On June 13, thirteen women activists were arrested in Kolkata for protesting against violence against women near the residence of the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. This is a first-person account of the day's events by one of them.
"Women and girls in our state are facing terrible violence and many have been killed but that does not galvanise the police and administration of West Bengal into action. Activists from a women's rights network, drawing attention to horrific violence against women, are seen as a threat to the Chief Minister's life and taken into police custody."
Maitree, a women's rights network of organisations and activists, took shape in Calcutta in 1995. Since then, Maitree has been working for women's rights issues - we organise meetings and marches, write letters, have discussions - do all those things that 'activists' do. The week before last, we were deeply upset and angry to learn that a young college student in Barasat had been raped by several men and killed. On June 10, 2013, a group of human rights activists, including representatives of Maitree had tried to meet the Chief Minister with a letter demanding action on violence against women in West Bengal and the rape and murder of the college student in Barasat. They were kept waiting for more than an hour but the Chief Minister did not meet them.
At a Maitree meeting on June 11, it was decided that a rally and gathering would be organised in Barasat on June 17 to protest against the murder of the college student and draw attention to violence against women in West Bengal. On June 12, we woke up to the news of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old schoolgirl in Nadia - killed on her way home from school. We decided that things were spinning out of control and we needed to meet the Chief Minister and speak to her about our worries, anguish and concern.
On June 13, activists began gathering near the new gate of the Kalighat temple from around 7.30 in the morning. By 8 am there were some 30-and-odd activists - persons of various age groups and genders - gathered there and we decided to try to meet the Chief Minister, who had come to power rallying around Ma, Mati, Manush (Mother, Land/ Earth and People), at the office in her residence. We crossed the road and reached the mouth of the road which you have to take to go to the CM's house. We were stopped by a contingent of police posted at the booth there and asked where we were going. We explained that we were shocked and upset by the killing of young girls in Barasat and Nadia and wanted to meet the Chief Minister. We had a letter to give her and also wanted to ask her how she was thinking of ensuring the freedom of movement of girls and women in West Bengal. After all, it did not augur well for the state if girls and women were killed on their way home from school and college, did it?
The police asked us whether we had an appointment. We said that we did not but we had come to meet the Chief Minister and surely she would give us an appointment.
"You must understand that what has happened is very serious. We are not here about a trifling matter. Surely when the Chief Minister hears that the manush of her state wish to speak to her, she will see us," said Kakali Bhattacharya.
The police asked us to move to the side of the road so that we did not obstruct traffic. We complied. Some stood facing the road with placards round their necks, some colleagues were singing, some were talking to passersby about violence against women and some were talking to the police.
"Is anyone among you prominent?" asked a policeman, much to our amusement. We wondered whether the presence of a 'prominent person' would have ensured an audience with the Chief Minister. The police said that the Chief Minister meets people after 9.30 am and they were trying to ensure that three or four representatives of our group could meet her. We were quite hopeful that we would be able to meet her. The Officer in Charge of the Kalighat police-station also came and spoke to some of people in our group.
Suddenly, around 8.30 am, I heard some policemen shouting, "Pick them up, pick them up!" I turned around to see what was going on and saw that Swapna was being dragged towards a police van by some policewomen. I ran up to hold Swapna back. As I was trying to prevent her from being bundled into the van, I felt many hands tugging and pulling at me.
"Didi, don't resist. Just get into the van," said a policewoman to me.
"But why are you shoving us into the van?" I asked.
Suddenly, I found myself sprawled on the floor of the police van. I managed to sit up and found that several other colleagues were already inside. The placard I had been wearing round my neck had been torn away. Kakali had somehow saved my glasses from being broken as the policewomen shoved me in. Finally, there were six of us from Maitree, in the van, Anuradha Kapoor, Kakali Bhattacharya, Swapna, Shyamoli Das, Ratnaboli Ray and myself, along with several police personnel. Very soon, the van was on its way.
"Where are we going?" we asked but we did not get an answer.
"The driver knows," we were told, after we asked a few times more.
I discovered my watch damaged in the melee, and Swapna said her arm was hurting badly. After a while, we were told that we were being taken to the lock-up in Lalbazar. Of course, we were not told why.
Once we reached Lalbazar, we were asked to deposit the placards we were carrying and also told that we would be kept on the first floor. We were not going to be put in cells but in the corridor. The cell doors were left open and we were shown our place in the corridor. We had been provided three pedestal fans. A large plastic jug of drinking water was brought in and a mug - the kind of mug we keep in our bathrooms.
"Aren't you going to give us glasses?" I asked.
"We have no provision for glasses," was the reply.
"But we can't drink from that bathroom mug."
So they brought us two bottles of water. They also told us that the water in the jug and the bottles was safe to drink.
Once the six of us were in the corridor, a bench was placed across the doorway and four young women, in plainclothes, positioned themselves on the bench facing us. They were Green Police, temporary workers or 'civic volunteers', recruited by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, to assist the police.
The police did not lock us in but kept us guarded. We were also told that we might be released before noon, or in the afternoon, but we would not be kept overnight. We asked why we were there but got no answers. We had our mobile phones with us and so could talk to colleagues, friends and family.
No chairs were provided, so we spread the newspapers that we were carrying, settled down on the floor, and prepared to face what the rest of the day would bring. We were soon joined by more colleagues, who had been picked up as the protesters dispersed.
Needless to say, they had also asked why they were being taken in but got no answers. The group of six inside the lock up had become twelve - joined by Aditi Basu, Sudeshna Basu, Srija Chakrabarti, Sarmistha Datta Gupta, Shreya Ila Anasuya and Madhura Chakrabarti. Yes, we understood that we had really angered the powers that be but we were finding it hard to believe that a peaceful assembly had been broken up in the way it had and a dozen of us were in police custody. We kept asking why we were there but got no answers.
We were getting calls from friends and colleagues in the city - those who had been at the protest and those who had not. They were worried about those whom the police picked up as the group dispersed. There was relief all around when they heard that the rest were also with us in Lalbazar. We were making jokes and trying to keep our spirits up, but most of us were feeling very uneasy that we were picked up for protesting on a public road and that we were in custody and had no information regarding the reasons why we had been locked up.
In the meanwhile, Swapna's left arm was hurting. One of the young women, the Green Police, took her to get medical help. Our feelings of uneasiness increased when we heard that Abir had been picked up by the police and taken to Kalighat thana. There were a dozen of us together in the Central Lock Up in Lalbazar, but the thought of Abir alone in Kalighat police station was making us very uncomfortable indeed. However, Abir joined us soon after with a puzzling story of how she was being booked for a parking offence because she had parked her scooter in a no-parking zone but then a policeman pointed out that she had been part of THE protest and so was bundled off to Lalbazar. Swapna came back with her arm in a bandage and so there we were, a band of thirteen women wondering why gathering to raise concerns about violence against women in a democratic country would result in our arrest. Had we been arrested? This was a question we kept coming back to and getting no answers.
Ratnaboli got a call from a television crew that was waiting outside and we thought that we could go down and meet them. Swapna's visit to the doctor and the steady stream of new arrivals had somehow dislodged the bench that had been placed across the doorway. Ratna and I decided to go down to meet the TV folk and as we went down the stairs, one of our Green guards ran after us frantically. We were pretending that we owned the place and ran it but we did not, and could not meet the TV crew - they were not allowed in and we were not allowed out. We spoke to the TV journalist on the phone and explained that we did not know why we were there and whether there were any charges against us.
We were buoyed by the telephone calls and messages of support we were getting - many of us could even access Facebook, but a feeling of annoyance was building up. We heard that the Home Secretary had asked for another half an hour before they could explain why we were there. Then we were told that the Commissioner of Police was expected in his office around 11 am and we would know only after that.
We asked for mineral water because we wanted some interaction with the authorities. A policeman told us that the water they had provided was safe for drinking but if we insisted on mineral water, we would have to pay. We paid and someone was sent off to buy mineral water. Of course, all this took much to-ing and fro-ing but finally, several bottles of mineral water arrived.
A friend called and asked where we had been kept. I explained that we were not in cells but in a corridor with three pedestal fans. He asked whether we had drinking water and access to toilets. I told him that the cell doors had been left open and each cell, which could comfortably accommodate fifteen people, had an attached toilet. The toilets were spacious but had no doors. Imagine sharing a room with many people and then going into the attached bathroom and having to do everything without a modicum of privacy!
Tired of waiting for word from men in power like the Home Secretary or the Police Commissioner, we decided to seek information a little more actively. A few of us went downstairs and began asking why we were there. Some people met us with looks of complete incomprehension and suddenly someone said that we could meet the Investigating Officer of our case. And so, three or four fairly intimidating women marched into the room and got the first glimpse of Sub Inspector Manish Singh, our IO. He told us that our paperwork was being done - he would come upstairs to get our names - and we would be booked under Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code. More than two hours after we had been in custody we got some idea of why we were there!
Section 151 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973, says
151. Arrest to prevent the commission of cognizable offences.
(1) A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognizable offence may arrest, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented.
(2) No person arrested under sub- section (1) shall be detained in custody for a period exceeding twenty- four hours from the time of his arrest unless his further detention is required or authorised under any other provisions of this Code or of any other law for the time being in force.
What was the offence we could have committed? We had said very clearly that we wanted to give a letter to the Chief Minister. Is that an offence in our democracy? Is expressing anger, anguish and concern for rapes and murders an offence? Is singing songs on the road an offence?
The IO came with a sheaf of papers to inform us of the charges against us and to get our 'particulars'. As you know, in India, in all official documents, a woman has to say that she is the daughter of (son in the case of a man) or wife of so and so. So as soon as we were asked to provide our father's/husband's names the IO got an earful about the patriarchal mindset of the Indian state.
It was almost twelve noon and none of us had had anything to eat since leaving home early in the morning. Sarmistha started feeling quite faint and we were also getting hungry. We asked for food and requested that Sarmistha urgently be given something to eat. The bald constable (henceforth PC), who had been quite visible in our early hours in the lock up, made an appearance:
PC: "I hear you're asking for food. See, it's your fault that you are hungry."
PC: "Yes, we'd offered you tea and biscuits soon after you came and one of you said that you didn't want any."
Me: "One of our colleagues is feeling faint. We're hungry, so please hurry up."
I bit my tongue and did not ask why the tea had not been sent anyway.
PC came back after a bit and asked whether we wanted samosas and sweets or some rice, one chapati and vegetables. We wanted samosas and sweets, we replied with a straight face.
This was followed by two people from a tea shop bringing us tea and biscuits. We were hungry, irritable and worried because we still had no idea when we were likely to be released. The man with the tea kettle heard our discussions and advised us to ask the police for information. "If you don't ask they may keep you here till eight or nine in the evening," he said.
So we went downstairs again to meet our IO. He and a woman colleague told us that they were filling up our arrest memos and yes, we would be released soon. Anuradha asked why we were not being given an unconditional release but the IO and his colleague said that it was CrPC 151 for us. My phone was running out of charge and I had already asked our Green Police guards if they could get me a Nokia charger. They had said no. However, downstairs, I repeated my request. A young man in plainclothes took out a Nokia charger from his backpack, asked for my phone and put it on charge.
"You are young people, learn," said Ratnaboli to the Green Police, as I thanked the young man.
That morning, while many of us were being bundled into police vans and then driven to Lalbazar, we had tried talking to the policewomen. We had asked them why they were picking up women campaigners who were asking for freedom and safety for women. Did they not think that we need to raise our voices to protest violence against women and girls? One of them said that they were in agreement with what we were saying and doing but they had to pick us up because they had been ordered to do so. We had tried talking to the Green Police but had been met by absolute incomprehension.
The clock was ticking away. We had no clear idea of when we would be released, whether we would be released from Lalbazar or if we would be taken to court. In the meanwhile, our IO was summoned by his seniors and he left. We began talking to the other men and women in the room - asking them why we had been arrested. We were asking the state administration to ensure safety for women. Why was it wrong to protest against violence against women? Did they not think that they should join us in our struggle?
One of the policemen said that people did not understand the difficulties the police faced. No one cared if policemen were killed as they worked to protect people. We replied that more often than not the police appeared to be working against the people than for them.
We went upstairs to rejoin our colleagues and partake of the samosas and sweets - we were allocated one of each. We also heard that the Commissioner of Police was holding a Press Conference. Very soon we began getting phone calls and text messages saying that people had heard that we had been released. No, we had not been released. We were still inside the lock-up.
Since the world outside had heard that we had been released but we had not, some of us went downstairs again. Sarmistha had begun a discussion with the police there about how they managed to work in an office with no windows, day in and day out.
Finally, it appeared that the IO had our arrest memos ready. We gathered up our things and went downstairs. During this daylong wait, some colleagues had spread out newspapers and taken naps. They were woken up and given news of our soon- to-be-release. We signed our arrest memos, took copies, our placards were returned to us and we were ready to leave, but then were met with a locked gate and an unsmiling policeman. He told us that he had not yet received orders to unlock the gate and let us out!
Were we angry? Yes! What did we do? We sang "Ora amader gaan gaite dey na, shilpi songrami Paul Robeson, ora bhoy peyechhe amader" (O Paul Robeson, revolutionary artist, they don't let us sing our songs, they are afraid of us.) I was musing about the hundreds of thousands of times this song must have been sung in the Lalbazar lock up by political prisoners of different hues. The order for opening the doors finally arrived and we were let out through a side entrance, and we left singing "Amar protibaader bhasha, amar protirodher aagun digun jole jeno" (Let my language of protest, my fire of resistance, burn doubly bright).
We were greeted outside by colleagues, friends and mediapersons. A young TV journalist showed me the statement made by the Commissioner of Police, Kolkata, where he said that we had been asked to disperse but we had not listened to them and so the police had been compelled to arrest us because they feared for the Chief Minister's life! Of course, the Commissioner had overlooked the fact that we had not been asked to disperse. Women and girls in our state are facing terrible violence and many have been killed but that does not galvanise the police and administration of West Bengal into action. Activists from a women's rights network, drawing attention to horrific violence against women, are seen as a threat to the Chief Minister's life and taken into police custody.
Is this how democracy works in India? The people of West Bengal had voted Mamata Banerjee in believing that she understood the problems and aspirations of ordinary people and was willing to listen to them. The Chief Minister, it appears, no longer thinks it necessary to listen to voices of the people. She has been quick to condemn women, as we saw during the Park Street rape but she has yet to do anything to let the women of West Bengal know that she and the government are committed to ensuring women's freedom and their right to life and liberty, both within their homes and outside.