The history of caste-based discrimination in the socio-political landscape of India has been quite distressing, to say the least. Although varied in their apparent range, there has always been some common elements that can be observed when these incidents are analyzed through a critical lens. The tragic event that unfolded surrounding the death, or more precisely, the murder of Chuni Kotal is a gut-wrenching episode of institutionalized discrimination, administrative indifference and reckless cover-ups. The horrific predicament and what followed after can be categorically distinguished into three parts, namely – the causality, the suicide itself, and the aftermath, where the actual act of suicide is the only element that even remotely resembles sanity.
(In pic: Rajib Gandhi giving an award to Chuni Kotal in Delhi, 26 January 1988. Image Courtesy: Desh Patrika dated 31 December 1992 [via the Facebook Page of Chuni Kotal])
The social identity of Chuni Kotal is crucial for understanding her unfortunate predicament. Born in the year 1965, she hailed from a community that was known as Lodha Savaras, a tribe from the state of West Bengal, India, that was looked down upon for being “primitive.” The sheer prejudice against the tribe as a whole was one of the key reasons why Chuni had to fight such an uphill battle in every step of her life. Although Chuni was a member of the Lodhas, this, however, was not her sole identity. She also happened to be the first woman belonging to such a ‘primitive’ community who managed to successfully become a graduate. But her tremendous achievement was rendered futile, as she remained unemployed till 1982. Finally, she was appointed as a Lodha social worker in 1983 at the Jhargram ITDP where her primary work was to survey local villages. This by no means was a job that complemented her academic excellence.
Chuni did not have the privilege to cherish a luxurious life, right from her childhood. She worked in the harvest fields and found herself starving frequently. However, although she had only nominal capital to buy her books, it did not stop her from studying rigorously. Chuni's unrelenting dedication and determination would continue even in the latter part of her life, when, according to many, she would have to cycle 20-25 kilometres a day, for her survey-related activities. The amount of effort she put into her work was immense and only increased with time. She finally graduated in 1985. Later, in 1987 she was assigned the position of superintendent in Rani Shiromoni SC and ST Girls’ Hostel at Midnapore, a district town in West Bengal. As illustrated by Mahasweta Devi in great detail, her working condition was very repressive, as she had to put in 24 hours a day, with 365 being the number of her working days. Additionally, her recruitment happened via the then SC and ST welfare office of Midnapore which routinely maltreated her. When it came to leaving the hostel for a few hours or a day, Chuni was required to take permission from the head office. The procedure was unfavourable since the officers refused to exhibit a tinge of sympathy for her, due to the sole reason that she was a Lodha. Thus she was hardly allowed breaks from her work or holidays. To sum it up, she had to maintain her workflow in an environment which was as suffocating as it was hostile towards her. Her identity, the fact that she was nothing more than a woman who belonged to a hated community sealed her fate forever.
The range of discrimination also extended to the individuals that were close to her. For example, her father, who was terribly sick on an occasion, was explicitly denied the access to a mere hospital-bed, and thus was forced to stay in her room itself. Not only her father but her brother, who suffered from a fractured leg, along with her niece, who was suffering from food poisoning, also faced a similar predicament. As bizarre as it may sound, an officer from the district office went to the extent of accusing Chuni of “entertaining” men in her room. The chain of events that ensued from this incident scarred Chuni for life. The toxic environment of her workplace drove her to take the necessary steps. In the events that followed, Chuni, unable to cope with the increasing uneasiness, decided to visit the Writers’ Building – the secretariat building of the Government of West Bengal, located in Kolkata – with two requests. Firstly, she wanted a transfer from her current job, and secondly, she demanded a healthier workspace. To no one’s surprise, the authority remained completely silent and absolutely indifferent to her pleas, ultimately rendering her efforts futile.
Mahasweta Devi, who delved deep into the plight of Chuni Kotal, has been extremely critical of the various institutions which led Chuni to despair and eventually to suicide. Referring to the SC and ST Departments as hunters, Mahasweta, in “Story of Chuni Kotal,” describes Chuni as the quarry. In the subsequent events, as highlighted by Mahasweta, matters took a turn for the worse when Chuni enrolled her name as an MA student in Anthropology in Vidyasagar University. The entire fiasco started at that point, as Falguni Chakravarty, a male professor, kept abusing and harassing Chuni mentally, the reason being her belonging to a caste that was “criminal” and hence, according to him, she had no right to higher education. The university authority, including the then Head of the Department of Anthropology, continued to remain dormant. Due to the professor intentionally marking her absent in class even when she had been present for days, she was eventually debarred from sitting for the examination and thus she had to lose an entire academic year. Not only that, the district office asked her to leave the hostel. Mahasweta further elaborates her point, expressing her disappointment for the then Left Front rule as they were totally incompetent in resolving the issue. The very first woman graduate belonging to a backward community was harassed and abused and no steps were taken. Chuni suffered tremendously due to this. Unfortunately, things did not end at that. Chuni’s second attempt at the examination went in vain too, as the professor gave her low marks, causing her to lose not just one, but two years.
Years of injustice shaped Chuni. Perhaps that doggedness was the only reason why she did not give up even after her career, which was ripe with potential, was shattered into pieces. Repeated complaints of hers forced the then education minister to look into the matter and eventually, in 1991, it was decided that an “enquiry commission” comprising 3 principals from 3 district colleges would be formed. The so-called “commission,” however, was nothing more than a practical joke as the constituent members indulged themselves in dehumanizing her for belonging to a tribe that supposedly bred criminals. She was badly abused. All that the commission did was to hurt her more instead of providing her with justice. The sheer incompetence and rudeness of the dormant commission made Chuni feel like a hostage at gunpoint. Also, due to her lack of resources, she could not fight these forces of injustice which were much bigger than her. Concerns and desperation clouded her, and the sense of absolute futility made it even worse.
The final nail in the coffin was the persuasion by her Head of the Department to sue the perpetrators, who, in her case, was the professors. As usual for a person of her stature, she was scared beyond imagination to go to measures that extreme as she was naive and lacked any prior experience. The whole persuasion might seem like a good-hearted effort on behalf of the professor at first glance, but the reality of the situation was different. It was a case of blatant manipulation that was performed forcefully to push Chuni to the absolute edge, even though she was completely aware of the sourness between her and the authority. The examination that was due to be held in September turned out to be the death blow. She was in no state to displease her professor as she was apparently a “well-wisher,” so the only option open in front of her was to agree, no matter the consequence. Chuni had nothing to lose by that point. Her career was doomed long before it had the opportunity to bloom, the predators were roaming freely and the word “justice” seemed like a concept too alien to be realised by any stretch of the imagination. So, she blamed Falguni Chakravarty for her predicament by expressing her distaste for her professor, stating how inhuman he was to her. It was her hope for a good academic career which comforted her even when she felt she was just one step away from death. However, when her career was at stake, she was totally heartbroken.
According to Mahasweta, Chuni had already decided her fate by 13 August 1992. She decided to visit her husband on 14 August. Her husband, Manmatha Savar, whom she married in 1990 but with whom she could not stay due to her occupation, was also a Lodha. He used to work in a railway workshop, but the difference between their academic qualifications did not create any friction. Chuni was seemingly relaxed as she was finally free of any tension. It was planned that they would leave for Gohalodhi, Chuni’s village, on the 16 August. Manmatha left for his work at 6:15 that morning, and by the time he returned, at 10:15 a.m., Chuni had freed herself from her lifelong torment by hanging herself.
The aftermath of this incident was simultaneously disheartening and eye-opening. It was a wake-up call for the marginalized communities to fight for emancipation from the inherent casteism that, like an invisible parasite, existed in Bengal from time immemorial. The startling demise of Chuni Kotal posed serious questions regarding the true nature of the so-called “liberal” culture of Bengal.
As Prerna Singh mentions, Chuni’s death shocked international scholars like Professor Nicolas B Dirks from Columbia University and Professor Jan Breman at the University of Amsterdam. Chuni was featured in Mahasweta Devi’s The Book of Hunters. The Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha played a crucial part in the movement that erupted due to Chuni’s institutional murder, by organising street plays and performances on the streets of Kolkata which aimed at condemning the officials and teachers of Vidyasagar University. The Annual Chuni Kotal Memorial Lecture happening every year since 1993 was a direct offshoot of this movement. The Department of Education of the Government of India went to take initiative in producing a motivational video surrounding the life of Chuni Kotal.
Ironically, the reality of the caste system that encompasses the socio-political aspect of Bengal has not shifted much, if at all. The so-called “backward” castes continue to remain “backward” due to their suppression in an otherwise “progressive” culture of Bengal. The statistics that substantiate such this has been provided by Sandip Mondal in an article entitled “Let’s Talk about Caste in Bengal.” According to him, a rather noticeable difference between the backward and forward castes can be observed in higher education. Compared to 10.37 per cent population belonging to forward castes that graduate or opt for higher studies, only 2.97 per cent of people belonging to the scheduled castes opt for the same.
“Story of Chuni Kotal.” This is the title of the article Mahasveta Devi authored to introspect the situation. The term “story” might, perhaps, be justified in the sense that the totality of the situation was so disturbing, that it could not, by any means, be related to anything remotely resembling reality. It was indeed a story, a story that leaves us baffled, agitated, ashamed. However, what if this so-called story – which might appear to be unrealistic – is, in fact, the day-to-day experience of discrimination and self-effacement of the caste subalterns of this country? The predicament of Chuni Kotal became relevant once again when Rohith Vemula, a student belonging to Dalit community and also a PhD student of Hyderabad University, decided to end his life under a situation that had an uncanny resemblance to that of Chuni’s. Rohith Vemulas don’t die. Chuni Kotals don’t die. They remind us, time and again, of the society we belong to. They ignite our inner selves to turn the world into a better place to inhabit for generations to come. They make us dream of a utopia, where nobody is an outcast, where flowers do not perish before they bloom.
Devi, Mahasweta. “Story of Chuni Kotal.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 27, no. 35 (1992), 1836–1837. www.jstor.org/stable/4398803. Accessed 27 Feb. 2020.
Mondal, Sandip. “Let’s Talk about Caste in Bengal.” Groundxero, 23 July 2019, https://www.groundxero.in/2019/07/23/lets-talk-about-caste-in-bengal/. Accessed 10 March 2020.
Singh, Prerna. “Chuni Kotal: First Woman Graduate from Lodha Tribal Community.” Feminisminindia, 29 June 2018, https://feminisminindia.com/2018/06/29/chuni-kotal-essay/. Accessed 10 March 2020.
Dhritimay Sarkar studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. His main research interests include science-fiction, cyberpunk, dystopia, cosmic and existential horror. An avid gamer and aspiring artist, he is the narrative director and visual designer of an independent game studio and is passionate about portraying the medium of video games as a viable form of narrative and art.