From the November-December issue of News & Letters
by Terry Moon
The vicious gang rape and murder of a young student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, on a Delhi, India, bus in December 2012 was the moment when Indian women’s simmering anger boiled over into rage and a determination to transform society. Thousands of women and men poured into the streets for weeks on end demanding deep changes not only in the laws, but also in society and actual human relationships. The demonstrations went on for months and spread over the entire country.
The tremendous militant outcry led to new laws that criminalized voyeurism, stalking, disrobing women and acid attacks. Laws also called for the death penalty as punishment for rape where the woman dies or is seriously injured, a penalty vigorously opposed by feminists, who saw it as a retrogressive move.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES IN KOLKATA
Now another militant movement against abuse of women has erupted in Kolkata (Calcutta), where over 100,000 people marched on Sept. 20 for women’s freedom and against police violence.
This new eruption began on Aug. 28 when a woman student at Jadavpur University was sexually assaulted and the University’s response was worse than insufficient. While they did “investigate,” it was the woman who was interrogated as two faculty members grilled her on what she was wearing and if she was drunk. It was this outrageous university response that compelled the students to try to get some justice.
They began a sit-in on Sept. 16, blocking the door of Abhijit Chakraborti, Jadavpur’s vice chancellor. Rather than talk to the students who were demanding an independent investigation of the attack, Chakraborti pontificated: “It is beneath my dignity to talk to agitating students, and neither am I paid for this,” and then he called the cops.
Just as they had at the demonstrations protesting the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in January and February of 2013, the police—along with riot police and plainclothes government thugs—brutally attacked the demonstrators, sexually assaulting several women students, beating others so severely that 40 had to be hospitalized and two were critically injured, and arresting at least 35. Rather than this vicious onslaught stopping the protest, within hours a spontaneous rally brought 5,000 to demonstrate near the university. The next day 10,000 students from colleges and even high schools across Kolkata marched through the streets.
Refusing to give up, the students took to social media, creating the hashtag #hokkolorob. Hok Kolorob, the title of a song sung by Bangladeshi singer Arnob, means “Let there be noise” or “Clamor!” It went viral as students and others spread the word and came out into the streets in the tens of thousands in a driving rain on Sept. 20—a demonstration marked by the unusually high number of women, many of whom remarked on the similarity of their struggle to the one that erupted in Delhi in 2012. There were solidarity demonstrations leading up to Sept. 20 in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and other cities. The movement continued and on the one-month anniversary of the police riot at Jadavpur, 700 students went on a 24-hour hunger strike and held a rally in the evening.
The Kolkata events reveal several things: that people know that laws on the books are not enough to change a reality where women, students, and others are treated like chattel by those in power; that women will no longer be intimidated by slut-shaming or believe that it is their fault if they are raped or abused; and lastly, that the promise of the Delhi demonstrations to change women’s lives—to proclaim that women’s lives have meaning and, yes, even power—is something worth fighting for, no matter how long that fight takes. The 100,000 youth marching through the streets in a pouring rain make clear that they are up to the fight and are determined to continue the struggle that began in Delhi.