In 1873, there was no Facebook. Or television. But there was a rape and murder case that became the subject of intense and widespread outpourings pertaining to a society’s response to violence against women.
I came across the ‘Elokeshi murder case’ some years ago while researching for my last novel. Historian Tanika Sarkar’s brilliant essay, “Talking about scandals”, in her book Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation explores the case within its remarkably broad historical context. This week, I found myself going back to Sarkar’s essay, drawn by some kind of echo-ping I found with the case that has battered our sensibilities more recently.
On May 27, 1873, Nobinchandra Banerji, a government employee who worked in Calcutta, hacked his 16-year-old wife, Elokeshi, to death with a bonti (fish cutter). As soon as Nobin had killed his wife, he gave himself up at the local police station, stating between sobs, “Hang me quick! This world is a wilderness to me. I am impatient to join my wife in the next.” This alone wouldn’t have caused that much of a ruckus (read: captured the ‘public imagination’). What did, however, were the events that had led up to the murder.
Elokeshi’s parents had encouraged their childless daughter to seek ‘divine childbirth medication’ from Madhavchandra Giri, a notorious and influential mahant (head priest-manager) of the Shiv temple at Tarakeshwar, a pilgrimage town north-west of Calcutta. With the connivance of her parents, the mahant raped the girl and continued a sexual relationship with her. On hearing the news, Nobin confronted his wife who, according to the court records, confessed everything to her husband. Nobin decided to forgive Elokeshi and leave Tarakeshwar for good with his wife to start things over again, which is when the mahant’s thugs reportedly stopped the couple from leaving town. In a fit of rage, Nobin decapitated Elokeshi.
There is, obviously, very little in common with the ‘Elokeshi murder case’ and the one that has horrified the ‘nation’ which we inhabit. In the December 16, 2012 Delhi rape case, six people brutally raped a woman, her injuries leading directly to her painful death. In Elokeshi’s case, she was raped by one man and murdered by another.
The 1873 case was brought to the Sessions Court at Serampore in south-west Bengal where the jury acquitted Nobin on grounds of insanity, which was later changed to life imprisonment by the Calcutta High Court. Two years later, however, he was granted a pardon because of public pressure. The rapist mahant was sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment that public opinion judged as “grossly lenient” (not unlike the present concern that one of the Delhi rapists will avoid ‘maximum punishment’ as he is a juvenile).
Dropcap OnUnlike the Delhi rape case 140 years later, however, very little sympathy for Elokeshi, the victim, is recorded from any quarters. It is Nobin, the killer, the ‘mad-with-sorrow’ husband who unsuccessfully tries to protect his wife’s (and own) honour, who is the object of sympathy in subsequent popular depictions.
It would be naïve to assume that other acts of brutality against women ‘somewhere, sometime’ were less horrific than the one in Delhi on December 16, 2012. The ‘Elokeshi rape-murder’ was also not the first recorded case of its kind. It wasn’t even the first major case in the pilgrimage town of Tarakeshwar. In 1824, another mahant, Shrimanta Giri, was put to death for murdering his mistress. (In 1912, another mahant was accused of raping a minor. In 1924, a satyagraha campaign was successfully launched against another mahant’s alleged sexual and financial misdemeanours.) And yet, it was the 1873 ‘Elokeshi murder’ that was picked up, becoming the subject of popular dissemination through plays, songs, pictures as well as through newspaper editorial comment for years to come. As Sarkar notes in her essay, “Within the scandal of 1873 I found barely a reference to 1824; whereas the expansion in the range of apparatus that made up the public sphere, and the relative downward reach developing at this time, partly account for the longer lease of life that the 1873 scandal enjoyed.”
This “expansion in range of apparatus” is marked by the arrival of ‘new technology’ in the form of cheap, portable wood-cut and metal-engraved prints of Kalighat paintings that had earlier depicted snapshots of ordinary Bengali life and scenes from mythological tales but now also included the day’s ‘tabloid’ news. If these inexpensive visual opinions were the equivalent of today’s Facebook comments, the popular plays based on the case were the 19th century version of prime time news TV. After running two flops, the newly created Bengal Theatre clocked up massive ‘TRPs’ with the play, Mohanter Ei Ki Kaj! (What Has The Mahant Done!), based on the ‘Elokeshi murder case’.
But if there’s one similarity that stands out between the two cases, it is the belief, more widespread than many of us would care to believe, that the woman is (at least partially) at fault for her victimhood. Sarkar writes how a series of prints depicts Elokeshi “in a dancing girl’s costume and casting an experienced, come-hither look at the mohunt. Clearly she is seducing him.”
Let’s just say that in the Delhi 2012 rape case, the spiritual guru Asaram Bapu isn’t the only one who believes that Galti ek taraf se nahin hoti (Wrong isn’t committed only by one side). If the victim’s behaviour of returning from a movie at night with a boyfriend and getting into a bus is considered by many like Asaram to be an invitation of sorts to predators, the tragedy of Elokeshi can hardly be considered to be a closed case.