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Standing against oppression was his calling

Filling the shoes of slain activist Barun Biswas difficult but vital

  • Julian S. Das, Kolkata
  • India
  • July 13, 2012
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Hired killers shot dead Barun Biswas, a 40-year-old human rights activist, a week ago in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. His crime? He opposed gangsters who raped women to intimidate villagers.

The firebrand schoolteacher’s death raises many uneasy questions about social justice and the fate of human rights champions.

It is no exaggeration that much of what we see in West Bengal today is the legacy of the 34-year Marxist regime in the state.

The Marxists have given way to the “Trinamool” (grassroots) Congress, but the men who controlled people at the grassroots all these years continue to have their sway on villages.

A good many of them have shifted sides with the ruling party, thus bringing in the same old mentality and outlook they had when they were with the Marxists.

Biswas was murdered at Gobardanga railway station on July 4 because he had become a sign of hope in extortion and rape-ridden Sutia, about 80 km from Kolkata. The police never dared to enter the village, controlled by local gangsters who enjoyed the ruling party patronage.

From 1992-2003, Sutia had been known as the “rape village,” because these gangsters, numbering several dozen, would break into a house and rape all the women in front of their fathers, husbands and children. No woman was spared and there was nothing the hapless people could do to oppose them. The goons used rape to silence villagers who refused to pay what they demanded.

According to women’s rights activist Rimi Chatterjee, the attackers saw rape as both an enforcement tool and a form of taxation. The gangsters also exploited the villagers’ ignorance about their rights and their intrinsic distrust of state officialdom.

That was the scene when Biswas came to the village when he was just 23. He wanted to find a way out of this cursed situation.

He began talking to the villagers, their administration and government officials, and encouraged people to make use of the state machinery to get justice done. One by one people came forward to register their grievances against the gangsters. Within a few years, extortionists and rapists found themselves behind bars, some sentenced for life.

Biswas decided to forego marriage, so that he could be of greater help and support to the people. His parents do not regret his death, because they know their son had stood for an ideal that others could not dare, and he paid the price for it. However, much of his dream had been already fulfilled, and his elderly parents now wish many other young men would take up his mantle.

Biswas was not a great person with remarkable powers. He was a soft-spoken, committed schoolteacher. But no one could question his commitment to the people of Sutia.

The fact that more than 40,000 people gathered to bid farewell to the man, who had braved all opposition and the gangsters, was enough proof that the silent movement he started is now taking a new direction.

The people would not tolerate inaction of the government, nor would they allow any other local gangster to take the law into his own hands. And this time, the police had been fast enough to nab the hired killers, all of them students in school and college.

The path that Biswas had dared to walk was risky and harmful. However, thanks to his gesture, the women of Sutia now can walk freely, and even throw the state machinery awry, demanding action against those who killed their champion.

Biswas was an exception to the kind of people we see today: self-centered, narrow-minded, trying to run away from problems rather than facing them squarely. Most give in to pressure and force instead of standing up against them. His death is sure to inspire many more like Biswas who would stand by the voiceless in far flung villages.

The gangsters, who arranged for Biswas’ murder while they are serving life terms, now know that they cannot have their way anymore. The voice of Biswas in and among the people of Sutia will haunt them for life.

Should such murders intimidate people who have opted to work for social justice? History has shown that anyone who tries to oppose oppression and exploitation, injustice and coercion is sure to face violent opposition, even death.

Fortunately from time to time some people emerge forgoing their personal lives to reach out to others, and pay a heavy price. Much of the social revolution was brought out by bloodshed, and that is what Biswas had done for the people of Sutia.

An encouraging step that state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took soon after assuming office a year ago was to declare that the police would operate independent of the ruling party or the government. This could give a lot more power to the police to become impartial and bring to book any perpetrators of injustice.

The death of Biswas cannot be in vain, because his life was a model for others to emulate. Perhaps many more like Biswas will have to shed their blood to cleanse society of all evils, and give to the poor peace and joy they truly deserve.

Julian S. Das, a Jesuit priest of Calcutta province, works in West Bengal state’s capital Kolkata as director of the Jesuit-run media and communication center Chitrabani
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