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My Kolkata Nightmare: Is There No Escape For Women Trapped In The 'Syndicate Raj'?

30/04/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
A woman carrying an umbrella walks past political murals and posters in Kalighat district, the neighbourhood where Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee lives, in Kolkata May 12, 2011. The murals feature slogans in support of the the Marxist Left Front (L) and Trinamool Congress with a portrait of Banerjee (R). Exit polls show the 56-year-old Banerjee will win a landslide vote when ballots are counted on Friday to become the next leader of this state of 90 million, a population equivalent to Germany. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

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As Kolkata goes to the polls, there's an image I'm going to carry with me when I cast my vote. It's that of my 70-year-old mother, who for six days, in pouring rain (as this was in the middle of the monsoons), lugged home bottles of drinking water she filled at a friend's house down the street, because the supply to her flat was sabotaged, and neighbours in her building were instructed not to allow her to fill water in their kitchens.

For two years, my mother and I have been living in hell. We've been subject to harassment, abuse and intimidation in our own home in Kolkata, by a clearly criminal gang that calls itself a "syndicate"--Palm Place Syndicate; it has no legal bearing. Its primary motive is real estate. As my mother holds a good portion of the land title through inheritance, the idea is to subject us to such terror that we flee, so that those with vested interests can move in.

They target easy prey--single women living alone and the elderly... My mother, who is widowed and on a government family pension, and I, being unmarried, fit the bill.

Syndicate gangs, like the mafia, have become an open, dirty "secret", a factor of life in the state of West Bengal. They target easy prey--usually single women living alone and the elderly, and those with relatively less economic and political clout. My mother, who is widowed and on a government family pension, and I, being unmarried, fit the bill. Every other day we read of the murder of some woman or an elderly person living alone. Most of these crimes are written off as petty thefts gone wrong by the police, though most people know the motive is real estate.

This kind of opportunistic, predatory targeting of women and the elderly for land and property is not uncommon to rural India. A majority of "witch" lynching cases involve single women, usually widowed, separated, or elderly, and the primary motive is the grabbing of their land and property. While witch lynching gangs are crude, urban syndicate gangs are not always so obvious. They often involve white-collared professionals, businessmen, contractors, developers, politicians, lawyers, and even police who have various vested interests in the targeted property, but choose to remain invisible while helping those who directly levy criminal force.

[U]rban syndicate gangs... often involve white-collared professionals, businessmen, contractors, developers, politicians, lawyers, and even police.

For two years, my mother and I have been subject to repeated threats, assault, monetary extortion and theft. We've had our drinking water supply disrupted for days, our property extensively sabotaged (walls gauged, and a 15-inch diameter hole dug right through our roof- during the monsoon), and we have been locked out of parts of our own property. My mother was attacked by two adult men in front of many witnesses. And I was attacked by two men, on two separate occasions. We have filed multiple complaints with the police and various government offices, including those that deal with women's rights. None have helped.

If anything, the agencies, including the police and the Women's Commission, appear to be going to extraordinary lengths to protect these men. The Women's Commission made an anonymous phone call and insisted it would not give me a case file number or respond in writing. After I submitted my petition in person, to an oddly defensive counsellor, it sent my file circulating in all the wrong police jurisdictions. As for the police, it had to be forced to file our complaints (FIRs), on which it thereafter stubbornly refused to act. Even when one of the men assaulted me with two policemen as witnesses, the police said and did nothing. [Read the FIRs and posts on the development of my case here]

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It is little wonder the police inspires far more confidence in criminal syndicates than it does in women and vulnerable citizens.

On the contrary, the police now seem to have gone on the offensive on behalf of the syndicate. In a recent development the police filed a criminal case against my mother and me, accusing us of "disturbing the peace." They further arranged to have court officials happily indulge in some unconstitutional conspiracy to withhold the police report from us. When I finally got a fleeting glimpse of this covert report, I realized the police had used four of the police case numbers we had filed, and in their report they had simply reversed the names of the complainants and accused, and written a vague, bogus report on how apparently the entire "neighbourhood" had complained we were disturbing their peace! It is little wonder the police inspires far more confidence in criminal syndicates than it does in women and vulnerable citizens. I've had some of these men openly boast to me so!

More worrisome, is that the Karaya police station we come under is mired in high-profile cases where it has persecuted those victimized to protect the crimes of the powerful. Notably, in the death of the anti-rape activist Aminul Islam, and the murder of a young Muslim man, Rizwanur by his Hindu wife's family. The Rizwanur case was during the tenure of the last government led by the Communist party (CPIM), on whose behest the police acted. Indeed in places like Singur, Nandigram and Rajarhat bitter memories still live on of syndicate mafias with land-grabbing tentacles that with the patronage of the police and the CPIM party terrorized the people.

As a woman, a feminist, a women's rights activist, and yet still a victim of a patriarchal, repressive regime, who do I give my vote of confidence to?

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Interestingly, even as rival political parties point fingers at other in the context of women's safety and the syndicate raj, not a single party thinks it needs to assure women and citizens of a committed government and police machinery. As a woman, a feminist, a women's rights activist, and yet still a victim of a patriarchal, repressive regime, who do I give my vote of confidence to? As of now, it is to myself, so I can continue to fight this injustice.

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