard notions of empowerment, they took up the cause of justice in the name of their friendship for Aparajita. They woke up to voice their concerns about the safety and security of the women and girls in the state. They, along with a schoolteacher Pradip Mukherjee, formed the Kamduni Protest Manch in the village and started organising the villagers with the single demand of justice for the case. Gradually, many women’s rights activists and workers quit their organisations and NGOs to join Tumpa and Mausumi. They went to the media and gave the call to continue this struggle till justice was reached. On the seventh of each month, the day when their friend was murdered, an oath-taking programme was organised in the village, which was joined by many others. They decided to continue the struggle till the end.

Mausumi Kayal

Mausumi Kayal


Tumpa Kayal

Tumpa Kayal


 

 

This received wrath of the perpetrators who were given protection by the ruling party. The teacher, Pradip Mukherjee was transferred. Tumpa and Mausumi were personally attacked, but they remained undaunted. Villagers were kept indoors and there was a silent repressive environment in the village. Tumpa and Mausumi started visiting other areas where rapes and attacks on democracy were occurring. They narrated the story of their struggle and gathered support from such places. Intellectuals, activists etc., all came to offer their support.
The ruling party used its influence to shift the court case, from Barasat, where the case was being heard and some perpetrators had been arrested, to another court. It was thought that then Kamduni Protest Manch would not be able to influence the case. However, Tumpa and Mausumi kept the torch lit. Finally, they were not allowed to observe the oath taking practice within the village. The day was observed outside the village on Rajarhat Main Road and candles were lit where a bust of the murdered girl was put. Candles were also lit on the seventh of each month at the factory site where she was taken and murdered. All of this was taking place under the leadership of Tumpa and Mausumi along with a few leftist women’s organisations and NGOs.
The judgment came in the lower division court two and a half years later. Three of the accused were sentenced to death and other three were given life sentences. Two were set free. The case against the freed men is still being pursued by Tumpa, Mausumi and Pradip Mukherjee. In the words of Tumpa and Mausumi, the struggle changed their lives. They went and met the president of India. They met the governor; in fact they approached anyone who could give them justice. They had experienced social, economic and political discrimination, yet they transformed into leaders. Now, they inspire many others in the state to fight for justice. The message, the two ladies who are no more common faces to the people, they seek to impart has always been, “Never compromise with injustice, you will win if you fight, struggle, take all on board for justice.” They taught women not to be silent and are now household names in the state. However, they paid a big price for this. Their homes were ransacked after the West Bengal poll results. This took place after the ruling party won and the mafia and goons who were with the perpetrators were celebrating the victory. But this could not deter Tumpa and Mausumi. Bengal saw the making of women leadership just like it did in the colonial period.
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