Civil society riled by Mamata's uncivil words

Kolkata, June 22 (IANS) What ails Bengal's didi? After dubbing women villagers protesting against gang-rape and murder as "Maoists" and "CPI-M activists", she accused the entire opposition and the media of "hatching a plot" to eliminate her and even called panelists in talk shows as being involved in "pornography".

Never in her political career has West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee been renowned for prudence, but she seems now quite set on surpassing all her previous records.

Apparently rattled by the all-round criticism over the spate of rape incidents in the state, Banerjee has been calling people names and making insinuations about detractors in public meetings.

In the process, she is fast shedding friends who have earlier backed her to the hilt and aided her in dislodging the erstwhile Left Front government in the state.

The trigger for the latest bout of angry outbursts is the public reaction to the gruesome gang-rape and murder of a college student June 7, while returning to her village Kamduni in North 24 Parganas district, after attending her classes.

Coming close on the heels of the National Crime Records Bureau data, which put the state right at the top when it came to crimes against women, the Kamduni incident drew widespread condemnation.

The government cajoled the victims' family to come to the state secretariat, but the two brothers of the girl who was killed flatly refused the chief minister's offer of compensation and government jobs.

Their sole demand was death for the perpetrators of the crime.

The government arrested eight people and promised to fast-track the case, so "capital punishment" could be awarded to the guilty in a month.

Ten days after the incident, Banerjee visited the grieving village - which had in the past been the locale of Bollywood movies like Amitabh Bachchan-starrer "Saudagar" - but the trip turned sour after a group of women asked her to talk to them. The chief minister lost her cool and screamed at the villagers to "shut up", and branded both the perpetrators of the crime as well as the protesters against it "CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) people".

Two days later, addressing a public rally, she came up with a conspiracy theory.

Banerjee said: "The police told me, do you know there is a conspiracy to kill you? I know the CPI-M, the Congress, BJP and the Maoists ARE conspiring to kill me. But the plan is of (name of a media house)".

Another startling allegation came within the next 24 hours: "Two or three incidents (of rape) have occurred. But every evening some bankrupt channels invite a few people for salacious discussion on rape, disrespecting our mothers and sisters. What they are doing is not right. Many of those invited to the panels are involved in pornography. They claim to be social workers but are actually money seekers. Talk shows are nothing but money shows," the chief minister said.

That set off another storm of protest, with a section of civil society leading it.

Filmmaker Aparna Sen, who had thrown her weight behind Banerjee in the protests against the proposed Maruti plant at Nandigram six years ago, lashed out at Banerjee: "She was a different person before becoming chief minister. She used to rush to the cause of the deprived. We liked it. But within two years of coming to power, she has changed," Sen said.

On Friday, members of the civil society - inspired by personalities like filmmaker Mrinal Sen, poet Sankha Ghosh and thespian Soumitra Chatterjee - took out a huge march on the city streets where authors, painters, cultural personalities, educationists, students and thousands of commoners including families of rape victims decried the incidents of sexual violence and the insensitive reactions of the Banerjee regime.

The 90-year-old Mrinal Sen, who could not participate due to his advanced age, expressed solidarity through a letter.

"This protest is not only against atrocities on women, but also against the misdeeds of the government and its tendency to browbeat people," said Sen, one of the most venerated persons in the state.

A tough-talking Sen said through the march the masses have given a "fatwa" to Banerjee and her government to mend their ways: "If this forces the ruling party (the Banerjee led Trinamool Congress) to be mindful of their words and deeds, well and good. This is a people's fatwa."

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at s.panth@ians.in)

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