Suicide of Uttam Mondal and Arrest of Shuma Mondal: The Dalit Protest in Nonadanga
Georgy Kuruvilla Roy
(For Dalit Camera Through Un-Touchable Eyes)
It's a given that if a casteist government is at the helm of affairs, Dalits are bound to suffer the most, and if they were to protest this casteism, they would have to inevitably contest repressive apparatuses like the police forces and ideological apparatuses like the NGOs. This is what happened in Nonadanga, West Bengal, where a group of Namasudras protested against the torture and murder of Uttam Mondal, a Dalit man. The casteist media joined forces with the state to call the protests 'mob fury', thereby sweeping under the carpet the socio-political context of the protests.
On 5th October, 2013, Shuma Mondal, wife of Uttam Mondal, filed a verbal complaint at the police camp situated in the Nonadanga slum and rehabilitation area against domestic violence. The camp, where one cannot file cases, sent six policemen headed by Pasha to 'arrest' Uttam Mondal. The police seized Mondal and assaulted him all the way to the camp. At the camp, the torture of Mondal continued unabated and even after his parents' continued requests, the police refused to stop harassing Mondal and asked the parents to bring the complainant to the camp. Upon this, Shuma Mondal came to the camp and requested the police forces to release Uttam. The officials, however, asked her for a written complaint. When Shuma wrote in the complaint that she was beaten four times, the police changed it to twenty times. The police also demanded Rs 25,000 from Uttam's parents for his release, which they refused. The police continued with the physical abuse of Uttam for an hour more before releasing him. Uttam came back home and was found hanging in his room next morning.
Nonadanga Police Torture: The Protest
The incident has brought out the everyday police violence that the Dalits in Nonadanga have to face in its most heinous form. On 6th October, 2013, a group of 1,000 protesters gathered around the police camp demanding the arrest of Pasha, who led the team that tortured Uttam Mondal, and the removal of the police camp from the locality. "After the setting up of the police camp here, there has been an increase in the number of arrack shops in the area. There were only two arrack shops before the camp was set up, but the number has risen to five now. Moreover, any organizational move made by us is squashed by the police. We do not want the police camp here", said Bapi Mondal, a Dalit activist, to 'Dalit Camera'.
To restore a fall in their legitimacy after the suicide of Uttam, the police officials arrested the complainant Shuma Mondal and three of her relatives. It is then that prominent newspapers joined hands with the state and police to characterize the protesters as 'unruly mob' who demanded the arrest of Shuma – this was the demand of only Uttam Mondal's family while the larger demand of the protesters was the arrest of errant police officials and removal of the police camp. This characterisation is problematic, not only because of its falsity, but because it reduces an issue of Dalit representation as 'mob fury', thereby devaluing their demands and shutting the public sphere to their legitimate demands. Here, one can see how the dichotomy between the 'bhadralok' and 'chotalok' in Bengal assuming ominous proportions, laying bare the public sphere's casteist bias.
The Woman's Question or the Lack Thereof
While the protest at the police camp is indeed legitimate and lacks support from the public, the elision of the woman's question is disturbing. If Uttam Mondal had to face alienation only from the upper castes, Shuma Mondal, owing to her filing a complaint, had to leave the locality fearing violence and was arrested by the police. If Uttam Mondal's suicide led to a huge protest, Shuma Mondal's arrest hardly created a flutter. "We want them to be released from jail, but we wouldn't protest for that", said Bapi Mondal. It is this day-to-day normalisation of violence on women that remains uncontested in the area. Majority of the people of the slum say that they live in one-room apartments which create significant financial and social stress, especially when the number of family members living in an apartment increases. Women at the slum have to bear the casteism of the state and the resultant domestic violence that erupts due to the frequent stress suffered by the respective families. Uttam Mondal was made to fall at his wife's feet which resulted in him committing suicide, claimed Bapi Mondal. While Uttam Mondal is the direct victim of police violence, shouldn't we call Shuma a victim of a socio-political situation that perpetuates patriarchal casteism?
The media, as illustrated by this Times of India article, focused on the purportedly anti-woman stance taken by the Dalit community leaders and just skimmed the surface of the incident for sensational reporting. This is reflected in the comments made by civil society organisations as well. "These people are uneducated. Therefore, we cannot expect them to have pro-woman views", a leader of a prominent Marxist organization working in the area, told 'Dalit Camera'. However, if we were to lay bare the socio-political background against which the discourse on the Dalit woman is floated by the multiple stake-holders of the incident, we would know that the progressive organizations, the police and the state are generating their 'progressive views' from the wellspring of the misery of the Dalits, especially the Dalit women, in Nonadanga. It would look as if it is the very casteist nature of this progressiveness that has been a bane of their existence.
The Progressive State, Dalits and the Dalit Woman
The state, for instance, to do away with the problem of the evicted Dalits, came up with the rehabilitation program. The Dalits complain about lack of proper water facilities in the rehabilitated area. Water has to be fetched from public taps and carried to their rooms situated in the third and fourth floors. Similar is the case with schooling and hospital facilities - the only school in the locality was demolished by the State machinery. Besides, the government took Rs 5,000 each from the evicted families for rehabilitation. The civil society organizations that joined hands with the protesters to resist the eviction of Dalits from Gobindapur Rail Colony were more than satisfied with the minimal rehabilitation provided to Dalits. A demand for proper compensation, for example in the form of land, which would help the Dalits stop being at the mercy of the State was never made.
When the Dalits (majorly Namasudras and Poundra Kshatriyas) speak about their plight in the rehabilitation colonies, these organizations listen to them with nothing more than a cynical concern. The tactics adopted by the organizations show how they want to give the Dalits a pittance, at a greater cost to the Dalits themselves, so that the Dalits become the bare bodies on which the upper castes can inscribe their values of progressiveness and vanguardism. The casteism of these progressive groups can be seen from the aforementioned words of a member of a civil society group whose efforts go nothing beyond supporting the state's rehabilitation plans. By laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Dalits, aren't these organizations using the Dalits to just establish and further their extremely limited progressive views? For example, why didn't they fight the arrest of Shuma Mondal?
The casteist patriarchy works in such a way as to paint only the Dalit men as the handmaidens of patriarchy, absolving the police, the state and the progressive organisations, which played their respective parts in creating the miserable situation in the first place. Would an upper caste woman and man have to suffer the same fate as Shuma Mondal or Uttam Mondal, in the name of domestic violence? When the Dalits at Nonadanga protest, the 'progressive' media term it as a case of 'mob fury' against a woman, where the Dalit woman becomes the center of a 'pro-woman discourse' deployed to reduce the complexity of the Dalit question as a case of backwardness and fury. The question to ponder is if the protest against Uttam Mondal's death was seen as a Dalit protest, why was Shuma Mondal's grievance not deemed a central issue to the cause? While the media's concern to rescue the 'Dalit woman' from the 'fury' of the Dalit men needs to be criticised, in the last analysis, the sober truth remains that the community was doubly victimised in the entire discourse of mobilisation, progressiveness and resistance that played out in the Dalit colony of Nonadanga.
The words of Asha Kowtal, member, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), who spoke to 'Dalit camera' a few weeks ago, are highly relevant in this context: "The Dalit movement is male-dominated like most social movements are and within this structure, a serious dearth of strong Dalit women's voices is felt. This trend should change and is changing. It is not a question of distinguishing between Dalit men's issues and Dalit women's issues, as if, as a woman, I will deal with women's rape, and a man will deal with mass violence or discrimination because it is a man's issue. Dalit women form 50% of the Dalit community and are vulnerable to more violence and discrimination. Until and unless all of us within the Dalit movement unite, be it men or women, since we cannot afford to split among ourselves on this issue, non-Dalits would come up and raise these issues, thinking only we suffer from these many problems. Therefore, we have to work among ourselves, recognizing it as a community issue. We have to find ways to address this, and this is really important".
N.B - While Shuma Mondal is still in jail remanded for 91 days, there has been no protest from the community or the progressive organizations, be they Marxist or feminist, on this issue. The limitation of this article also arises from the fact that the author could only speak to the family of Uttam Mondal while Shuma's family is said to have moved out from the locality.
Georgy Kuruvila Roy works with Dalit Camera in its Bengal Chapter. He is pursuing Phd in CSSS, Kolkata.