“In hindsight, a lethal oversight”, screams the headline running across the breadth of The Telegraph’s front page today.

The alarm ringing through the Kolkata newspaper’s headline mirrors the shock rippling through Bengal over the gangrape case of a septuagenarian nun in a missionary in West Bengal. The incident happened in Ranaghat, a town with a sizeable Christian population, which recently witnessed the robbery and rape at a convent over the weekend. Local media reports suggest that the local police chose to ignore a complaint filed by the nuns several days before the attack. In their complaint, reports Anadabazar Patrika, the nuns of the Convent of Jesus and Mary High School had said that unidentified people had threatened them with sexual violence. Not only that, some people had allegedly told one nun, “We will kill you.”

Image used for representational purposes only: PTIImage used for representational purposes only: PTI

Image used for representational purposes only: PTI

The Telegraph reports: “Ranaghat’s sub-divisional officer (administrative head) confirmed that he had received a complaint from the school on March 6 and a police team was sent to the institution to sort out the problem.”
Reportedly, the police dispersed a group of people creating a ruckus outside the school on March 6. Asked whether there was any follow up action after the incident, SDO Rajarshi Mitra told The Telegraph, “Please don’t ask me anything regarding what happened after the police intervention.”

According to witness accounts given to the police, after vandalising the institution and bagging Rs 12 lakh from the school’s safe, the armed men directed the guard to get all the nuns in one room. The guard conveyed this to the three nuns, who gathered in one room. Then the assailants reportedly asked who was the senior-most and then dragged the principal of the school to the adjoining room where she was raped.

Despite evidence of punitive targeting, however,  The Times of India reports that the police have ‘ruled out any such motive’ behind the rape and are calling it a case of robbery, though they are probing extortion and revenge angles in the case.

While the motive behind the attack is yet to be clarified, it is telling that the police is still looking for the assailants — even though 8 have been detained for questioning — and this despite damning CCTV footage.

The theory of a robbery gone wrong seems thin given the chain of events. Why didn’t the robbers simply leave with the Rs 12 lakh they bagged? However, the sexual assault and the manner in which it was orchestrated makes it very clear that the attackers wanted to send some kind of message by raping a 71-year-old nun.

Now, we cannot be sure that the motive was communal given the few facts on hand. But the local police’s unwillingness to investigate the possibility that the sexual assault was motivated by communal intent is unconscionable, and hints at attempts to hastily impose an expedient interpretation on the incident.

That said, there are other sound explanations for the rape, which again point to another kind of police misconduct.

This one relates to the altercation that broke out in the school on 6 March.

According to The Telegraph, a ninth standard boy was expelled by the school after a fellow girl student complained that he had been uploading pictures on a social networking sites to malign her. The boy had faced a similar accusation in the past, when the school let him off with a warning. After it was found that the boy was indeed up to this mischief again, he was expelled. His enraged father was the one who led the mob to the school on 6 March and he threatened to sexually assault the school principal in front of that mob and other onlookers.

Now, here’s a worrying bit. The man, despite threatening to sexually assault a woman in public, with witnesses around, faced no legal action. In fact, he even flew out of the country on 11 March, three days before the attack.
Ironically enough, in a society in which verbal threats against women is normalised despite being punishable by the law, the nuns in this school had taken the right step forward and lodged a police complaint.

The Telegraph reports that the complaint was not even filed as a FIR, but recorded in a general diary — usually reserved for complaints regarding a loss of phone, ID card or general disputes.

Given the flimsy security at the school – the three nuns had just the elderly guard to keep the compound and the residents safe – their vulnerability to attack was patently obvious, and yet there was no move to offer them any kind of security.

The rape may or may not have been an act of vengeance –and  with or without communal overtones — but what makes it worse is that it could have been easily prevented if only the police had some interest in the well-being of these women. A point that will be lost in the political din that has inevitably followed. The Left parties, BJP and Congress are blaming the incident on the state of lawlessness under Mamata who in turn is pointing a finger at communal forces.

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Nun gang-raped in West Bengal: Communal violence or act of vengeance?