When she was the railway minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2010, Mamata Banerjee, now the chief minister of West Bengal, had launched an all-woman local train in her home state. Named Matribhumi—motherland, the train seldom ran at full occupancy, because of which the government and the railway ministry granted men permission to travel in three of its carriages, effectively making it a uniquely “general” vehicles for all passengers. This policy change however ran into opposition from women passengers who, in August 2015, led protests at railway stations, stalling trains and demanding that Matribhumi be reconverted to a women’s only train. The men, on their part, refused to let go of the special privilege granted to them. A series of confrontations between passengers finally compelled Banerjee to declare that Matribhumi would once again be used only by women. At a joint press conference on 21 August 2015, Banerjee and the union railway minister Suresh Prabhu announced this decision.
On 24 August 2015, hundreds of men launched a vicious attack on the women passengers travelling by Matribhumi. Unabashed in their masculinity, they declared their resolve to not allow the Matribhumi local to run. Holding up the local train that runs along the route through the district of North 24 Parganas, furious mobs entered the coaches, abusing and manhandling the women, most of whom cowered under their seats. Some even hid underneath the train on the railway track.
The attack on 24 August was preceded by a series of similar blockades and threats by irate men who demanded that Matribhumi be scrapped. It was not just the women passengers of Matribhumi local who found themselves in the line of this unprecedented male ire. All those who happened to be in the vicinity of the carriage and even women in other trains, on the platform, and in nearby streets, bore the brunt of the violence.
A day after the incident took place, the front-page of the Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika, carried detailed reports of the frenzied violence that was inflicted upon the women travelling by that train. In a graphic report, journalist Ujjwal Chakraborty who takes this route to work, narrated the horrifying incidents that unfolded before him: men beating women passengers without restraint, storming the train platforms and coaches. “Running towards the direction [of the chaos], I saw a woman being dragged down from the ladies’ special and getting beaten by men... Thrashed, the woman started running... then stones started coming her way. The crowd still running after her.” Chakraborty reported that photographs of the train blockade were being circulated on Whatsapp and Facebook to mobilise male protesters and beef up the mob. Posters screaming “Ladies Hatao”—Remove the Ladies—were plastered on the body of the train with the men declaring that they would not rest till the Matribhumi local was converted into a Pitribhumi—the land of the father.
Some women passengers reportedly said that many among the aggressors happened to be men they travelled with regularly. They expressed their utter bewilderment at the familiar dhoti-clad bhadrolok—gentlemen—they knew by their faces turning into such a violent rabble of attackers and raring to assault them; an all-woman train was all that it took to rip apart the veneer of the ostensibly progressive Bengali man.