THE alleged rape and subsequent death of a 14-year-old girl at Hanskhali in West Bengal’s Nadia district in early April sent shockwaves across the State because of the heinous nature of the crime but what left people aghast was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s seemingly dismissive comment that it was a “small incident” and her insinuation that the girl may have been pregnant.
On April 4, the girl, a class IX student, had attended the birthday party of Brajagopal Gayali, 21, son of Samar Gayali, an influential Trinamool Congress leader in the region and a member of the Gazna gram panchayat. It was alleged that she was forced to consume alcohol at the party and gang-raped by Brajagopal and four or five of his friends. The following morning, the girl died of excessive bleeding. The victim’s father alleged that Brajagopal had threatened to “burn him alive” if he tried to take his daughter to a doctor. “Braja Gayali did not allow us to lodge a complaint with the police, saying that if we tried to go there they would shoot us on the street,” the father said. He claimed that those who had raped his daughter had forcibly taken her body from his house to the crematorium. On April 10, Brajagopal, the main accused, was arrested.
On April 11, Mamata Banerjee said: “It was a small incident, which we do not like, but still takes place, and it is constantly being harped upon. The police do not yet know…. Are you going to call it rape or [was she] pregnant or a love affair?”
The incident and the Chief Minister’s reaction to it and her remark that an arrest was made in which “no political colour” was considered, sparked off a furore in social and political circles and raised questions about the safety and security of women in the State. Speaking at a government event on April 11, Mamata Banerjee said: “It was a bad thing, and an arrest has been made; but I heard there was a love affair between the boy and the girl. Was it an actual rape? Or was she pregnant? Or was there any other reason? Or was she repeatedly slapped? Even her family members knew she was having an affair…. If a boy and a girl are having an affair, how can I stop that? This is not Uttar Pradesh that I will start a love jehad programme.” She also pointed out the delay in lodging a police complaint. “The girl died on the 5th, the police got to know on the 10th. If somebody died on the 5th and there was any ground for suspicion or any complaint, then why was a complaint not filed with the police on the 5th itself? You burnt the body. I am speaking as a layman, without knowing the full details. Where will they get the evidence?” the Chief Minister said. On April 13, the victim’s father provided the answer to her question when for the first time he spoke of how Brajagopal Gayali terrorised his family into remaining silent.
Mamata Banerjee’s comments drew widespread criticism. The mother of Nirbhaya, the 22-year-old victim of rape and murder in Delhi in 2012, condemned the Chief Minister’s comments by saying that “such a statement should not have come from a woman and a person in the position of Chief Minister”.
In Bengal, opposition parties lost no time in attacking the Chief Minister and the government. Suvendu Adhikari of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said: “The Chief Minister’s comment was in extreme poor taste…. How did she know whether the minor girl was pregnant, or whether she was having a love affair? Why did the police not stop the burning of the body? Why was no post-mortem done?” The Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) compared the crime with the Hathras rape and murder case of 2020 in Uttar Pradesh. Pradesh Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is also Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, said: “This State has already turned into Hathras…. There are so many more murders and rapes that we are not even aware of.” Speaking at a media conference, he asked the Chief Minister: “Why are you advocating on behalf of the rapists and the murderers? This is our question to you.”
Within the ruling Trinamool Congress, there have been signs of discomfort over the incident and the subsequent developments. Saugata Roy, senior party leader and Lok Sabha member, said on April 14: “In a State where we have a woman as the Chief Minister, even one such crime is shameful for all of us.” Reacting to Saugata Roy’s comment, party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said: “I do not wish to say anything against Saugata da, but when the Chief Minister has done all that is possible and arrests have been made without considering political colour, to attack her is uncalled for.” Earlier, Mahua Moitra, the MP representing the Krishnanagar Lok Sabha constituency in Nadia district, appeared to be going against the line of reasoning taken by the Chief Minister. While Mamata Banerjee had referred to a “love affair between the boy and the girl”, Mahua Moitra pointed out that “as per the POCSO [Protection of Children from Sexual Offences] Act, 2012, even consensual sex is considered rape if it involves a minor girl”.
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On April 12, the Calcutta High Court ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the incident. A division bench of Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj said: “In the circumstances of the case and after considering the above legal position, we are of the opinion that in order to have fair investigation in the matter and to instill confidence in the family members of the victim and also the residents of the locality and the State, the investigation should be carried out by the CBI instead of the local police.” The court said: “The CBI will furnish a report about the progress of investigation before this Court on the next date of hearing. The concerned authorities are also directed to extend full protection to the family members of the victim and witnesses of the case.”
Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said it was Mamata Banerjee’s comments that led to the High Court order. “The body was burnt in a hurry to hide the evidence. This is clearly like the Hathras case. But the Chief Minister’s comments were insensitive, and the administration remained unsympathetic. It was her comments that paved the way for the High Court to order a CBI probe.” As of April 14, two persons, Brajagopal Gayali and Prabhakar Poddar, have been arrested in connection with the case. In the FIR lodged by the CBI, charges have been pressed under Sections 302, 376, 201 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 6 of the POCSO Act.