Allen Park is a wedge of green in the middle of the thriving, bustling Park Street in central Kolkata. As a young man, Peter Jordan courted his wife over languorous evenings in the park. Decades later, in 2012, down the street from the park, his daughter, Suzette, was raped inside a moving car.
Suzette Jordan died on March 13, after a bout of illness. Three days later, Peter Jordan found himself walking the length of Park Street with thousands of others. He held up a candle, not only in the memory of his daughter, but also in solidarity with another rape survivor: an elderly nun raped by dacoits in a school two hours away from Kolkata.
Early morning on March 14, dacoits broke into the Convent of Jesus and Mary in the town of Ranaghat in Nadia district. They desecrated church idols, stole money, and raped the eldermost nun. Subsequent investigations have led the state police to arrest an alleged illegal immigrant from Bangladesh – Shaikh Salim – and his accomplice, Gopal Sarkar, a resident of Ranaghat who had worked as a mason in the school.
The case might well turn out to have been motivated by plain greed and not religious hate. But when news about the assault spread, many Christians in Bengal found themselves sensing a larger agenda in it.
“Younger nuns were present there,” said Jordan. “Why rape a 75-year-old? It was as if someone wanted to make a statement.”
These fears might appear unfounded to many commentators. But the Christian community has so been bruised by the pronouncements of Hindutva groups threatening to convert its members under the rubric of ghar wapasi that even the Prime Minister’s belated assurance that his government would not tolerate religious violence failed to act as a balm.
And so, when a Christian institution was targetted and a nun raped, many in the community instinctively connected the events at Ranaghat to the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre. The sentiment came as relief to the Trinamool Congress-led government in West Bengal, which has floundered in the past in tackling public outrage over rape cases.
It reacted swiftly in Ranaghat. The case was handed over the criminal investigation department of the state police, and an announcement was made that it would be transferred to Central Bureau of Investigation in New Delhi.
Political observers see clever politics behind the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s promptness. “The civic elections are coming up in April,” said a journalist in Kolkata. “She cannot afford to alienate religious minorities.”
While the chief minister choose her words carefully, one of her ministers, Farhid Hakim lost no time in blaming the attack on the ghar wapasi campaign of Hindutva outfits. While ghar wapasi events have taken place elsewhere in the state, a member of the district administration and a Trinamool leader in Nadia told Scroll that there was little evidence of such activity in the district.
Furthermore, an Anglo-Indian MLA worked hard to try and influence the Catholic Church to keep its rallies muted.
Solidarity or Protest?
Father Irudaya Jothi was one of the first people in Kolkata’s Christian community to hear about the events at Ranaghat. “As the President of the Kolkata chapter of the Conference of Religious India [an umbrella group of Christian nuns and priests], I usually get all information fast,” he said.
Like many other Jesuit priests, Father Jothi doubles up as an activist. He works with the Udayani Social Action Forum and collaborates with other social activist groups, including women’s organisations.
When he received an invitation from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kolkata to attend a solidarity meeting on Park Street on March 16, a woman activist pointed out to him that it was specifically addressed to Christians. “I was not for” limiting the appeal to Christians, Father Jothi said. “What had happened [in Ranaghat] was a violation against all humanity.”
Father Jothi also found himself in disagreement over the name that had been give to the meeting. “Why solidarity? Why not protest?” Ahead of the meeting, when he went to the archdiocese office to attend a discussion, he was taken aback to see that an Anglo-Indian MLA of the Trinamool Congress was present there. “He was saying you cannot use a mic [microphone], you cannot allow anyone to speak...Such a frightened approach, I didn’t like it. He was saying people will come from different places, light a candle in front of the Mother Teresa statue and go. But I persuaded them that no, we will come together in the park, we will have a small podium, we will stand on that and speak. I asked the Archbishop what are you afraid of, the culprits are at large, at least we can ask what have they [the state government] done..”
The Archbishop of Kolkata, Thomas D’Souza, did eventually deliver a brief speech at the solidarity meeting, but without a microphone. Peter Jordan could not hear him at the back.
According to some media reports, the archbishop expressed unhappiness over the slow progress of the investigation, while commending the prompt response of the Mamata Banerjee government. More controversially, he reportedly blamed the central government for rising incidents of violence against Christians in the state.
Speaking with Scroll, however, the archbishop denied making a strong comment against the Centre. “I don’t remember having said this,” he said. “I have not been quoted correctly.”
It was precisely because he wanted “to be out of the politics” that he decided to keep the appeal for the solidarity meet limited to Christians, even while making it clear that all others were welcome. “We didn’t want to politicise the rally,” he said.
The archbishop added: “Right from the start, questions were being asked, do you see the hand of this party or that group. I said how can I say that, it is premature to make conclusions. Truth would come out only once the culprits are arrested.”
The reception in Ranaghat
If politics operated below the radar in Kolkata, in Ranaghat, it came out in the open.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee chose to visit the school on March 16, just as a rally organised by the Catholic Church was winding down the road where the school was located.
“It was an entirely silent and peaceful rally, no slogans at all,” said Father Swapan Mondal, who was at its helm. Several hundreds of local residents, a vast majority of them students and parents, followed him with placards asking for justice and asking political parties to stay away. Metres short of the school, however, they were stopped by the police.
“The superintendent came up to me and said, ‘Father, could you please stop? The chief minister’s car is about to reach,’” recalled Mondal. Forced to wait for about 50 minutes, the crowds grew restless, and when the chief minister’s car appeared, they began to chant “We want justice.”
Flustered, Mamata Banerjee turned irate. A student reported that she threatened to slap them. Father Mondal said he heard her threaten to take action against the protestors, accusing them of being members of opposition parties. Within days, the media reported that the police had filed a first information report against unknown protestors.
The day Scroll visited Ranaghat, a week after the attack, most parents waiting outside the school avoided conversation about the protest. Those who spoke, Riziya Begum, Supriya Gomes, Chayanika Bose, claimed they were unable to participate in the protest, but added that the local anger was spontaneous. “Everyone is now worried about sending their children to school,” said Bose, while holding up her five year old daughter, Aratrika, who added her commentary on the events. “She used to watch just cartoons but now she has started watching news,” explained the mother.
Outside the school at Ranaghat
But what exactly was the offence made by the police against the protestors? The police superintendent declined to meet or divulge more details about the FIR. Local journalists said that the FIR was a convenient tool to use against opposition leaders in the run-up to civic polls.
But the president of the Trinamool Congress in Nadia district, Gouri Shankar Dutta, came out in defence of the FIR. “To block the chief minister is a crime,” he said. Under which section of the law?. “I have right to move, you cannot block me, and she belongs to Z plus security category,” he said.
Dutta saw a political conspiracy in the events at Ranaghat. “Before the elections in Delhi, several attacks took place on churches. In West Bengal, the process for civic elections has already started. This vandalism may be a part of that...a conspiracy to discredit the state, to discredit the secular credentials of Bengal and Bengal government.”
Peter Jordan is familiar with the Trinamool’s penchant for conspiracies. When his daughter was raped, the chief minister described the charges as “sajano” or staged, accusing Suzette of participating in a political conspiracy against her government. [Mamata Banerjee had taken a leaf out of the book of the previous Communist government, which claimed that reports of rape in Nandigram and Singur had been engineered to unsettle it.]
“How the hell can her rape, your rape, my rape topple the government?” said the former school teacher. “We are not political. We just mind our own business. Suzzie likes to go to the disco, likes to have a drink. That does not make us bad people to be stamped out of existence.”
But barring few activists and journalists, no one came forward to support his daughter. A local pastor, Father Lucas, was attentive to Suzette, but the church remained silent as an institution. But what hurt the most was the way the Anglo-Indian community, to which the family belongs, looked away. “We have big leaders in Trinamool, like Derek O’Brien, the MP, Shane Calvert, the nominated MLA,” said Peter Jordan. “But they simply washed their hands off her.”
His face deadpan, but his eyes aflame behind his glasses, he added: “Being a small community, don’t you think we should have generated some support? Someone of my community has been raped, brutally raped, she could have died that night as well, [but] you don’t show support, you don’t show solidarity, you don’t show grief, you don’t show interest!”
For that reason, he was relieved to see the community mobilise in large numbers to express solidarity with the elderly nun. What was even better, he said, was that people of other communities, ‘Bengalis’ as he called them, turned up to show support. “Suzette went out of her way to support other rape victims. She said, ‘Daddy, if I don’t do this, what will happen to others. I want them to speak, complain, take action against men,’” he said. He added as an afterthought, “Rape is not religious, after all.”
Suzette Jordan’s father, Peter, and daughter, Rhea