On February 21st, Bangladesh celebrated International Mother Language Day. Sixty years ago, hundreds of students from Dhaka University protested against the Pakistani government’s decision to impose Urdu as the national language of East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh). The police opened fire on the students, killing several protestors. That day is observed in Bangladesh as “Amar Ekushey” (Immortal 21st), commemorating the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to protect their mother tongue and preserve linguistic identity. I grew up listening to my father’s stories about the Bengali language movement. He would often play Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s song “Amar Bhair Rokte Rangano” (My Brothers Blood Spattered 21st February) at home. It was an emotional song, one of tragedy and honor. Every year on that day, people from all parts of the country pay homage to the martys by singing this song as they walk barefoot to the Shaheed Minar, a national monument in Dhaka.
As celebrations ensued in the country next door, a group of activists gathered in Kolkata for a demonstration. My NGO, Jeevika Development Society, and other members of Maitree, a women’s rights network in West Bengal, organized a protest against the manner in which the West Bengal government and the police handled a rape case. On February 6th, a 37 year-old woman was gang-raped at gun point in a moving car in Park Street, Kolkata. The victim/survivor lodged a complaint at the Park Street police station on February 9th. When she attempted to register her case, the police mocked her for being at a pub the night the incident occurred. The sub-inspector, Saikat Niyogi, asked her inappropriate questions when she returned to the station a few days later to check on her complaint. “He wondered how one could be raped in a moving car and even asked me to explain in what posture I was raped.”  Despite the fact the law requires an immediate forensic investigation, the police failed to get the exam done on time. The victim/survivor did not have a female officer available to accompany her to the hospital. Rather than taking action against police personnel mentioned earlier, senior police officials were more interested in finding “inconsistencies” in the victim/survivor’s statements.
Furthermore, West Bengal’s Chief Minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee called the case a “staged act” and an effort to malign the government. The Minister of State for Transport and Sports, Mr. Madan Mitra, also publicly made offensive comments about the lifestyle of the victim/survivor and accused her of fabricating the incident in an attempt to extort money. “She has two children and so far as I know, she is separated from her husband. What was she doing at a night club so late at night?”
These grievances, along with demands for an immediate apology, were addressed in an open letter to CM Banerjee. In addition, the members of Maitree called for a fair and just investigation. Legal action against the officers who mishandled the case and mistreated the victim/survivor was also demanded.
As we marched down Kalighat Road in neat, long rows, we yelled in unison: “Park Street er ghatonake sajano bola hola keno. Mukhyomontri jabab dao, abilambey ksharma chao!!!!” (“Why did you call the Park Street incident a ‘staged act’? Chief Minister Banerjee, give us answers! We demand an immediate apology!”) We handed out copies of the open letter to bystanders and encouraged others to join our cause. Though I’ve participated in rallies before, this was my first women’s rights protest. It was an empowering experience, to march among a group of fervent activists, on the busy streets of Kolkata. Men also participated in the march and chanted with us. The media surrounded us left and right (which is always a good sign). When we passed by Kalighat Temple, I remembered it was Mother Language Day. Sixty years ago, a group of passionate activists also gathered to fight for justice.
Unfortunately, CM Banerjee did not meet our demands. My mentor and other members of Maitree were not even allowed to enter Ms. Banerjee’s premises. On March 19th, Jeevika will hold a demonstration in Park Street, in honor of International Women’s Day. It is our hope that justice will be rendered for the rape victim/survivor one day. Until then, the fight continues.
A luta continua.