The outrage over the gangrape and murder in Madhyamgram, 25 km from Kolkata, has drifted into a game of political one-upmanship between West Bengal and Bihar, where the girl’s family hails from and where it is now set to return.
The family had initially been insisting on staying in West Bengal to seek justice for the girl. They had lodged protests, including with the President and the governor, against some top police officials whom they accused of threatening them with eviction and “advising” them to “escape to Bihar” if they felt persecuted in Bengal. The family changed its mind this week after meeting Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who invited them to settle there with a government job.
As newspapers in Bihar splashed the rape, murder and alleged persecution of the family on its pages over several days, the chief minister first sent a police team to talk to the family. The girl’s father drives a taxi and, as such, Nitish was addressing a large constituency in both states. According to transport operators in West Bengal, Kolkata has over 50,000 taxi drivers and most of them are from Bihar, some with their families settled in Kolkata and some back in Bihar.
Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress responded immediately with minister Firhad Hakim, often considered a voice for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, launching an attack on Bihar’s move to send the police team. “Bobby” Hakim said the decision violated the federal principles of governance, while Mukul Roy described it as unnecessary, unethical, and “parochial politics”.
However, according to the sustained, very forceful complaints from the family, it was the Bengal police who were parochial with their alleged threats of eviction. In the face of complaints of such serious nature, the Bengal chief secretary publicly defended the administration saying there had been no lapses and the family given all protection and security. This came after the family had lost its only daughter and sought refuge in a CITU-run commune in Kolkata.
What happened at the commune, too, had significant political connotations. Nitish’s police team found a cordial host in the CITU and CPM leadership, whose welcome was in sharp contrast to the virulent attacks from the Trinamool Congress leadership. Since then, political circles in Bengal have been discussing the eventual shape of a possible “third front” — or “federal front” as Mamata would have wished it.
Nitish’s upstaging of Mamata reached a high point on Monday when the girl’s family met him in Patna. Nitish invited them to Bihar and assured the father a job as a government driver.
Now that the family has decided to take up the offer, the Trinamool Congress has launched a fresh attack for what it calls a violation of federal principles. “We cannot stop anyone from leaving the state, but I can say that we would have provided better protection had they decided to stay back,” said minister Jyotipriya Mallick, organisationally in charge of North 24-Parganas, the district where the girl was raped and murdered. “The effort of the neighbouring state is politically motivated and it violates the rules of a federal structure.”
Such allegations can be a double-edged sword, however. One need not travel far back to find examples of parochialism in West Bengal. A couple of months ago, when potato prices soared, Mamata ordered the police and civil administration to seal all borders so that no trucks carrying potatoes from Bengal could enter Bihar or Orissa. Bengal’s homes must be assured potatoes first, she declared, and the police intercepted several thousand trucks headed beyond the borders and forcibly diverted them to markets in Kolkata and elsewhere in Bengal.
As potatoes became even costlier in Orissa, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reportedly requested Bengal to allow the trucks out, but in vain. Orissa’s potato then traders hit back, blockading roads and preventing trucks with fish and other goods from moving into West Bengal.
Federal principles had taken a back seat following the Uttarakhand landslides, too. Mamata’s government sent a team including two ministers to stand by tourists from Bengal. Returning from a state where the local administration itself was reeling under the impact of the calamity, one of the Bengal ministers played up homeland sentiments by alleging that many women from Bengal had been harassed by local men.
Despite talks of federalism, it is evident that regional groups headed by leaders such as Mamata, Nitish and Naveen will consciously keep playing to their home constituencies.