Bengal’s shame

The rape of a septuagenarian nun in West Bengal shocks the entire country and once again exposes the State government’s inability to deal with the declining law and order situation.

Published : Apr 01, 2015 12:30 IST

At the Convent of Jesus and Mary High School, Ranaghat, March 18.

At the Convent of Jesus and Mary High School, Ranaghat, March 18.

THE rape of a septuagenarian nun by a gang of robbers inside a convent school in Ranaghat in West Bengal’s Nadia district has shocked the entire nation and once again exposed the Trinamool Congress government’s inability to deal with the declining law and order situation and the continuing rise of crimes against women. The government came under tremendous public criticism when for 10 days after the crime it remained clueless about the whereabouts of the perpetrators even though their faces were clearly revealed in the CCTV cameras installed inside the building. On March 25, 11 days after the gruesome incident, a certain Mohammad Salim, suspected to be one of the gang members, was arrested in Mumbai by the West Bengal police. On March 18, in the face of mounting public outrage, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in what seemed like a desperate measure, announced that she was handing the case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

In the early hours of March 14, a gang of eight to 10 armed robbers scaled the walls of the Convent of Jesus and Mary High School in Ranaghat, overpowered the security staff and entered the building. They stormed into the quarters of the three resident nuns, tied up two of them and dragged the third, the senior-most among them, from room to room in search of money. After robbing the establishment of several lakhs of rupees, the gang turned on the 71-year-old nun and raped her. They also desecrated the chapel inside the school, overturned the container with the water used for Holy Communion, and stole the chalice. By the time they realised that there were CCTV cameras installed and broke them, the faces of at least seven of them had been recorded. Strangely, they remained within the premises for about two hours and left around 3:30 a.m.

This latest act of barbarity in a State where the incidence of violence against women has been rising at an alarming rate triggered a wave of outrage across the country. In Ranaghat, the local residents, including parents of the pupils of the school, staged demonstrations, blocking road and rail traffic. “It is particularly traumatic for our children, many of whom are appearing for the Board exams. The State government must act and try and put an end to such crimes,” said a parent. The 71-year-old nun was a Sister Superior and was very popular among both the children of the school and their parents.

Ignored warning

Apparently, a threat had been made against the convent seven days before the crime, which was brought to the notice of the police but no steps were taken at that time. “This was a most serious lapse. Seven days before the crime took place, the nuns had lodged a complaint with the police. However, the police simply sat on the case. The Chief Minister has still not taken any steps against the erring police officers,” Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline .

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI), pointed to the rise in attacks on Christians and is reported to have said: “We don’t think robbery was the only motive as the assailants desecrated the holy chapel.”

Mamata Banerjee called it an “attack on humanity”, and State Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim indicated that the incident might have been a part of the ghar wapsi (reconversion) activities being carried out by Hindutva forces. “Religious intolerance in the name of ghar wapsi can sometimes be seen in Odisha and West Bengal. This may be a reason. The West Bengal government believes the criminals should be hanged to death,” said Hakim.

However, as the days passed and the police failed to apprehend the criminals, the indignation of the people began to come out in the open. On March 16, Mamata Banerjee herself got a taste of the growing resentment when, on her way back from visiting the school in Ranaghat, her convoy was blocked by protesters comprising mainly local residents, including schoolchildren and their parents. A visibly flustered Mamata Banerjee belligerently tried to take them on, calling it a conspiracy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the CPI(M). Her angry words were met with chants of “We want justice” and “We want CBI probe” from the 1,000-strong crowd.

Some of the children claimed that the Chief Minister had threatened to slap them when they tried to approach her to talk to her. Those participating in the protest maintained that theirs was a spontaneous, apolitical gathering. “Instead of trying to understand what we were trying to convey, she [Mamata Banerjee] bracketed us with a political party,” said a protester. That was the least of their problems for soon they found out that the police had lodged a complaint against “unidentified persons” for blocking the Chief Minister’s path.

The people of the region have good reason to be worried. The incidence of crimes against women in Nadia district is among the highest in the State. In fact, representatives of the National Commission for Women (NCW), during their visit to Ranaghat, were shocked to find out that on an average 17 cases of rape were reported in Nadia every month. Shamima Shafique, chairperson of the three-member NCW team that visited the school on March 21, seven days after the crime, said: “I wonder why the police could not round up the culprits when their pictures are on camera. It is a serious lapse on the part of the administration.”

The local people say that most crimes go unsolved. “It takes just 40 minutes to reach the Bangladesh border by car. Most of the time, the criminals slip away to the other side before anything can be done,” a resident of Nadia told Frontline .

Mamata Banerjee, however, saw a political conspiracy in the local people’s demand for a CBI probe. “Those who are behind this attack will not be spared; but I condemn those of you who are shouting for a CBI probe and trying to save the BJP,” she told the local residents who blocked her path, once again insinuating that radical Hindutva forces may have been behind the attack.

However, two days later, she had to eat humble pie when she announced on a social media site: “Considering the seriousness and sensitivity of the case and also the fact that the place of incidence [sic] is very close to border area, I have decided to entrust investigation of the case to CBI. Our government will provide all necessary cooperation and assistance to the CBI for investigation in this case.”

Political observers feel that Mamata Banerjee’s decision to hand the case over to the CBI was a desperate face-saving measure and an attempt to wash her hands of the case and lob it into the CBI’s court. With the municipal elections just round the corner and the frustration of the public rising with every passing day that the criminals remained at large, Mamata Banerjee turned to the CBI, which for so long has been her bete noire . However, many feel it was a move that came too late, providing the culprits enough time to disappear. With no clue as to the whereabouts of the assailants, there have only been speculations about what could have prompted the gang to target an old woman. According to sources in the administration, revenge as a motive is not ruled out.

To add to the State government’s embarrassment, the victim quietly left the State after being discharged from hospital in the early hours of March 20. “Perhaps she has gone to her relatives. We hope she will return and carry on doing what she has been doing for so long,” said Firhad Hakim. But the opposition saw the rape as a major blight on West Bengal. “This is West Bengal’s shame. For this shame, the Chief Minister is responsible,” said senior West Bengal Congress leader Abdul Mannan.

Meanwhile, even after the first arrest of a suspected gang member, the people of Ranaghat remained tense and dejected. In fact, the police had seemed more eager to identify the protesters who had blocked Mamata Banerjee’s convoy than to catch the culprits. As a result, the people of the region were faced with the added fear of police harassment. Time and again, Mamata Banerjee has betrayed a streak of intolerance against dissent and insensitivity towards the genuine fears and grievances of the common people, particularly if they reflected poorly on her government. This time, too, it was no different.

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