Time flew fast. Over the last two days and sleepless nights. A girl I knew, a cheerful bubbly college first-year, eyes wide open with dreams, has been subjected to sexual violence. We had walked together in many marches against injustice, oppression, gender violence. I remember the day I first met her, several months back. It was opposite the Indian Coffee House on College Street. She had become an activist of the radical left students’ organization AISA by then. After that I met and chatted with her on many occasions. On the very day she was raped, she had participated in a students’ demonstration against the corporate-communal onslaught personified by Narendra Modi. She was slated to participate in another program the very next day. When night struck.
The night that rolled on to dawn
I was about to crash to sleep when the phone rang. A friend had called up at this odd hour to report a shocking incident. Chandrasmita, who is also my comrade in the women’s movement, narrated that the girl had been raped by an unknown man off a north Kolkata street next to the PG accommodation where she was staying. After the man fled she came back to the PG and told her friends, who in turn informed other students in her organization, and very soon Chandrasmita and I got informed as well. Hearing a first brief of the incident we decided that waiting till morning to report the crime would mean losing precious hours and perhaps important forensic evidence as well. We decided to call as many people as possible to get to her PG and accompany her to the police station. When we reached her place it must have been around 1:30 in the night. About a dozen of her student comrades, grim anxious and angry, had gathered there, some of them in their night pyjamas. The two of us went to her PG, with two other girls and met the manager of the PG who allowed us in. We spoke to her there, in a room, where two other girls had been woken up to make room for all of us. She told us all what happened. One of her first thoughts apart from the desire to see the culprit get punished was a worry that social taboo at her home neighbourhood and concerns for her security could disrupt her studies. We asked her to sit alone, and with a calm head jot it all down on paper with as many details as she could remember. We called up Dr Debasish Dutta, who lives nearby and is the current president of ‘People’s Health’, to bring his car in order to take her to the police station. Debasishda arrived soon, with his son who was driving the car. She went with all of us to Amherst Street PS around 2:30 am, where she turned in her written statement and reported the crime.
Chandrasmita and I gave a letter on behalf of AIPWA demanding 1) An FIR be taken along with her statement 2) a medical examination be done immediately and 3) the culprit be identified and nabbed at the earliest. We also requested that the police arrange for her immediate safety and take steps to ensure safe streets for all others like her living in PG accommodation in the area. An officer, Mr. A. K. Patra took down her FIR. It took a couple of hours for the Officer-in-Charge to arrive. She was asked to narrate her ordeal multiple times to multiple officers in a row. They eventually took her to Calcutta Medical College for medical examination around 5 am in the morning. One of her friends from the PG and I were allowed to accompany her in the police jeep along with other officers.
She waited and waited (for about an hour) while the attending doctor who was elsewhere had to be called in. The doctor (a male) examined her in presence of a nurse, two interns and a lady police personnel, but did not allow me or her friend to be in the room, although both of us are persons in a position of trust to the victim and the Guidelines and Protocols: Medico-legal care for survivors/victims of sexual violence issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare allows us to be observers of the examination, and mandates that police personnel may NOT be present. The medical examination was over in less than ten minutes (see later part of the account for gaping holes in that examination and MoHFW protocols). It was a gruelling end to a tiring night that had broken into morning by then as we returned to the PS where the other friends were all anxiously huddled in the benches. Paperwork, seizure list, typing out the FIR and visits/questionings by higher police personnel et cetera continued at the Police Station till around 10 am in the morning before we were let go. We were told that later in the day she would be taken by the Police again to the Police headquarters for getting a sketch of the culprit made. We in the women’s movement have often raised the demand for setting up adequate 24-hours 1-stop crisis centers with trained personnel in every district for reporting of sexual violence and care of the survivor; where the complainant can register an FIR, get a medical examination done and receive medical and psychological help, and all necessary police information can be gathered promptly and without her having to run from pillar to post in her traumatic state. During those eight long hours at the PS and with the schedule of more to follow, that one demand from our ‘women’s charter’ – the acute and actual meaning of it – came alive in front of me. ‘Perhaps this is why women think so many times before reporting’, sighed the survivor, as the apathetic and indifferent medical interns stared away, visibly grumpy about being woken up in the middle of the night. I could only admire her composure and courage as she went through it all and consistently narrated details about the attack on her.
On 28th April night, the survivor was returning from her aunt’s place, from where she picks up dinner twice or thrice a week (note: the PG accommodation is board-only, no food and charges Rs. 1500 for a single cot in a small shabby room shared with three others). She reached the footpath close to her PG when the man called out to her (in a general way, not taking her name). It was an unknown person. At first she ignored it as a roadside nuisance but he called out again when she stopped. The man introduced himself as being close and trusted by her family. He inquired about her mother’s knee pain. Asked about her father’s job. He displayed knowledge of her home whereabouts. He further introduced himself as a doctor called ‘Tapas’ and claimed to be a gynaecologist in the Medical College. The man was middle-aged (slightly above forty as per her estimate), well-built, with a moustache, dressed formally in a blue-black chequered shirt and black trousers and spoke in an ‘educated’ tongue that could pass off with his chosen masquerade. The man apparently had knowledge about the victim’s medical history which he claimed her mother had told him in good faith with a request to help ‘treat’ the girl. Having thus convinced her to the level of agreeing to stop a few minutes more he asked her to cross the road to the other footpath (the one adjacent to ‘Chacha’s Hotel’) where he said he would prescribe her a few vitamins and medications for her medical ‘problems’. She told him that she had to go, for the night curfew hours at the PG was about to set in. She also suggested that if her mother had really requested this ‘doctor’ to help her out, she would prefer first talking to her mother before consulting him. She also said that she was under no such medical ‘emergency’ that necessitated immediate medications. But on his insistence that he would just ask a question or two and prescribe something which would only take a couple of minutes she reluctantly agreed to cross the road over and step into a lane that branches off the road. The lane is lined with small shops, a cyber cafe et cetera but those were all closed by then. The lane was ill-lit and there was no one around at 9:45 in the night. The man asked her a few more very specific questions based on her ‘medical history’ (the girl recounted that she had previously been to a real doctor with her mother back home and had answered these kind of routine questions which were familiar to her) but when the questions got vulgar she objected and refused to answer any more. Suddenly the ‘doctor’ asked her to allow her to physically examine her. She flatly refused, asked him not to cross his limits and set out to leave. He then forcibly held her, groped and molested her and pushing her to a wall and partially disrobing her, raped her, violating her bodily integrity multiple times. At this point of sudden onset of physical violence – the victim recounted to us and to the police at the PS – she was numb with fear for her life. The man had a bag and she feared he might even pull out a weapon and kill her. The whole thing happened so fast and unexpectedly within minutes that when she was able to push him off (a man taller, stronger and well-built compared to her frail self) and tried to escape his grasp pulling herself together, the man had fled. Traumatised and shocked, she went to the PG and narrated the attack to her roommates and other friends living in the same building. That set off the phone calls.
A press conference was called by AIPWA and AISA. Students, women, intellectuals, local residents, citizens’ organizations, democratic organizations and individuals marched in anger all the way from College Square to the Amherst Street Police Station. The march stopped at the Vivekananda Road crossing – at stone’s throw from the spot of crime – and the demonstrators narrated the incident to the local people (the crime was not yet out in the media), and then blockaded Amherst Street in front of the thana for over an hour, and sent a deputation to the O.C. Professors Miratun Nahar, Salil Biswas, Amit Dasgupta, and representatives of many other organizations were part of the deputation. They demanded to make the accused’s sketch public, to arrest the culprit immediately and to ensure exemplary punishment and safe roads for students. They demanded that the Chief Minister make a statement. While outside, angry students and protestors served a 72-hour ultimatum to the police to nab the culprit. Several women students answered press questions narrating their own perception of lack of safety in the city, the crisis of finding safe and comfortable affordable hostels to live, and about the palpable fear that was biting off at their freedom.
The ‘medical test’, press reports and the usual ‘doubts’
At the Medical College, the previous night, the doctor asked the victim a few questions and took a vaginal swab which he gave to the police for forensic examination. However, the detailed protocols as mandated by the MoHFW guidelines (page 23-36) were not followed. Some key specimen (like pubic hair samples) were not collected/looker for and some outdated and irrelevant information (relating to the hymen, elasticity of vagina, admissibility of fingers etc.) was noted on the ‘report’ – clearly flouting the March 19 guidelines, which make us believe that the doctor who performed the preliminary examination is not aware of the MoHFW guidelines and protocols. Quoting from the guidelines:
“Pubic hair is examined for any seminal deposits/ stray hair. Combing is done to pick up any stray hair or foreign material, and sample of pubic hair, and matted pubic hair is taken and preserved.” and “Per vaginum examination, commonly referred to by lay persons as ‘two-finger test’, must not be conducted for establishing an incident of sexual violence and no comment on the size of vaginal introitus, elasticity of the vagina or hymen or about past sexual experience…..should be made. ”
Besides, no steps were taken for the victim’s medical care, and health concerns. No urine test or testing for HIV was done and no psychosocial care was offered. When she requested the doctor to take samples/pictures of fingerprints of the culprit that might still be there on specific places of her body she was curtly told that the doctor knows what he is supposed to do. The doctor did not even use the correct and detailed form to record details of the medical examination. (page 62, MoHFW guidelines). It appeared that the hospital does not have a copy of either the new guidelines or the correct form.
The crime was in most of the papers and media channels by the next day, although the media did not deem it first-page worthy in most of the cases. That a girl student could be raped with such impunity at the heart of Kolkata at 9:30 in the night must have been a ‘normal’ affair for the press to act so matter-of-factly. Moreover, some of the reports just managed to float in an unqualified word of ‘inconsistency’ in the victim’s statement. To them we would like to ask how ethical it is to make an aspersion not backed by facts and also whether the press is even in a position to judge consistency or the lack of it. The violation of ethics and flouting of government regulations does not stop there. I read at least one report in a major reputed Bengali daily ‘Ei Samay’ which declared that ‘there was no proof of rape found in the medical examination report’. The journalist or the editor of this particular daily is clearly not aware of the ABC of medical and legal jurisprudence. Unlike popular and mistaken perceptions, rape is not a medical disease that can be proved/disproved by medical examination. It is a medico-legal matter in which the medical reports are only a supporting evidence among many other such supporting evidences in court. More importantly, the newspaper’s declaration is factually a lie. The ‘report’ that they have got referred to, from police sources – the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Pallab Kanti Ghosh held a press conference, we are told – is the primary examination report as described above which includes only a look at external manifestations like mark of violence et cetera by the Medical College doctor. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare protocol, in a table on page 48, has a column that asks the examining doctor to lay down the ‘Rationale why forced penetrative sex cannot be ruled out.’ Note, there is no ‘Rape has occurred: Yes/No’ column! Further, the medico-legal examination, the vaginal swab test and other materials like her dress are yet to be examined, and if the Amherst Street O.C. is to be trusted, has only been sent to the forensic experts. A forensic report is awaited. But the press has not bothered for all these supposedly small and unimportant formalities. It has continued to cast its incorrect and baseless aspersions which got wilder by the day. One wonders, how the police gets away with disclosing such information (like ‘inconsistency’ and medical report findings) so carelessly and callously to the press persons without giving out the whole truth. Even after so much public discourse on the reporting of rape and the ethics involved, the press continues to help in creating and disseminating patriarchal perceptions, commonsensical (filmy) ideas about rape that help to cast aspersions and create doubts although not warranted. As a result of these falsified reports, I saw some people in the social media asking, how can a multiple assault happen in a by-lane in the heart of Kolkata, inadvertently calling the complainant a liar. Perhaps they are mixing up rape with longish and spiced depictions of it in Hindi films, or perhaps they are even confusing the duration of sexual assault with that of making love. In real life situations, and in so many recent and past instances, we have seen how rape can take so many varied forms and can happen in so many varied situations – most of them, commonplace. For the (n+1)th time, let me repeat that rape is violation of bodily integrity of a certain kind and happens on a daily, minute-ly, second-ly basis – and routinely takes place in closed rooms, marital bedrooms, college union rooms on a busy day, open roads while a domestic worker goes to work, abandoned factory premises where a journalist goes for a story, open paddy fields where a farm hand is working, during riots and planned attacks and in war fields, in police and army custody, on moving vehicles like buses and cars, on elevators during elite festivals, in ashrams with the parents of the victim sitting right outside the door. So pray let us not pretend naively that any particular area of the private or public sphere is a rape-free zone.
Questions Staring Us in the Face
Kolkata has a huge number of students coming from suburbs and other districts to study in colleges or to work. The situation of government-run or government-aided hostels for college students and working men and women is grim. The demand and supply is so heavily skewed that mushrooming of privately run ‘mess’/PG/hostel accommodation is a visibly booming and profitable business. These accommodations have their own rules and regulations, own fees, own vulnerabilities like the absence of safety measures and protocols, and own standards for what is acceptable and decent living space. The mess manager at the victim’s PG had initially tried to dissuade her from reporting the crime apparently for insulating them from police investigations/enquiry. When nonetheless she courageously went ahead with reporting the crime and demanding punishment, the mess manager called the victim’s father and asked him to pack her bags and leave. He said that the other inmates might no longer like to share space with the victim and his business would suffer! He even had the audacity to suggest that the rape might not have happened at all as it is near impossible to rape someone on that lane! The father, a timid and fragile man from a low-income family visibly broke down after these insults were added to the injury. The mess manager has temporarily ‘closed’ the mess, we are told, and sent the other students packing as well – until the investigations are over! After the protest rally, three of us went and reported this to the Girish Park Police Station, under whose jurisdiction the PG accommodation is. It remains to be seen whether the police can enforce regulations on the mess manager’s high-handedness (one wonders whether these PG accommodations are even licensed/regulated by law) and victim-blaming, but what it surely highlights is a picture of how vulnerable thousands of girl students are in the city, on the questions of safety and living space. It is a time to renew and strengthen the demand for good quality, affordable and adequate hostel facilities for all.
While I sat beside the victim at the Calcutta Medical College waiting for the doctor to come and oblige her with the examination, two interns kept yawning and making their displeasure prominent for a visit before the break of dawn. They were not even bothered about the victim’s state and never asked a question. A nurse brought in news of a baby who had just died in the next room, and not a single muscle on their faces twitched. The doctor took nearly an hour to arrive and even the police officer’s repeated pleas to call him from his office would not help. Finally the police officer was asked by the interns to climb up a floor, go to a particular room and escort the doctor down. Only after that did the wait end. After a quick examination of a few minutes followed a frantic search for the ‘correct’ file to write the report. Heaps of dusty files lying on the desk were ransacked and turned over and over but the ‘correct’ file was not to be found. The doctor, who is clearly not updated about the new rules and protocols himself, admonished the interns for not knowing their rules, to which the interns smiled back. Then one of them sluggishly went to another room and came back with a file. The report was finally written (although in the wrong format, see earlier part of the account). This was the victim’s experience at one of Kolkata’s most prestigious government hospitals.
The second question that’s glaring at us is the role of the police, particularly in briefing the press. While the published Ministry of Health guidelines post Justice Verma recommendations clearly state-
“Never say or do anything to suggest disbelief regarding the incident.
Do not pass judgmental remarks or comments that might appear unsympathetic.
Convey important messages such as: the survivor is not responsible for precipitating the act of rape by any of her actions or inactions.”
– the Joint Police Commissioner has held press meets to put out statements doubting the victim’s statement. This is all the police force has been able to do so far. And what sort of ‘doubting questions’ are they (as published in ‘Ei Samay’ 1/5/2014 as per police briefing) – why did the victim go to the lane with an unknown person? Why did she not shout or protest when he attacked her? It is surely not a crime and it surely does not warrant rape if the victim walks to a lane with a person. Besides the fact that anyone reading her own narration above would already know the situation as recounted by her – the most reliable witness to the crime! Her statement rang true to me and others who heard her at the PG. She was consistent in her statements and answered all questions they asked. The police commissioner is clearly flouting ethics and rules by trying to set this crime up as the Chief Minister’s favourite “sajano ghotona” – a fabricated tale. One wonders whose brief is he holding? What are his compulsions leading to such nasty press briefings? Why is he silent about the progress of investigations and the arrest of the culprit? Why are they not making the victim’s sketch public? Why this urge to defame and malign the young survivor?
All the while during the whole phase, I could not but help recalling how the Park Street gang rape survivor had been refused an FIR and had been taunted and insulted at the police station. How the Jagacha survivor, a domestic worker returning from work, had to fight for days on end to even file a complaint of the gang rape. How the woman gang raped in front of her daughter after dragging her off a train at Katoa was told that she had set it all up. How the chief minister and her minions, wielding infinite power and clout, had dismissed one complaint after another with a waving of hand calling them all ‘fabricated’. How a Member of Parliament of the ruling party had maligned and insulted the Park Street victim. How in a series of instances of rapes and sexual assaults, nobody was punished but victims/kin were blamed, hijacked, muted/bought off, or even successfully packed off from the state. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the impunity of rapists is growing in West Bengal. Perhaps that is why a college student getting raped at 9:30 pm in a busy area is ‘normal’ now and attempts are being made to prove the complainant a liar. It shows a pattern. Here she is, a politically aware, intelligent and brave young woman who was lucky to have so much immediate support from her student comrades and women’s organizations. Even she has to experience so many hurdles and so much of stigma and maligning attempts, just during the immediate aftermath of her traumatic experience. Justice remains elusive as ever. Her father wants justice for his daughter, but is extremely skeptical about the prospect of justice, going by the prevailing standards and conviction rates. One can imagine what women of lesser privilege and in places where even basic medico-legal infrastructure are missing, go through. Justice is a lottery.
But she has hope. She is strong-willed. She refuses to bow down under pressure. Her political convictions are truly reflected in her actions. And there are so many determined faces around her. As we have collectively pledged during our marches – We shall fight, and we shall win.
Kasturi is a research scholar and a member of the Kolkata district committee, All India Progressive Women’s Association.