“Matribhumi” No More: What An Attack on an All-Woman Train in Bengal Reveals About the State's Continuing Problems

On 24 August 2015, hundreds of men launched a vicious attack on the women passengers travelling by Matribhumi, a local train that is reserved for women. Malcolm Chapman/ Getty Images
07 September, 2015

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.

Around the same time that men in Bengal were erupting into rage, a similar proposal was being greeted with a set of very different reactions in the United Kingdom. In August 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, aspirant for leadership of the Labour Party, stirred a debate on sexual harassment by mooting the idea of a separate carriage for women. British Rail trains had abolished all-woman carriages in 1977. So, what had now prompted proposals for its renewal? The answer lay in the increasing incidence of sexual harassment on British public transport. According to the annual report of the British Transport Police (BTP), there has been a 25 percent jump in numbers of sexual harassment on public transport as reported in the past year. The BTP report further stated that 1400 sexual attacks took place on public transport in 2014.

But the idea of an all-woman carriage did not win the approval of all, including the women it was meant to serve. A report in The Guardian said: “Rail passengers have reacted with bemusement to the idea of introducing women-only train carriages in Britain, but women’s groups have welcomed a wider debate on sexual harassment after the idea was floated.”

At home in India however, more often than not, women do welcome the idea of a separate space to travel in. Much like British society, Indian society is patriarchal in its roots. The sexual harassment of women on public transport is just one of its many visible forms, and a strong reason, many believe, to advocate for separate women’s carriages or trains.

Within India, however, Bengal prides itself on being a matribhumi state as opposed to the pitribhumi states of the Hindi heartland—a matriarchal society, not a patriarchal one. It is not uncommon to hear ordinary Bengalis, as well as political leaders representing the state, wax eloquent on Bengal’s gender equality, its respect for women, its past historic traditions of social reform, the iconic personalities of male reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ram Mohan Roy. But the bitter truth is that Bengal, much like the rest of the nation, has rarely seen women in any role except that of a mother or sister. Regardless of the shades of radicalism that have defined its politics, individual autonomy has been conscpicously absent from public and private space,  and the conversations around gender have been stripped of any radicalism. Patriarchal roots, instead of being removed, have been inadvertently nurtured.

But then again, how often is the promise or hope of change enough to combat the problems of a flawed system? The last time I was in Kolkata was on the eve of the 2011 assembly elections. I remember thinking that I could sense a rare optimism in the ambience of Bengal; a keen sense of anticipation that the over three–decade old regime of the Left Front—the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)—was finally going to have to cede ground to a new dispensation.. Many even then did express scepticism about Banerjee, then the nominee of the opposition, Trinamool Congress (TMC), and her ability to effect a transformation in the true sense of the word. Yet it seemed that the people of Bengal had almost willed themselves to believe that that their state would finally see the end of political violence and re-invent its politics and political culture.

That, no doubt, was a tall order; something I realised acutely on my arrival in Kolkata in late August, four years after the state had seemed poised to make a transition to a hopeful future.  The instruments of violence sharpened and perfected by the erstwhile ruling CPI-M are now wielded by the TMC. “The CPI-M members have moved over to the TMC and are now acting as their agents of violence,” a taxi driver said. He told me that he loves Kolkata and finds it to be better than Delhi and Bombay, where he has worked in the past. But the politics in Bengal, he regretfully said, continue to remain enmeshed in the networks of violence running vertically through the body of the state, leaving it with no respite to renew itself.

As one moves away from Kolkata and into small towns, the motifs of violence become more pronounced. Sanjoy, a resident of Konnagar in the Hoogly district, told me when I met him the last week of August, that he used to be a political activist during the Left Front regime. “I was a follower of Manas. After his assassination, I gradually moved away from politics. Now I stay away from all political parties.” A former CPI-M worker and later party renegade, Manas Roy was a household name in Konnagar in the mid-1990s. His soaring popularity among the people of Konnagar as an independent local worker turned him into an enemy of all the three parties which were operating in the area—the CPI-M, the Indian National Congress and the TMC. On a rainy two decades or so ago, as Manas was returning home, he was gunned down by workers of all three parties, who had apparently buried the hatchet to put to death their common adversary. “Nothing has changed since—violence continues unabated. Just the other day someone beheaded a small statue of Manas that the locals had put up at the market place,” said Sanjoy. Promises of poriborton—change—notwithstanding, it seems that in Bengal, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.